Intervention by the NTEU national office has shut down discussion in the Sydney University branch about the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.

On 15 May, union members voted for the Sydney Uni branch committee to facilitate an open discussion of the movement and Palestine solidarity in general. The initiative came from Sydney Staff for BDS, a group of mostly NTEU members involved in promoting the call for BDS whose numbers include Professor Jake Lynch. Lynch is currently being pursued by Israeli legal activist organisation Shurat HaDin for his vocal support for BDS. 

In recognition that the issue of BDS is hotly debated and of the need for a serious and considered exchange, Sydney Staff for BDS suggested that the discussion take place over several months, with the branch voting on whether or not to endorse BDS by the end of the year.

However, concern about the possibility of branch members voting to support BDS led conservative members of the union to argue against any discussion even taking place. This culminated in the branch office calling a special meeting to pass an anti-BDS motion and quash any further debate.  General secretary Graham McCulloch personally emailed every member at Sydney University arguing that we vote not to endorse BDS, flagging his email as “very urgent”.

At the special meeting, contributions from the floor were impassioned and at times heated. Those who opposed BDS and campaigned to shut down the debate argued that the issue would cause division within the union and create hostility amongst members. 

About 120 attended the meeting making it the biggest since the conclusion of the EBA campaign. Contrary to the fear-mongering about division in our ranks, the meeting was characterised by a branch membership interested in discussing an important issue of social justice. A motion not to support or promote a debate about the BDS campaign was carried by a margin of about ten votes.

A branch that openly debates all issues, from how to fight the budget to Palestine, is better placed to campaign against attacks on its members’ rights and conditions. That the debate occurred at all is an indication of the health of the branch, not the opposite.

Australian unions have played an important role in boycotts in the past.  In 1971, during the Australian tour of the South African rugby team, unions were at the front of the boycott campaign. Transport and hotel unions refused to serve the all-white team. A private ferry had to be organised to transport them. The Waterside Workers Federation struck for a week. Bob Pringle, then president of the Builders Labourers Federation, and worker John Phillips made their way onto the ground of the SCG and sawed the goal post. This tradition should be continued against the new apartheid state, Israel. 

Palestinian trade unions have unanimously endorsed the BDS call. Other unions, like the National Union of Teachers in the UK (with more than 300,000 members), have passed motions to support the boycott. The call can no longer be ignored by any organisation claiming to be progressive.

It’s time for unions here to get behind the Palestinian cause and campaign against the government’s shameless support for Israel. Endorsing BDS would be one step in that direction.