Linking Up Struggles

On the morning of April 17, students at Columbia University began an occupation of the campus’ West Lawn. Their demands were simple: financial disclosure and divestment from Israel. In the following weeks, encampments spread like wildfire across college campuses in New York City and beyond. Protests sprouted in over 90 colleges across the world and over 2,300 activists have been arrested, often in shocking displays of police brutality.

While these encampments seem to have sprung up overnight, the conditions for this militant activity have been brewing for decades, on and off campus. The number of student-worker unions has more than doubled in the past decade. According to a study published by the City University of New York’s School of Labor and Urban Studies, “[D]uring 2022 and 2023 alone unions won 30 new student worker collective bargaining units, representing a total of 35,655 workers.” These new student worker unions are notably militant and politicized. According to the same CUNY study, there have been 20 higher education strikes since 2022, and these student workers have not been afraid to express their political commitment to Palestinian liberation. This increase in student worker militancy since 2014 can be mapped alongside an increase of active socialists in the United States (for example, DSA membership increased from around 6,000 to around 60,000 in the past decade).

Columbia University is an instructive example of the generative connection between the labor and Palestinian solidarity movements. Columbia’s student worker union went on strike in 2022, and some of the same labor activists are now bringing their practical experiences to the encampments. Grant Miner, vice president of the Student Workers of Columbia, a graduate union affiliated with the United Auto Workers (UAW), noted the connection between the union and the Palestine solidarity movement in his remarks at a People’s Forum panel on Labor and Palestine. Citing the classic labor maxim of “an injury to one is an injury to all” as applicable for the labor and Palestinian liberation struggles, Miner highlighted how the union’s mechanisms for deliberation and democratic decision-making created the spaces necessary to generate substantial buy-in for the encampment’s goals.

Student worker unions have brought tactics from the labor movement to the movement for Palestinian solidarity. At Columbia, Miner noted that the union filed a grievance and held a protest at Columbia’s HR offices after two Columbia students (and former IDF soldiers) attacked a protest with a chemical weapon known as “skunk.” At the New School, labor and Palestine demands intermingle: the encampment has taken up the demand for union recognition while the student workers union has set up a daily picket outside the encampment. To support student workers facing arrests and retaliation for protesting, the New Student Workers Union (NewSWU), a newly organized undergraduate student worker union, filed an unfair labor practice complaint and voted overwhelmingly to go on strike. “As a radical student worker union, it was clear that we and the encampment had a shared struggle: that the genocide was a labor fight, and that we would not be free until Palestine was free,” said Emily Li, organizing committee member of NewSWU and New School YDSA co-chair. Similarly, in California, the University of California’s 48,000 academic workers voted by supermajority to strike in response to the state school system’s treatment of the protestors.

Beyond the student worker unions, the broader labor movement has also rallied behind the students protesting for divestment and Palestinian liberation. In New York City, rank-and-file groups organized around Palestinian solidarity have shown their full support for the encampments. These groups range from nurses to city workers to teachers to the building trades and beyond. Some rank-and-file groups have even launched divestment campaigns of their own. College faculty are also getting involved, going on strike and risking arrest to support the brave students fighting for divestment. The labor movement in the United States has had a long allegiance to the Zionist project (with some exceptions), but the strength of these surging rank-and-file movements for Palestinian solidarity suggests that the tides may be changing, both in the broader labor movement and the movement of rank-and-file militants themselves. It is notable that Labor Notes, an organization of rank-and-file activists that tends to place primary focus on organizing around economic, bread-and-butter demands, featured four packed, standing-room-only sessions on Palestine solidarity at this year’s conference.

Socialists and other radicals are getting involved, too. YDSA members have played crucial roles in organizing and sustaining encampments across the country, alongside organizers with other groups like Students for Justice in Palestine. As YDSA organizer Jo von Maack notes, being in an organization with a commitment to long-term organizing and large-scale political transformation has helped them bring to the encampments “things like democracy and wanting everyone to have a say in things” as well as “certain strategies like not thinking so much on impulse and trying to think strategically about how to get your demands heard.” This focus on democratization and long-term thinking in cross-organizational formations can be found elsewhere, too. Members of a variety of socialist and communist organizations (from DSA to the Party for Socialism and Liberation and beyond) have been organizing in the unions and rank-and-file organizations mentioned above, coming together despite organizational differences to figure out how they can effectively fight together in their communities and workplaces for divestment and Palestinian liberation.

At Emory University in Atlanta, encampment activists have been demanding the university’s divestment from Israel and Cop City, a huge police training facility that the city plans to build in the city’s Weelaunee Forest (formerly stewarded by the Muscogee Creek tribe before their forcible displacement in the 1820s and 1830s). In addition to the natural overlap in participants and tactics, activists noted the clear political connection between Israel and Cop City. Cop City was modeled off the U.S.-funded Israeli Urban Warfare Training Center (nicknamed “Mini Gaza”), and Georgia State University further facilitates this “brutal exchange of methodologies that exacerbate violence against oppressed populations to expand and maintain power and domination” through its Georgia International Law Enforcement Exchange program. For over thirty years, this program “has facilitated collaboration between U.S. and Israeli police forces, fostering the dissemination of tactics used to maintain control and suppress dissent.”   

While the upsurge in student worker organizing is a novel development heightening the organization and militancy of the present movement for universities to divest from Israel, the tradition of student movements connecting to broader political struggles is far from new. The 1968 student occupation of Columbia University was organized alongside tenant activists in Harlem as a protest against the university’s role in gentrification (echoed by today’s demand of Columbia divestment activists for “No land grabs, whether in Harlem, Lenapehoking, or Palestine”) and war crimes against the people of Vietnam. And the 1980s student encampments for divestment in apartheid South Africa were accompanied by the labor movement’s activity supporting boycott and divestment. 

While the future of the encampments is unclear — some have settled with university administration, some have been brutally swept, some are still ongoing, and the summer academic break is fast approaching — this legacy is recognized explicitly by the movement for Palestinian solidarity on campus and beyond. Miner, in his People’s Forum remarks, stated that students at Columbia have adopted the attitude of “we will finish what they started” in 1968, and, to that, I add my wholehearted agreement. According to Mahmoud Ziadeh, former general secretary of the Palestinian General Federation of Independent Trade Unions, in Palestine, the labor struggle and the anti-imperialist struggle for Palestinian liberation are inseparable. This is the legacy of 1968 we carry with us today: the liberation of the world’s working class must come through the marriage of anti-imperialist and working-class movements.