The Following piece was originally published on Jan 11, 2024 on Isaak’s blog, What I’m Reading. We reprint his piece here with the author’s permission and encourage you to check out his blog, which often provides insightful pieces relevant to Maine’s working class. Maine DSA was not a part of the coalition that organized the protest Isaak discusses, but individual chapter members were in attendance.
Protestors from several left-wing organizations demonstrated outside Bath Iron Works (BIW) on Friday, December 8, 2023:
- Maine Voices for Palestinian Rights
- Students for Justice in Palestine
- The Communist Maine Party for Socialism & Liberation (Maine PSL)
- Portland CONFRONT
- The Maine Natural Guard
And others, according to Edward Tomic of The Maine Wire. BIW expressed a calm concern. In anticipation of Friday’s protest, Vice President Vince Dickinson issued a memo to all BIW employees. It noted:
“Our work building ships for the U.S. Navy does periodically draw protests, though they are generally low-key affairs with little to no impact on our employees. It is our hope that that remains the case with this demonstration, though it involves different groups who have not historically protested here.”
These different groups represented diverse political ideologies, from anarchism to pacifism, communism to socialism, but they all came together to call on BIW’s largest union, Local S6, to support an immediate ceasefire in Gaza under a “pro-worker anti-war” platform. The protestors targeted the 3:30 shift change, demonstrating from approximately 2:30 to 4:30 in the afternoon. Some protestors distributed a flier to grumpy workers navigating around the street closure. “The APWU, UAW, UE, multiple healthcare unions, and the Chicago Teachers Union have all called for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza,” it read, “We invite members of IAM Local S6… to stand with us!”
No one did. A few curious spectators stood by, watching events unfold. I stood among them. From the entrance to the local’s parking lot, I listened to the speeches and tapped my foot to the songs. Officially, leadership left me in charge of keeping the protestors “off our lawn.” A protestor wandered over to hand me a flier. I thanked him, and he nodded. Reading it made me realize how little I really know about my job. Where do these ships go when they float down the Kennebec for the last time?
The United Auto Workers (UAW) formed a working group to answer this question for themselves. Its goal is “to study the history of Israel and Palestine, the union’s economic ties to the conflict, and to explore how to achieve a just transition for US workers from war to peace.” In addition, “the UAW International Executive Board announced the union was joining a growing number of labor organizations in calling for a ceasefire in Israel and Palestine.” The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) has made no such commitment.
Local S6 is one of the largest and most powerful locals under the IAM’s jurisdiction. Local S6 pipefitter Brian Bryant even took its highest office on January 5. No local more embodies the spirit of the fighting machinist. When it comes to social issues, however, Local S6 remains apathetic. One union representative stood near the crosswalk from the company parking lot to the union hall. He intended to redirect workers leaving at 3:30 around the protest because he knew many would try to go through it. Still, he observed members “reacting, not listening.” If Local S6 takes a side, it’s usually the wrong one. We are always reacting without listening. Retiree Mickey Meader attended the demonstration as a counter protestor, for instance. “I think they [Israel] have a right to have a country and I would be fine if everyone would live in peace,” he said to The Times Record reporter Luna Soley. Never mind the Palestinians’ right to have a country. “I’m not against Palestine,” Meader explained, “but I’m really mad [about] what happened on Oct. 7 – it wasn’t like they attacked soldiers, they attacked innocent men, women and children. That really bothers me.”
The victims of the October 7 terrorist attack by Hamas are innocent. Of course they are! The New York Times reported Hamas atrocities with more than enough grisly detail to justify Meader’s anger. The victims deserve justice, but Israel is not interested in justice. Instead, the Israeli government has used the attack as an excuse for ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians. According to an analysis in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, the civilian death toll in Gaza has risen to 61% (qtd. in Borger). According to Carl Skau, deputy director of the UN World Food Programme, nine out of ten Palestinians in Gaza do not have enough food to eat every day (Nimoni). They are starving. A Jacobin investigation by Jaclynn Ashly turned up another one of Israel’s human rights abuses, body snatching. In an illuminating write-up, Ashly notes how Israel withholds deceased Palestinians from their loved ones. Israel freezes the bodies for years and returns them in unrecognizable forms. Sometimes the bodies are unrecognizable because Israel returns the wrong one. It’s bad enough the civilian death toll is so high Israel can’t keep track of the bodies, but the rumors suggest something far more ghoulish. Some fear Israel is harvesting organs again, all to keep the war machine running.
If true, this macabre practice makes Israel Frankenstein. Like Frankenstein, the imperialist experiment in Israel has created a monster. Imperial powers like England and France began carving up the Middle East in the nineteenth century. The Ottoman Empire, the sick man of Europe, finally died in World War I, but the Pax Ottomana had already come undone. Imperial powers redrew borders with colonial goals like wealth extraction, not constructive goals like nation building. Many Middle Eastern countries have no precedent, and this has been a source of conflict throughout the twentieth century. None more so than Israel, a uniquely American solution to the Jewish diaspora decimated by the Holocaust. The Jewish people have every right to exist, but the state of Israel denies Palestinians the same right.
Israel has existed for more than three generations now. Like other nations in the Middle East, this has created a situation in which citizens identify with the nation state. Because imperialist powers redrew borders with no consideration to the nations already living there, there are differing opinions as to which the “nation” refers. One can make a compelling argument that the City of Bath lies on unceded Native American lands. It’s a good argument, but what are you going to do with the generations of Bath residents who have known nowhere else? Send them back to Europe? Mainers are not European. In the same way, what can you do about third generation Israelis occupying historic Palestinian lands? Many have no other home to return to.
On Friday, December 8, the protestors at BIW made an obvious point. Genocide, the elimination of the Palestinian people, isn’t the answer to this complicated problem. Still, some members of Local S6 disagree that the peoples of Israel and Palestine have the mutual right to exist in peace.
Ignorance is no excuse. The protest was well publicized. On November 8, members of Maine Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) contacted me about the Local’s position on Palestine after publishing some of my work in August. Although The Maine Wire did not list the DSA as an organizer, its communication to me indicated DSA members “wouldn’t be surprised if something comes to BIW soon.” I referred this communication to union leadership almost a month before the protest took place. A week before protesting, organizers made sure the union knew their intentions. On two occasions an organizer came to the union hall to explain the protestors’ pro-worker, anti-war position to whoever was willing to listen.
Still, union leadership did not meet with the organizers. Union leadership took no steps in anticipation of the protest to educate the membership and contain the union’s more volatile elements. Instead, at least two union representatives confronted the protestors with eliminationist rhetoric. One representative was being paid by the company, another the union. I can only understand this as both parties’ endorsement of violence in the Middle East.
Violence is good for business. General Dynamics Chief Financial Officer Jason Aikens described the financial benefits of the situation:
“You know, the Israel situation obviously is a terrible one, frankly, and one that’s just evolving as we speak. But I think if you look at the incremental demand potential coming out of that, the biggest one to highlight and that really sticks out is probably on the artillery side. Obviously that’s been a big pressure point up to now with Ukraine, one that we’ve been doing everything we can to support our Army customer. We’ve gone from 14,000 rounds per month to 20,000 very quickly. We’re working ahead of schedule to accelerate that production capacity up to 85,000, even as high as 100,000 rounds per month, and I think the Israel situation is only going to put upward pressure on that demand, so that’s the biggest stick-out that I can see.”
I expect as much from a megacorporation like General Dynamics, but I expect better from my own union, its leadership and rank-and-file members. An anonymous source tells me the “Anything Goes!” Facebook group BIW Workforce Forum 2.0 has been a breeding ground for hate, bigotry, and eliminationist rhetoric aimed at the Palestinian people and the protestors supporting them:
- “Kyle Rittenhouse gonna come down and clear the way for traffic….?”
- “50 points EACH😂”
- “Rumor has it, Raytheon is discontinuing the tomahawk missiles for the replacement… Palestine pounders.”
- “Look at all these people sexualy [sic] identifying as speed bumps.”
A high-ranking officer of another union called this one, “Best comment!” More than three thousand union members are a part of the “Anything Goes!” Facebook group spreading this shit. Do they really think genocide is the answer? The UAW says no! UAW Region 9 Director Dan Vicente also represents workers at a General Dynamics plant. Despite his unwavering support for these workers at home, Vicente explained how “we have a moral obligation to put pressure on politicians to make sure that our products are used for their intended purposes of defense, and not massacres” against workers abroad (Ackerman). “There’s little difference to the average worker if their child is starved by poverty wages in Detroit or by a military siege in Gaza,” wrote Joe Mayall on his blog JoeWrote. There are BIW workers who are food insecure. There are homeless members of Local S6, too. Their material conditions are not any different from Palestinians displaced by the weapons systems union members build. Hungry children are hungry children. The military industrial complex isn’t working for anyone. Like the UAW, the IAM should be calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. And Local S6 should be leading the charge. At the very least, the union should issue a statement condemning the use of weapons systems it constructs on civilians.
It’s what William Winpisinger, the IAM’s most famous International President, would have done. In the 1970s, Winpisinger said:
“[I] would hate to think that the members of our union who are now engaged in the many facets of military production would have to depend forever on world terror in order to survive as an economic unit.” (qtd. in Schuhrke)
It’s been 35 years since Winpisinger left office. What would he think of the IAM depending on world terror in 2024? Calling for a ceasefire is the least we can do to honor his legacy and meet the economic needs of the IAM’s membership. Local S6 pipefitter Brian Bryant just became International President this January. I hope that he follows Winpisinger’s example. I hope he follows Shawn Fain’s example. And I hope the leadership of Local S6 looks to their examples, too. Now is the time for the workers of the world to unite.
Dickinson, Vince. Memo to all employees, Bath Iron Works, Bath, ME. 7 December 2023.
Maine Coalition for Palestine, et al. “Pro-Worker Anti-War.” 8 December 2023.