I Won’t Fund a Union That Marginalizes Jews

Unions should not spend time, energy and their members’ money attacking their Jewish members’ fundamental identity.
May 15, 2024
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I’ve spent 15 years as a civil rights lawyer, standing up for tenants facing eviction and representing patients facing mental health challenges. I work as a public interest lawyer, representing poor and marginalized residents in Massachusetts. Then I became the marginalized one. 

Not by a heartless landlord or faceless government bureaucracy, or because I’ve had a sudden financial downturn, but by my own union – a local branch of the United Auto Workers — because I’m Jewish and my connection to, and love for, the Jewish state of Israel is embedded in my Jewish identity.

The union, whose dues were deducted from my paycheck every month to fight for better wages, benefits, job security and working conditions for me and my colleagues – just like we fight for the similar interests of our clients – has become obsessed with having its utterly irrelevant voice “heard” in the maelstrom of opinions and commentary on the Israel/Hamas war. 

The union’s hatred for Jews accumulated and found its ultimate expression in a virulently antisemitic resolution put to a membership vote in January on (you guessed it) a Saturday – the Jewish Sabbath, when religiously observant Jews like me could not make our voices heard.

In this resolution, there is no mention or acknowledgment of Hamas’ rape, kidnapping, burning, beheading, and murder of over 1,200 Israelis on Oct. 7. There is only a litany of accusations against Israel before Oct. 7 and a litany of accusations against Israel after Oct. 7. But Oct. 7 itself . . . it merited no specific condemnation. “Sick” is the word that comes to my mind.

Everything from wildly false accusations about Israel’s defense of its citizens to opposition to the very existence of the Jewish state itself all found expression and support in UAW Local 2320, the National Organization of Legal Services Workers.

Afterwards, anti-Israel and antisemitic invective came to permeate our union conversations, agenda, and actions. Our union emails and meetings hummed with hatred for Jewish self-determination and freedom. 

These attacks on Israel aren’t just attacks on Israel. They are attacks on me; on my Jewish identity.

An essential element of Judaism is understanding the land of Israel as the Jewish ancestral homeland, a focus of Jewish religious observance, and the site of Jewish redemption. Wherever in the world Jews are, we pray facing Jerusalem. The expression “Next Year in Jerusalem” is recited at Passover and as the closing declaration of the Yom Kippur service. When the groom concludes the Jewish wedding ceremony by breaking a glass, he does so in memory of Jerusalem and swears not to “forget thee O Jerusalem.” Indeed, a significant number of Jewish religious obligations can only be performed in the land of Israel. All this is why, according to a 2020 Pew Research Center study, 80% of American Jews say caring about the state of Israel is an essential or important part of what being Jewish means to them.

So there was no way I wanted to be a part of my union’s anti-Zionist antisemitism, and I especially didn’t want to fund it.

The UAW’s collective bargaining agreement with my employer requires that all employees be union members, so it’s not as simple as me just opting out of the union. And as a union member who appreciated the things my union did for me when it focused on its core mission, I wouldn’t want it to be easy for someone to get the benefits of union representation without sharing the burden of participation and financial support.

For that reason, I really couldn’t avail myself of a provision of the National Labor Relations Act which allows members of a “religion, body, or sect which has historically held conscientious objections to joining or financially supporting labor organizations” the right to opt out of union membership or payment of union dues. Indeed, Jews played an enormous role in establishing the American labor movement.

On the other hand, exercising my right under a Supreme Court decision known as Beck to pay only that portion of my dues dedicated to core representation activities, like collective bargaining, would still mean that I am fundamentally funding the union that has declared itself opposed to my Jewish identity.

Fortunately, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination within unions and requires accommodation of a union member’s religious belief. This means, in practice, that while I cannot claim that my Jewish beliefs are opposed to unions generally (Judaism is not anti-union, and neither am I), I can object to particular union practices that so offend my religious beliefs that I simply cannot be compelled to fund this union at this time. As an accommodation, my money instead will go to a nonprofit charitable organization consistent with my religious beliefs – the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, which provided me with pro-bono legal advocacy so that I can continue to serve my marginalized clients while mitigating my own union’s marginalization of me. I still shoulder the same monthly financial burden as my dues-paying colleagues, but I no longer fund my own demonization.

Unions should not spend time, energy and their members’ money attacking their Jewish members’ fundamental identity. They should instead get back to the business of attacking low wages, inadequate benefits and miserly retirement plans. Focus on your job, so I can better do mine for the people counting on me.

Lisa Marshall is an attorney at South Coastal Counties Legal Services in Massachusetts and a member of the National Organization of Legal Services Workers, Local 2320 of the UAW. 

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