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Convergence of labor and Palestine on campus

Interview from Dartmouth College

At Dartmouth College, the Graduate Organized Laborers of Dartmouth-United Electrical Workers (GOLD-UE) went on strike May 1. The same day, students attempted to start a Palestine solidarity encampment. While the College immediately and violently suppressed the encampment, there has been a remarkable convergence of labor, student, and community organizing around Palestine at Dartmouth–and elsewhere in the country.  Tempest’s Paul Fleckenstein spoke with two striking grad workers who are part of GOLD-UE’s newly formed Palestine caucus.

Tempest: Thanks for talking with Tempest. Could you introduce yourselves?

Amy Conaway: I’m Amy Conaway. I’m a fourth-year molecular and cellular biology student at Dartmouth. I’ve been a union member since before our election last spring and I’m here on the picket line today to support our strike. I’m also a member of our Palestine caucus within the union.

Danny Keane: Thanks for interviewing us. My name is Danny Keane and I’m in comparative literature. I joined the collective action team of the union, a couple of months after coming to Dartmouth, and along with Amy, we formed the Palestine caucus about three weeks ago.

Tempest: Before we get to your Palestine organizing, you have been on strike for a couple of weeks now. What are your demands and how are things going?

AC: We recently, just yesterday, got dental insurance, so that was a big win for us. We are also bargaining over cost-of-living adjustments tied to rent. Two-thirds of our members are rent-burdened, meaning they pay more than a third of their stipend in rent. And a lot of people have experienced receiving a raise and then having their rent raised the exact same percentage. And so having cost of living tied to rent will address some critical issues with the housing up here. And then the last piece that’s really holding us back from reaching a contract is childcare. We have very few parents in our bargaining unit, but they can’t afford childcare and we have not been able to use the Dartmouth child care facilities. They’ve offered to expand those facilities, but we would like a specific timeline. And we would also like more of the dependent health care premium to be covered by Dartmouth because it seems to be very affordable and it would make a huge difference in the ability of parents to be a part of this community at Dartmouth.

Tempest: You helped start your union’s Palestine caucus. What has been your experience so far?

DK: We see the Palestine caucus as a way to have conversations around Palestine with fellow people on the picket line or in our union more generally. And our caucus has brought resolutions about Palestine to the general body meetings where everything is voted on. So far we’ve brought a resolution that the union formally condemns the arrests that  [Dartmouth President] Beilock made on May 1 to prevent a student Palestine encampment. We made a resolution where we call on the college to disclose their investments and provide transitional funding for researchers who have an ethical reason for wanting to pursue different research. For example, this may apply with research currently funded by the Department of Defense.

AC: We passed the resolution condemning the arrest and calling for the charges to be dropped. And we passed the resolution advocating for transparency and investments in funding. And then we’ve tabled the discussion on providing transitional funding. Something that we’re discussing with the members now is whether we want to tie those public stances to our ongoing strike. We’ve been very inspired by the University of California graduate workers who just recently voted to authorize a strike specifically for these issues around Palestine. And they’ve been real mentors to us in navigating this in our union. It’s been really nice to have the support and mentorship from other students. Students that have been doing this work for longer than we have.

DK: Both the resolutions  passed with a super majority. While I think it will be much harder to get people to vote “yes” on making these strike demands, so far we are getting a lot of support.

Tempest: What prompted you to bring Palestine to the union?

DK: I think ultimately this genocide is happening because it’s benefiting capital. So really the one of the main ways that we in the United States at least have to help stop it is by putting a dent in the profits of this institution. To do that our union needs to take action and that’s the best way we can stand in solidarity with people in Palestine and Yemen and Lebanon who are at the forefront of this fight.

AC: Yeah, and many people have been motivated to be involved specifically by the calls for solidarity from labor unions within Palestine. I think many of our members, especially those that we talked to in the reading group, share the sense that, you know, the money that we bring to Dartmouth with our labor may be invested in causes that we find ethically appalling. And we feel strongly that our work should not be weaponized against other people that we would like to be in solidarity with.

Tempest: You mentioned a reading group. What have you discussed and what has that been like?

AC: Yeah, the main theme of our reading group has been that labor and Palestine do intersect and that it’s not just a political issue, but it is a labor issue. Like Danny said, it’s closely tied to capitalism. We’ve been doing a lot of reading about the history of the anti-apartheid movements in labor, both for Palestine and also against apartheid South Africa. And we’ve been really inspired by the movements that worked in dismantling the apartheid in South Africa. Today we’ll be reading about the history of that movement here at Dartmouth specifically. And so it’s been educational for us because we weren’t adults when this was happening. A lot of it is new information. It’s been inspiring to see that people have been fighting against this for so long and that these things have worked in the past. And I think that’s what continues to motivate us.

DK: I think Amy pretty much covered it. We’ve recently moved to a three times a week reading group on the picket line and then we also do canvassing to try to bring people out to those.  Also, next week, Annelise Orleck [Dartmouth professor and former head of Jewish Studies who was arrested standing with students against police sacking of Dartmouth encampment] will be leading a teach-in at the picket line.

Tempest: And have you been in contact with the UAW members in California?

DK: Yeah, so I actually, at Labor Notes in Chicago a month or so ago one thing that was really great was there were a lot of forums or discussions about Palestine. And at one of those I met someone at UC Santa Cruz who now we’ve all talked to a couple times and yeah, as Amy said, has been like a really good sort of source of inspiration and ideas and suggestions.

She also connected us with a larger group called Researchers Against War. That is a national network of graduate students that we plan to join with. Organizers at Santa Cruz in physics and astronomy have been active in Palestine organizing, including promoting the system wide strike just authorized.

Tempest: Any final thoughts on how you see your work related to bringing Palestine into the labor movement, things that you would like to see, opportunities that you’re now thinking about for the future?

AC: On a personal level, I feel very strongly about transparency and where our funding goes and where our investments go. And I think a lot of what I’ve heard from our reading groups is that we work with a lot of scientists who feel very passionate about the work they do in changing the world for the better. It’s a problem not to have control over how science is done. Some of that work is then weaponized against people, and that  is really alarming to them. The more control we can give to our scientists to actually have a say in what is funding their research and what it’s being used for is the goal. And I think transparency is the first step and down the line, divestment and supporting students who want to transition away from that kind of work would be a great thing to achieve.

DK: I also see that grad student organizing around Palestine is in conjunction with other movements that we’ve seen across the country.  We had 90 people arrested at Dartmouth by police who came in riot gear and it really makes a lot of us think that the money for armored cars, all these riot gear cops on our campus, could be used to pay for student housing, for scholarships, for so many other things. Not to mention we should divest from Israel, of course. That is going to be a long battle. It could be a year before we all go on strike for that. Hopefully sooner, of course. Or it could be two years, but I do feel that it’s going to happen sooner or later. So that gives me a lot of hope.

AC: I will say we are actively bargaining for our right to strike for unfair labor practice. And that is the approach that University of California [workers are] using in their current strike. And so our future opportunities to strike for this issue are directly related to what we can get in our current strike and our current contract. And so a lot of us feel that without the right to strike, our union really has no power. And that’s why we’re pushing so hard for that specific protection.

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