The National Council of the NTEU has narrowly missed an opportunity to add its weight to the growing support for BDS in unions around Australia. At its meeting in Melbourne on October 2-4, a motion endorsing the PACBI boycott and committing the union to initiate discussion of BDS among its membership was lost by only a handful of votes. Various reports of the count indicate a split of roughly 62 to 54, with some 6 abstentions.
Facing the united opposition of the NTEU Executive, the ability of pro-BDS councillors to achieve this result shows how significantly the ground has shifted around the issue of Palestine solidarity. This debate marks the first time the issue has reached the floor of National Council since 2011. Since then a handful of branches, including ours at Sydney University, have seen discussion of BDS, but the majority have not. Many councillors confronted the question of BDS for the first time, and BDS proponents gained considerable support among this unaligned majority. Of those won to the pro-BDS position, a number subsequently expressed a desire to take the issue back to their branch.
The debate at National Council confirms a point that Sydney Staff for BDS has been making all along: that although disagreement exists within the union on this question, resolving it need not be divisive. Councillors report that the opposing motions on Israel-Palestine were discussed in a frank but collegial fashion, and there no reason to believe that a more inclusive debate among the membership would be conducted any differently.
Opponents of BDS at the National Council sought to portray it as an issue beyond the purview of the union’s work, an abstract proposition lacking concrete proposals for implementation. This is hardly an argument against it: even as a symbolic move, adopting a pro-BDS policy would be a significant gesture in support of the Palestinians. But the truth is that BDS is far from symbolic, and there are many ways in which the union can take action in support of the boycott call. After all, winning the union to BDS is only the first step in a long campaign to force Australian universities to cut ties with Israel. The NTEU can, and should, lend moral and material support to such a campaign, as it has done in the case of a series of recent boycott and divestment campaigns, including Greenpeace’s call for universities to divest from fossil fuel companies, and the push by refugee activists for UniSuper to divest from Transfield.
Clearly Israel’s mid-year assault on Gaza has given fresh impetus to this campaign. It would be a grave mistake, though, for the NTEU to wait for the next bloody pogrom before taking a further step towards BDS. Can there be any doubt now that consensus is forming around the need for an institutional boycott of Israel? Surely it is only a matter of time before our union joins this consensus. Those arguing against BDS at the National Council stated that BDS is inconsistent with the Education International position on Israel-Palestine, which the NTEU has previously endorsed. Yet such appeals to the authority of a remote Educational International bureaucracy will ring increasingly hollow as events in the Middle East expose the ineffectiveness of Education International’s “balanced” policy.
In light of the close vote, and the growing support for BDS it represents, the NTEU leadership would be well advised to take the matter in hand, and not seek to stifle debate on BDS. A process of union-wide discussion and voting on BDS in the lead-up to National Council 2015 is the best way to proceed.
Whether or not the union’s leadership takes such steps, BDS supporters in the NTEU have an opportunity to capitalise on this success at National Council, and spread the campaign at the local level. Such work is essential if a pro-BDS policy in the NTEU is to have any teeth: experience shows that top-down resolutions on an issue such as this will remain a dead letter if a body of active support has not been cultivated at the grassroots.
There is momentum around this issue that has not existed for some time, and good reason to believe that 2015 will be a year of BDS breakthroughs on campus in Australia.
To build on this important development, members of Sydney Staff for BDS invite BDS activists in the NTEU to a cross-campus meeting at Sydney University on November 6. Details to be advised.