Remembering the Detroit Arab Workers strike for Palestine

Remembering the Detroit Arab Workers strike for Palestine
6 min read
29 November, 2020
The Detroit Arab Workers strike won a very important battle in the United Auto Workers divesting from Israeli partners and left a legacy in the war against racism and injustice.
The strike was planned with the Black liberation movement [Walter P. Reuther Library]
On November 28th in 1973, 2,500 Arab auto workers shut down a production at Chrysler's Dodge Main assembly plant near the US city of Detroit, demanding that the United Auto Workers (UAW) dropped their Israeli bonds.

The strike, planned in coordination with other leftist circles and the Black liberation movement, ended up a success with the UAW divesting from its Israeli partners with the intention of returning $300,000 worth of bonds, which was paid using union dues money.

Commemorating the 47th anniversary of the strike, the US Palestinian Community Network (USPCN) hosted a virtual event, which took its attendees back to the revolutionary atmosphere at the time of the strike and the passion that came out of the fiery pan-Arab, anti-capitalist and pro-Black liberation sentiments that rocked the automobile industry and inspired the strike.

"The day we won, there were lots of emotions and we gained a lot of momentum. It showed that the right actions can give the right results," said George Khoury, Palestinian Nakba survivor and leading member of USPCN.

Thriving under intersectional solidarity

Khoury noted that in the 1970s, the Palestinian movement in the US was inspired by the rising pan-Arabism in the Middle East but was mobilised with the help of leftists and the Black community in the US.

"It's important to remember that the UAW didn't get back the full $300,000 but the mission still succeeded and it created good energy and strengthened our relationship with the Black community," he explained.

The panel also consisted of two Black revolutionaries who supported the Palestinian solidarity struggle in the in the US during the strike and beyond: Jerome Scott, founding member of League of Revolutionary Black Workers and Mike Siviwe Elliot, former Detroit auto worker who was also a student in 1973.

Scott urged the Black liberation movement must be tied to defeating oppression across the world and unionising as that was the strongest weapon they had against the system. 

Elliot described Palestinians as "heroic, courageous, loving, culturally inspiring people", adding that "to be denied a homeland is unacceptable and we have to do everything we can to change that. There's always going to be hope as long as we continue to struggle".

His solidarity with the Palestinians began inside the Black liberation movement, where he learned about their struggle with Israel, which the Black Panthers saw akin to the apartheid regime in South Africa and the systemic racism Black Americans faced within the US.

Between organising as a Black leftist and his views that capitalist exploitation is a global phenomenon, inspired by General Gordon Baker - a Black American labour organiser and activist - Elliot rapidly began to admire Palestinians.

However, it wasn’t until he became an automobile worker that he had direct contact with his local Arab and Palestinian community.

"Meeting them was a thrill because I had a chance to ask questions and ask them what it meant to free Palestine from abroad. I saw a determination similar to the determination the Black Panther party had and the League of Revolutionary Black Workers," he said.

To be denied a homeland is unacceptable and we have to do everything we can to change that
- Mike Siviwe Elliot, former Detroit auto worker

Student involvement

"The League of Revolutionary Black workers always had a relationship with student organisations," Scott said, adding that the relationship was mutually beneficial and inspiring.

"The students would shutdown of schools and collages whereas the workers were shutting down plants. Students inspired by workers in terms of ability to shut down an industry but workers were inspired by students who were taking a militant stance," he added. 

As a student and a worker at the time, Elliot saw how students were also used as a buffer to stop workers from losing their livelihoods. 

"A lot of the students were high school students who had relatives who worked in the plants while the Black power movement was booming. Rather than having workers out there in public, there were students promoting the cause so that stopped workers from getting fired," he said. 

For Khoury, not only did student activism help Arab students recognise the importance of class consciousness and intersectional solidarity, but it enabled them to come together and echo the pan-Arab sentiments that were flying high back in the Middle East at the time.

"Universities used to complain to Arab countries," Khoury explained, remembering that states refused to get involved in student activism unless an Arab student committed a crime.

Students inspired by workers in terms of ability to shut down plants but workers were inspired by students who were taking a militant stance
- Jerome Scott, Founding member of League of Revolutionary Black Workers

Thinking forward

The Arab Workers' Strike for Palestine won a battle, but the war for justice, equality and liberation rages on.

"Given the context of increasing criminalisation of both Palestinian and Black organisers, including growing number of states adopting anti-BDS laws, right now is a time more crucial than ever for Black-Palestinian solidarity," Danya Zituni, event host and member of USPCN told The New Arab.

BDS stands for Boycott Divestment Sanctions committee, comprised of over 170 Palestinian civil society organisations, unions, and cultural and rights groups - including all major political parties, trade and academic unions -  issued its official call for boycott in 2005.

The non-violent BDS movement says it is inspired by the campaign that targeted South Africa's apartheid regime and is seeking to put an end to Israel's brutal occupation of the West Bank.

"In practice, this means joining an organisation that is waging campaigns like the struggle for CPAC (Community Control Over the Police) like USPCN is doing in Chicago, led by the Chicago alliance against racist and political repression (our panelist Mike Elliot being a member of that organisation)," Zituni said. 

She drew parallels between the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement against police brutality in the US and Israeli violence against Palestinians and other Arab states.

"At its core, the BLM movement is fighting against police occupation of Black communities - in the same way we are fighting the Zionist occupation of Arab lands."

At its core, the BLM movement is fighting against police occupation of Black communities - in the same way we are fighting the Zionist occupation of Arab lands
- Danya Zituni, member of USPCN

For Scott, the sentiments may be the same, but the strategy must be radically different to relying on shutting down corporations through strikes.

"We live in a different world today than we did in 1973 when the strike shut down the entire corporation," he said. "I'm not sure given the way plants are run that we can do the same thing again because of the institution of technology. Most of these plants are being run by robots and artificial intelligence.

"We need to think forward. We can’t duplicate the struggle. What are the struggles that will cripple the capitalist system today? If we look at what happened with the pandemic with what raged in the country, the white supremacist murders and then you look at the rebellion in response, we begin to see a current of how the current struggle needs to go.

"Direct attack against the state apparatus is needed as opposed to the factories the way the 70s."

Elliot and Khoury argue that advances in technology and the ability to reach a larger amount of people in shorter periods of time is an advantage to activists. 

All three panellists urged that, as long as the passion for justice and determination to end systemic oppression remains in the bloodline of the new generation of activists, the struggle will continue to evolve until the aim of dismantling oppression succeeds.

Diana Alghoul is a journalist at The New Arab.

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