Arab Detroit: The Arab Workers' Caucus and the Strike for Palestine
By: Omar Mansour/Arab America Contributing Writer
Arab Americans are typically not regarded as an immigrant community with a historical tie to labor movements. However, Arab American involvement in labor movements are an inseparable part of the history of workers’ protests in the United States. One such example is the story of when Arab-American auto workers in Detroit went on strike for Palestine. This article will detail how Arab immigrants found their way to Michigan; the political contexts in which they worked; and, finally the triggers that led to the massive strike for Palestine demanding that the United Auto Workers (UAW) union drop their Israeli bonds.
In the late 1960s, with social and political upheavals in the Middle East and with the United States simultaneously loosening immigration restrictions, tens of thousands of Arabs — particularly from Palestine, Yemen, and Lebanon — migrated to Detroit, numbering 85,000 by the early 70s, especially concentrated in Dearborn. By 1973, nearly 15,000 of these 85,000 Arabs worked in auto plants.
Around this same time, the Marxist inspired Black Power movement was sweeping the auto factories. Black workers at Dodge Main formed the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM). DRUM led a series of wildcat strikes and inspired the creation of more revolutionary black caucuses at other plants, which eventually united into the League of Revolutionary Black Workers. The engagement between these Black and Arab workers would be crucial inspiration and support for Arab worker mobilization.
Alarmed by this militancy, the auto companies turned to hire large numbers of Arabs, believing Arab workers would give them less trouble than black workers – fear of deportation would render them docile, they thought. This was an incorrect, yet seemingly widespread assessment of the Arab worker, one shared and used as a pretext for the mass hiring of Arabs, particularly Yemenis, by farm growers in California at this time. In both cases, management would come to regret this thinking.
Building an Arab Workers’ Caucus
Local, national, and global events between the years of 1968 – 1973 would further mobilize Arab workers, culminating with the famed Detroit Arab workers strike for Palestine in 1973.
Energized by Arab nationalism in general, and especially after the 1968 Battle of Karameh, Arab-Americans in Metro Detroit started forming community organizations to fight back against housing discrimination and other forms of racism. In August 1973, Dearborn’s Arab community marched to protest the police murder of Nagi Daifullah, a twenty-four-year-old Yemeni immigrant in California. Daifullah was an organizer with César Chávez’s United Farm Workers who was brutally beaten to death that August by a Kern County sheriff’s deputy. After hearing of Nagi’s death, Yemeni auto workers in Dearborn organized a rally to demand a proper investigation of his murder.
Strike for Palestine
When war broke out in October between Israel and a coalition led by Egypt and Syria, Detroit Arabs were shocked to discover that UAW Local 600, which represented workers at Ford Rouge, had purchased over $300,000 in State of Israel bonds with union dues money. The investments could be used by Israel for any purpose, including war and occupation. The UAW International owned nearly $1 million in Israeli bonds, part of its pension portfolio.
On October 13, around 3,000 Arab Americans marched in Dearborn to the Local 600 office, demanding that the bonds be dumped. It was then discovered that on November 28, UAW president Leonard Woodcock would be honored by B’nai B’rith International, a Zionist charitable organization, with its Humanitarian of the Year award at a ceremony in downtown Detroit. The workers used the event as an opportunity to demand the union divest from Israel.
70,000 flyers in Arabic and English were circulated calling on Arab auto workers to join in a wildcat strike on the day of the award ceremony. At Dodge Main, Arab immigrants comprised upwards of 25 percent of the workforce, or 2,000 workers. They answered this call and production was shut down, with other plants experienced slowdowns. That evening, 2,000 protested outside Cobo Hall, where Woodcock was being honored at the $100-a-plate B’nai B’rith dinner, which was attended by both the mayor of Detroit and the chair of General Motors. This resulted in about 500 wildcat strikers at Dodge Main receiving disciplinary notices, and those most recently hired, particularly Yemenis–were terminated. The union did nothing to protect them.
The union was entirely dismissive of their workers. UAW secretary-treasurer Emil Mazey dismissed the protest as a communist conspiracy and Walter Dorosh, president of Local 600, said he would help liquidate the Israeli bonds in exchange for no further public protests against union officials.
The Arab Workers Caucus continued organizing. The caucus sent delegates to the 1974 UAW constitutional convention in California to put forward a program calling not just for disposal of the bonds, but also for more workplace rights, the hiring of language interpreters at the auto plants, and the dismissal of any union officers or staff found guilty of discrimination. The convention’s resolutions committee, chaired by Dorosh, ignored all of these demands. Nevertheless, by organizing among the rank-and-file over several months, the Arab Workers Caucus convinced multiple UAW locals to dispose of their own Israeli investments, resulting in the liquidation of $48,000 in bonds by 1975
The Movement Continues
The caucus went into decline in the years following the 1974 UAW convention before disbanding. Arab-American auto workers continued organizing, often alongside Black workers, through community organizations and leftist groups against workplace abuses and racial discrimination. As imperialism fuels war and oppression in the Arab World and around the globe, and as systemic racism and xenophobia run amok here in the US, the story of the Arab Workers Caucus is a powerful reminder to the US working class that even if the institutions meant to represent us, such as unions, are complicit in our own oppression, we are not required to go along with it. The spirit that was present in this massive labor action for Palestine continues today, alive and well in the BDS movement. Every year, protests around the world in support of Palestine grow larger, and the Zionist colonial narrative grows ever weaker.
Check out Arab America’s blog here!