As Israel-Gaza Activism Flares Up, NYC Labor Unions Struggle to Stay on the Sidelines
By Claudia Irizarry Aponte - The City
This article was originally published on Nov 30 5:48pm EST by THE CITY
It was written by Claudia Irizarry Aponte of The City
Sign up here to get the latest stories from THE CITY delivered to you each morning.
After a raucous group of students at Hillcrest High School charged at a teacher who’d been spotted on social media holding a sign reading “I Stand With Israel,” Schools Chancellor David Banks visited the Queens campus to meet with students and counter reports about the motives of those who protested while waving Palestinian flags.
“This notion that these kids are radicalized and antisemitic is the height of irresponsibility,” Banks said. “I for one will not accept that at all.”
“This is the ultimate teachable moment,” he added. Yet before the schools chancellor asked for understanding for students who’d demonstrated, Department of Education employees had received a very different message from their boss.
On Nov. 8, ahead of a planned citywide walkout by high school students to demand a ceasefire, Banks issued a memo that many teachers interpreted as barring them from exercising their right to free speech — even outside the classroom. City rules already bar teachers from expressing personal political views in class, but Banks went further, specifically citing guidelines for social media and other non-classroom expression that “crosses a line when it disrupts the school or work environment.”
Teachers who spoke with THE CITY say they are not getting guidance on how to handle productive discussions with students, many of whom are personally impacted by the conflict or by anti-Palestinian, Islamophobic and antisemitic rhetoric.
“I understand how teachers saw that memo — they saw that memo as ‘Shut up, don’t talk about it,’” said a Sheepshead Bay high school civics teacher, who spoke to THE CITY on the condition of anonymity given the “heated climate” around the war. “Rather than follow up that memo with ‘Listen, I need you to check your politics at the door but we also need you to encourage kids to have discussions, here’s the framework, here’s the guidelines.”
The Hillcrest incident was an extreme but not isolated instance of the Israel-Hamas war playing out in a U.S. workplace where public service or interaction is part of the job — and workers feel they can’t remain silent.
Some labor unions outside New York City have joined the fray in support of Gazans and the Palestinian cause — and faced blowback. In Iowa federal court, Starbucks is suing Starbucks Workers United, the union representing baristas at hundreds of U.S. cafés, for trademark infringement over a pro-Palestine social media post published and then deleted by the union.
In New York City, with a large Jewish population and strong support for Israel pervasive in local politics — aside from left-aligned groups like Democratic Socialists of America — unions are confronting a more challenging task of managing demands that they support a ceasefire in Gaza with concerns about maintaining tolerant and inclusive workplaces — all while supporting workers’ rights to express their own points of view on their own time.
Union locals have caught flak from their own members about their official positions on the conflict. About two dozen United Federation of Teachers members walked out of a Nov. 15 delegates assembly after a push to pass a resolution calling for a ceasefire failed to come to a vote.
The union had already put out a resolution, just four days after the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks, calling to “end the cycle of violence” in Israel and Gaza.
Following the Hillcrest incident, UFT President Michael Mulgrew released a statement narrowly focused on the incident. “The UFT has been working with the individual teacher, school safety, the DOE and the NYPD,” he said. “The union will continue to send staff to the building and to work with the administration, DOE safety personnel, school safety, and the NYPD to restore and maintain a safe environment for faculty, students and staff.”
In response to the Banks memo and the Hillcrest conflict, union spokesperson Alison Gendar provided a broad statement of support of all their members to THE CITY: “The UFT protects members’ rights, whether that’s free speech or the right to feel safe and respected in the workplace. Each case is unique.”
Suit to Stop Ceasefire Resolution
Some unions are having a harder time than others keeping the peace between factions of their own members.
Earlier this month, public defenders working for the Legal Aid Society won a temporary restraining order to block their fellow union members from voting on a statement calling for a ceasefire. Meanwhile, union members who supported the ceasefire resolution claim management improperly intervened in protected union activity by publicly condemning the union’s internal actions.
“We, as union members, are appalled by management’s interference in union activities, and certain members’ anti-labor and anti-democratic actions, to stoke fear in voting members,” Dany Greene, a Legal Aid attorney and member of ALAA UAW Local 2325, said in a statement last week.
City government employees, including teachers, are bound to standards that bar them from expressing personal views or participating in direct action — even on personal time and on social media — that can disrupt their work environment.
The issue last came to a head during the Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020, where city workers walked off the job en masse to protest police brutality, the death of George Floyd, and the NYPD’s excessive use of force during demonstrations that summer. The hundreds of workers who participated in the protest had also criticized then-mayor Bill de Blasio’s controversial overnight curfew in a signed public letter.
The demonstrations that summer spawned City Workers 4 Justice, a group of New York municipal workers pushing for racial equity. But Jeremiah Cedeño, a former city worker and leader of the group, said that the current political climate eclipses even the divisions that summer — and that the city’s steep budget cuts have made workers even more fearful of speaking out.
“It’s the fear of losing their jobs, like, ‘If I post “let Gaza live” or “free Palestine,” am I going to lose my job?’” Cedeño said. “And given that this is the mayor who’s in the middle of his own scandal, and this is the mayor who’s passing harmful budgets, folks are like ‘I don’t want to be a casualty.’”
But the reality for teachers is that confronting the Israel-Hamas war while on the job may be unavoidable — and part of the solution for heading off polarizing attacks and bringing about understanding.
The city Department of Education took a small step last month by publishing a five-page reference guide for teachers that includes links to resources for educating against antisemitism and Islamophobia and background on the Israel-Hamas war. A copy obtained by THE CITY was most recently updated on Nov. 3, weeks before the Hillcrest incident.
Still, teachers say they crave more resources and action to address the Israel-Hamas conflict in their classrooms, whether by establishing working groups and workshops for teachers or creating a history curriculum. Media literacy, educators who spoke with THE CITY said, is also a huge barrier for students, who increasingly get their news from social media, especially TikTok.
“He said this is a ‘teachable moment,’” the Sheepshead Bay teacher said of Banks’ Hillcrest remarks. “We’re not being given the framework or resources and guidelines for how to approach the situation right now — like we were for Black Lives Matter, during the climate change walkouts” and on gun control, he added.
Some teachers dismissed Banks’ Nov. 8 memo, saying that it merely reiterated established rules.
“Unless you’re saying something that’s hate-filled, I think most of us understand that we have First Amendment rights,” said Daniel Alicea, a UFT activist and public school teacher in Queens.
THE CITY is a nonprofit newsroom that serves the people of New York.
This story was originally published by THE CITY. Sign up to get the latest New York City news delivered to you each morning.
Editor’s note: Articles published by THE CITY for free under the Creative Commons “BY-NC-ND” license.
The Wire: Powered by Educators of NYC is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support our work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.