The Sydney University branch of the national academic union has overturned a previous vote in support of a “broad discussion” around endorsing the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.
Approximately 120 members attended a meeting on Wednesday at which the General Secretary of the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU), Grahame McCulloch, spoke against “a Union-sponsored debate on the merits of the BDS.”
“At a time when universities and trade unions are under siege from the Abbott Government, an NTEU Branch as important as the University of Sydney cannot afford the division and fruitless procedural wrangling that has been generated by this ill-conceived general meeting decision,” he wrote in an email before the meeting.
Sydney University NTEU members had voted to support a debate about BDS at a branch meeting on May 15. The vote was overruled by the union’s executive branch committee the following week, triggering outrage from pro-BDS members of the union, which led to the resignation of branch Vice President Damien Cahill and the eventual involvement of the national General Secretary.
On Wednesday, members voted 68-56 against a debate on BDS in the branch, overturning the vote on May 15, which is understood to have passed almost unanimously with around 35 NTEU members in attendance.
Mr McCulloch told New Matilda that a discussion on BDS would be “a great distraction” for the union at a time when the Abbott government is cutting funding to universities and deregulating student fees.
He argued in a motion put at Wednesday’s meeting that Sydney University members ought to respect “the decision of the 2011 NTEU National Council not to support or endorse the BDS campaign and to be guided by the policy of NTEU’s international trade union federation — Education International (EI).” McCulloch is himself a member of the EI Executive Board.
Pro-BDS union members have deemed the General Secretary’s intervention in the branch to be an undemocratic attempt to silence debate on the issue.
Nick Riemer, a pro-BDS member of the branch committee, said that the margin at Wednesday’s meeting showed “there are lots of union members who understand the urgency of considering the academic boycott, and who realise that it’s exactly the kind of thing that unions should be discussing”.
Branch President Michael Thomson has not responded to requests for comment, and former Vice President Damien Cahill declined to comment in the wake of his resignation.
Despite acknowledging that his motion to bring forward a vote on BDS and recommend that members not endorse the campaign was “an inappropriate response to the issue,” Cahill argued in his resignation letter: “some of the core principles of [BDS]… do not align with those of the union.”
Associate Professor Ariadne Vromen, who sits on the University Senate and is an active member of the NTEU, echoed the views of the General Secretary. She told New Matilda that “BDS isn’t an appropriate strategy to adopt at the branch level” and that the closeness of the vote “demonstrated that it is a very divisive issue.”
The push for discussion of BDS in the union has come from a newly formed ‘Sydney Staff for BDS’ group at the university. The group has coalesced amidst Associate Professor Jake Lynch’s high profile legal battle with Shurat HaDin, an Israeli legal group, which accused him of breaching the Racial Discrimination Act after he refused to sponsor the fellowship of an Israeli academic last year.
It is understood that some members of the NTEU leadership are concerned about the legal implications of supporting BDS, after Shurat HaDin openly threatened the union with legal action last month.
Wednesday’s NTEU vote came on the same day that Attorney-General George Brandis said in Senate Estimates that references to ‘occupied’ East Jerusalem were “freighted with pejorative implications,” prompting suggestions that the government had reversed decades of bipartisan consensus on the Israeli occupation.
The Guardian reported on Thursday that Israel has announced almost 1,500 new settlement homes are to be built in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.