The membership of an SFU union has rejected a policy to support the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.
The Teaching Support Staff Union (TSSU), which represents teaching assistants, tutor markers, and sessional instructors at the university, held a membership-wide referendum on whether to adopt the goals of the BDS movement by electronic vote May 15–19.
With the results now in, over half of voters (51%) voted to reject the policy, 42% voted in favour, and 7% of voters abstained.
“We put a lot of effort in; it was disappointing to not see the referendum pass, but there were also some encouraging things,” said TSSU chief steward Derek Sahota. “We really started a conversation.”
The BDS movement was launched by Palestinian organizations to call for nonviolent pressure on the state of Israel to comply with international human rights.
The TSSU proposed introducing a policy that would see the union refuse Israeli products, divest from Israeli companies, demand that the federal government introduce sanctions against Israel, and encourage other associations to address the issue.
“People very strongly believe that something needs to be done and the BDS was a very sensible approach to putting pressure on the state of Israel to end those violations of human rights,” explained Sahota.
However, critics voiced their opposition to the policy and circulated an open letter urging TSSU members to vote ‘no’ in the referendum. They argued that a boycott threatened academic freedoms, limited opportunities for dialogue, and unfairly singled out the state of Israel.
According to Sahota, the debate is rooted in the best way to address Palestinian human rights issues.
“There was really agreement from people on both sides that the violation of human rights that is ongoing is abhorrent and needs to stop,” he said. “We knew going into this that this is a contentious issue.”
“There’s not an agreement, certainly, among the membership that BDS is the right approach to take for the TSSU at this time.”
The policy was proposed by the union’s solidarity and social justice wing last year. A motion to launch the referendum was approved, with two opposed, at a general membership meeting in January.
According to TSSU bylaws, the policy did not have to be put to a referendum. The Solidarity and Social Justice Committee decided that it was best to send the question to a referendum to raise awareness about the issue and allow maximum participation on what was anticipated to be a contentious topic, explained Sahota.
Approximately a quarter of the union membership participated in the referendum.
With the decision by the membership the final conclusion on the matter, the Solidarity and Social Justice Committee is considering new initiatives to campaign around, according to commissioner Lillian Deeb.
“Part of the basic principles of a union is about solidarity. Adding our voice to a global solidarity movement was important,” Deeb said.