Late last summer, members and supporters of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) staged a noisy protest outside B’nai Brith Canada’s headquarters, in the heart of Jewish Toronto. They came to denounce what they called B’nai Brith’s smear campaign against them.
There were the predictable placards, slogans and chants, including, “From the river to sea, Palestine will be free.” No, the other side hollered, the real terrorists are Hamas and Hezbollah and maybe even some in the CUPW crowd. Police held the two camps apart.
At one point, a protester on the pro-Israel side yelled something that actually caused some chuckles amid all the animus: “Why don’t you just deliver the mail?” Touché.
Of course, postal workers are entitled to support the Palestinian side in the Middle East conflict if they wish, but when did their union become so hostile toward Israel? Famously radical, militant and strike-prone, the 54,000-member postal union has become a reliable source of trenchant anti-Zionist sentiment.
Formed in 1965 out of the Canadian Postal Employees Association, CUPW held an illegal wildcat strike that same year. A 30-year period of relentless labour strife followed, but which resulted in better wages, job security in the face of automation and improvements in collective bargaining, among other concessions. In 1981, after a 42-day strike, CUPW won improved maternity leave benefits – 17 weeks of paid leave – a new standard that soon spread through the federal public service and beyond. When the union went on strike, it would strike to win.
Early rumblings on the Mideast file came when a resolution approved at the union’s 2002 convention demanded that Israel abide by UN Resolution 242, passed in 1967. The CUPW measure called for an end to suicide bombings “and other acts of violence that take the lives of innocent people.”
According to union spokesperson Kevin Matthews, things were quiet until 2008, when CUPW became the first national union in Canada to sign on to the anti-Israel boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign. It urged its members to boycott Ahava cosmetics, products with a barcode starting with “729” (from Israel), Israeli underwear and hydration systems sold at Mountain Equipment Co-op, and Indigo Chapters, whose founders were accused of supporting the IDF through their charitable foundation.
It also requested the withdrawal of its pension plan investments in “Israeli companies” like Caterpillar (actually headquartered in Peoria, Ill.), Motorola (based in Chicago), ITT Industries (in White Plains, N.Y.) and United Technologies (in Farmington, Conn.). It likewise demanded that the federal government ban imports from the Palestinian territories and terminate the Canada-Israel Free Trade Agreement.
At the time, CUPW considered the question of whether BDS is anti-Semitic.
“Absolutely not,” read an FAQ published on CUPW’s website at the time. “Anti-Semitism goes against the very foundation of what we fight for: justice, equality, human rights and peace for all peoples. In fact, many Jewish and Israeli voices support the call for boycott, divestment and sanctions. It is important to separate the policies of the Israeli government from the Jewish people in Israel and abroad. Boycott and divestment campaigns target Israeli, not Jewish, products.”
Then, in 2010, the union publicly denounced a postage stamp celebrating Canada-Israel friendship.
CUPW has consistently used the term “nakba” – the Arabic word meaning “catastrophe” or “disaster” that is often used in reference to the creation of Israel in 1948. The latest instance was in a May 2018 letter from CUPW national president Mike Palacek to Nabil Marouf, Palestine’s representative in Canada, pledging the union’s recognition of the worldwide nakba commemorations held each May.
“We cannot condone any support for a regime of hatred based on continuing land theft and human rights abuses,” Palacek wrote. “In reality, the nakba has never really ended.”
For years, CUPW has supported the Canadian Boat to Gaza, part of the international Freedom Flotilla Coalition that aims to break Israel’s blockade of Gaza, and even had a member aboard one of the boats. “As we know, Israel has maintained an illegal, inhumane and destructive blockade on Gaza for over 10 years,” the union stated last spring.
In 2014, CUPW sued Sun Media, Avi Benlolo, president and CEO of the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies, and others, for saying that it supports terrorism. An Ontario court dismissed the action. At the 2017 Canadian Labour Congress convention in Toronto, CUPW led the way in passing a resolution on Palestinian prisoners.
“CUPW was one of the first unions to speak out about the occupation of Palestine,” the union noted at the time. “For years, this was considered a taboo subject in the Canadian labour movement. (This move) illustrates not only the changes that are happening in the labour movement, but also the advances that are being made around these issues in general.”
Last spring, Imad Temeiza, president of the Palestinian Postal Service Workers’ Union (PPSWU), visited Canada and met with activists in Montreal, Toronto and Ottawa. A few weeks later, CUPW, in order to “build greater solidarity between our two unions,” announced it would align with the PPSWU, a group B’nai Brith accused of supporting terrorism.
That’s what triggered the protest outside B’nai Brith headquarters, something the pro-Palestinian demonstrators said they would repeat on the same spot on the last Wednesday of every August.
CUPW has also lashed out at the Canadian government for its relationship with the Jewish state. “Canada is complicit in (Israel’s) crimes, supplying Israel with weaponry used to kill civilians and to maintain an illegal occupation of Palestine,” the union said after last year’s rioting at the Gaza-Israel border. A few years ago, the Rose, a women’s newsletter published by CUPW, said that by supporting Israel, Canada is complicit in “war crimes.”
Just this month, CUPW requested that members sign a petition created by Independent Jewish Voices that calls on the federal government to investigate the Jewish National Fund of Canada, with a view to revoking JNF’s charitable status.
The CJN’s request to interview Palacek, CUPW’s national president since 2015, was turned down. Instead, the union sent the following statement:
“CUPW’s international policy positions and priorities are determined by members’ direct democratic participation in the union. Members have explicitly voted to stand in solidarity with numerous international struggles for labour and human rights.
“Delegates at CUPW’s 2008 convention voted on a resolution supporting the rights of the Palestinian people, standing with organizations working for peace in Israel and Palestine and wanting an end to violence on both sides. The resolution also makes it CUPW policy to support the BDS campaign to oppose Israel’s apartheid policies.
“When unions and other civil society groups working for peace and justice in Palestine and Israel call for international support in their struggle for rights and their fight to end Israeli occupation, our policy calls on us to respond.”
The union maintains that Israel has not been its only international focus. It has opposed the Vietnam War, South Africa’s apartheid regime and the bombing of Iraq, Yugoslavia and Afghanistan. It defended former Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez as a democratic champion and its delegates have marched in May Day celebrations in Cuba.
The hostility toward Israel dates to the leadership of Jean-Claude Parrot, who headed CUPW from 1977 to 1992, according to a prominent labour historian who asked to remain anonymous. Anti-Israel sentiment “goes back many years” in CUPW, he said. “It’s a hard-left union.”
Parrot, according to the historian, “made strong statements against Israel, allied with the Palestinians, and that tradition has carried on. He did not speak for himself. He spoke for the union. Now, he’s got lots of company, I’m afraid.”
Historian David Bercuson, who has written about the Canadian labour movement, said he had “no idea” why CUPW became so hostile toward Israel, “other than (it) has always been quite left-wing, going back at least 40 years. And as we know today, being left is to hate Israel.”
As far back as the 1970s, CUPW was indeed a haven for those on the far left, a position Parrot seemed to nurture.
“You know, I have been called a communist, a Maoist, a Trotskyite, a Leninist, a Marxist, a péquiste and many other names, but I’ve never been called a Liberal or a Progressive Conservative and I’m very proud of that,” he once told a public forum. Other Canadian unions have adopted BDS, including the Ontario wing of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), the Confederation of National Trade Unions in Quebec, the Centrale des syndicats du Québec and Unifor, Canada’s largest private-sector union.
The Canadian Labour Congress, by contrast, has sounded a more muted tone. In 2011, it expressed support for United Nations Resolutions 242 and 338, both of which were passed in 1967.
That position was re-affirmed in 2017 and bolstered by its call “for an end to the occupation and illegal settlements.”
B’nai Brith Canada CEO Michael Mostyn said his organization “has and will continue to advocate for policies and positions that do not single out specific constituencies of Canadians, including Canadian Jews and supporters of Israel.” But he said he could not elaborate on CUPW specifically, as B’nai Brith is currently involved in litigation with the union. Mostyn would not say why.
The Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre also would not comment on this story, saying that it too is involved in a legal battle with CUPW.
Jewish posties, meanwhile, have been less than pleased with their union.
Bernie Bellan, who was a letter carrier in Winnipeg from 1976 until he retired in 2010, had a blunt answer when asked how he felt about the union’s position: “I hated CUPW’s stance on Israel.”
Bellan, the publisher and editor of Winnipeg’s Jewish Post & News, said he wrote to the union’s national leadership, “but nothing good came of that.” He spoke to the local president and also asked the federal government why mandatory dues should be used “for such blatantly partisan appeals that had nothing to do with our work as postal workers.”
“But let’s face facts,” Bellan continued. “If a noisy minority wants to take control of a union, or almost any other organization, and is well-organized, there’s not much you can do to stop them.”
Tamara Foster, who worked as a letter carrier in Toronto from 2001 to 2018, said her reaction to CUPW’s stance was “disgust.”
She made her views known to a fellow member with a position in the local office, as well as in an unofficial forum on Facebook. She recalled the local union member saying, “We’re not anti-Semitic, just anti-Israel,” to which she said, “That’s the same thing.” As for the Facebook group, she said it was “just nuts. Insane hatred. I was very outspoken about it and was punished twice by being thrown out of the group for 48 hours.”
Foster is also blunt about her dues being used to fund CUPW’s stand on Israel: “I would love nothing more than to sue them for every penny (from) every Jewish CUPW member.”
Alon Kazakevitch, also of Winnipeg, didn’t work at Canada Post for very long – from May 2017 to January 2019, interspersed with parental leave and time off for an injury – but in that short time, he encountered an “absolutely one-sided” policy by his union when it came to Israel.
He sent emails to the union asking “why it takes a political stance when it should be a non-political organization.” He said he received no reply.
Kazakevitch, who immigrated to Canada from Israel in 2015, had reason to be upset: his mother-in-law was murdered in the 1997 suicide bombing at Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda Market, one of 16 people killed and 178 injured in the attack.
“Be my guest to explain to my kids why they grew up without a grandmother who was murdered by Palestinian terrorists,” he told B’nai Brith last year, when CUPW announced its alliance with its Palestinian counterpart.
So, if CUPW is so upset with Israel, will it stop delivering mail there?
“As of now, no work floor actions are planned to block the processing of mail destined for Israel,” the union said nine years ago. “It is the decision of the NEB (National Executive Board) about whether to escalate this campaign in the future.”
Clarification: Kevin Matthews is a communications staff member of CUPW, not a spokesperson.