SEIU LOCAL 535 MEMBERS VS. CATERPILLAR CORPORATION AND UNION BUREAUCRACY
HOW A RESOLUTION against Caterpillar Corporation unanimously endorsed by a Union Membership Chapter and SEIU Local 535's Civil and Human Rights Committee (CHRC) was eventually defeated at Local 535's June 2005 State Executive Board meeting even though ultimately less people voted to oppose it than had initially voted for it in the CHRC.
Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 535 has approximately 29,000 members in California. Its governance structure requires that an Executive Board meet four times a year in various California locations. Delegates to the Board are elected annually from each chapter. Typically approximately 150 -175 delegates attend.
The Executive Board has a network of committees that meet during the two-day weekend meeting. They make recommendations to the Plenary Session of the full Board on the various issues that are discussed in committee. The committees include a popular and well-attended (30-50+ members average attendance) Civil and Human Rights Committee (CHRC), and a less popular and far less well-attended Jewish Caucus (5-7 members average attendance).
At the Board meeting of February 2005, 50 plus CHRC delegates voted unanimously to approve a resolution in honor of SEIU 1199 NW member Rachel Corrie. The resolution required that SEIU 535 make every effort to divest any pension holdings from the Caterpillar Corporation and advise CalPERS - California Public Employees Retirement System (the most wealthy retirement system in the country) to do the same and also request various county retirement programs that are alternatives to CalPERS, to also divest from Caterpillar Corporation. The Jewish Caucus, as expected, recommended against the passage of the resolution.
The Caterpillar campaign originated with the Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) organization based in the San Francisco Bay Area. JVP is one of a growing number of Jewish organizations in the country that have taken a public position against Caterpillar and by implication, the current policies of the State of Israel and it's military.
JVP was asked to write letters to the CHRC of SEIU 535 for both the February and June, 2005 SEIU 535 Executive Board meetings in support of the CAT Resolution. The executive co-directors of JVP wrote letters for each of these meetings that were very supportive of the Resolution, and urged Executive Board delegates to pass it.
The focus of the resolution states that the Caterpillar Corporation does a lot of business with the State of Israel, selling to them at a discount price large numbers of CAT D9 bulldozers. Israel has used the bulldozer for many years to destroy the infrastructure of the West Bank of Palestine, including 1.5 million olive and citrus trees, and hundreds of thousands of homes, to build Israel-only roads in the West Bank, and more recently, to dig trenches for the placement of the alleged "security wall to protect" Israel proper, and the illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank against Palestinian "terrorists."
The wall is also used to expropriate additional West Bank land, as exemplified by Israel's most recent decision to build a wall around East Jerusalem, thereby cutting off access to Palestine's capital city, and preventing free Palestinian movement in and out of the city.
A newly elected delegate from a private non-profit chapter, Francesca Rosa of The Arc San Francisco chapter submitted the resolution to SEIU 535 union management after it was endorsed unanimously at an Arc SF chapter union meeting. Hank Silver, a retired SEIU 535 member from the City of Berkeley, California, and a former Labor Zionist also became actively involved in trying to pass the resolution.
A recommendation was made to have the resolution reviewed by CHRC. Union management decided that it also be reviewed by the Jewish Caucus as "a courtesy". At the February, 2005 Executive Board meeting, the resolution was passed unanimously by the CHRC with a recommendation of a "yes" vote to the larger Plenary Session at the Local's June, 2005 meeting.
Francesca Rosa and Hank Silver along with others were given adequate time to discuss the resolution, and all members of the CHRC had a copy of JVP's letter and the Caterpillar Resolution, at the February, 2005 meeting.
There was active but very brief discussion of this Resolution when the item was reported to the Plenary Session in June. Approximately 15 delegates spoke on the item, with the large majority, some of who were Jewish, recommending approval. A number of speakers compared the "security" wall's construction and its effect on the Palestinians with the earlier apartheid conditions in South Africa.
As expected, the Chair of the Jewish Caucus spoke against the resolution. He is a very elderly retired member responsible for the Local approving the creation of the Jewish Caucus some years ago. It should be noted that there are no Roman Catholic, Protestant, or Muslim caucuses in Local 535. He expressed the often-used notion that if the resolution were approved, "it would be an act of anti-Semitism." He also noted that with the Road Map "peace process" going on that it would be "inappropriate and counter productive" to present and approve a resolution of this kind.
The Jewish caucus does not effectively represent Jewish opinion in Local 535, since many of the Jewish Executive Board members supported this resolution. It can be safely said that the Jewish Caucus only represents and speaks on behalf of straight ahead, mainline Zionist opinion on all issues relating to Israel.
David Kramer, the Local's Executive Director, also spoke out against the resolution, and had a lot of influence on its not being passed. Kramer has been in organized labor all of his adult life and is progressive on many issues. It is our opinion that the otherwise quite progressive Brother Kramer has been afflicted with PEP syndrome (Progressive Except Palestine). He was the last person to speak on the issue, and said that the passage of the resolution would be "illegal" and inappropriate. He stated the local had "no right" to advise CalPERS to divest from Caterpillar and that only the CalPERS Board of Directors could initiate that kind of decision. He noted that since Caterpillar workers were UAW members, it would be inappropriate for the SEIU Local 535 to suggest boycotting a product made by fellow union members. He stated that since the resolution was in honor of SEIU Local 1199 North West member Rachel Corrie, her own union Local should have initiated it. Members in support of the Resolution were not given an opportunity to respond to any of these statements.
Another critical factor in the resolution's failure was the way in which the Local's chairwoman handled procedure when the resolution came before the Plenary Session for discussion. She arbitrarily limited each speaker's comments to 90 seconds! She would not allow Francesca Rosa to read the JVP letter in support of the resolution (despite earlier assurances by a member of union management that she would be able to do so), other than the very brief first paragraph. Delegates at the plenary session did not have copies of the letter. This is in comparison with an earlier discussion of SEIU International's intention to withdraw from the AFL- CIO, when a union executive from the state Washington spoke on the issue and took questions for almost an hour. There was a power point presentation and handouts on the issue, and delegates were allowed to speak without limit for another hour!
CalPERS had earlier divested from South Africa. The strategy of divestment by organizations like CalPERS in which many union affiliates had retirement plans was a major factor in South Africa ending apartheid. Currently, there are a number of both American Christian churches and international churches that are divesting from Israel. It is clear that Israel is terrified of the effects of divestment on its economic health. The well-organized and disciplined American Jewish community actively speaks against divestment from Israel.
The final vote on the resolution was 34 opposed to passage, and 26 in favor of passage. The previous vote on the previous issue in the same meeting was 54-53. That means that nearly 50 members abstained from voting on this issue.
Attached please find copies of the Resolution, and a Jewish Voice for Peace letter addressed to the SEIU 535 Civil and Human Rights Committee.
SEIU 535 San Francisco Arc Chapter
Delegate, SEIU 535 Executive Board
Delegate, San Francisco Labor Council
July 20, 2005