Sensible trade union voices must prevail

By Alan Johnson, June 21, 2012
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At the Unite Conference in Brighton on Tuesday, Trade Union Friends of Israel (TUFI) will publish a pamphlet, The New Histadrut: Peace, Social Justice and the Israeli Trade Unions.

It makes the case for building bridges between UK, Israeli and Palestinian trade unions and I wrote it to defend some old internationalist traditions of the British trade union movement: engagement, worker-to-worker links, and practical solidarity.

“This is a critical time for the relationship between the British and Israeli trade unions” writes Michael J Leahy, the general secretary of Community, in the preface.

In 2011, the TUC Conference invited all unions “to review their bilateral relations with all Israeli organisations, including Histadrut.” Some trade unionists are now calling for the breaking of links with the Histadrut — the Israeli TUC. They think they are helping the Palestinians.

In fact, breaking links with the Israeli TUC would be counter-productive, harming Palestinian workers and setting back hopes for mutual recognition and peace.

To break links with the Histadrut would be a giant step towards a very different kind of “internationalism” — one that is alien to the British trade unions, that demonises one party, glamorises the other, stokes divisions on the ground, and isolates the TUC from the constructive work of its global partners and the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).

The General Federation of Labour in Israel (The Histadrut) was founded in 1920 and, by 1927, it organised 75 per cent of the Jewish workforce in Mandatory Palestine.

As the Histadrut took on new responsibilities — absorbing Jewish immigrants and organising agricultural settlement, defence and expansion into new areas of production — it became an integral part of “a state in the making”.

After the foundation of the state of Israel in 1948, the Histadrut became a major employer, controlling at one point around a third of the economy and employing more than three-quarters of Israel’s workers.

Breaking links with the Israeli TUC would harm Palestinian workers and set back hopes for peace

To advance the goal of creating a homeland for the Jewish people, it had decided as early as the 1920s to remain an exclusively Jewish organisation.

As the first Prime Minister David Ben Gurion explained: “We do not want to create a situation like that which exists in South Africa, where the whites are the owners and rulers, and the blacks are the workers. If we do not do all kinds of work, easy and hard, skilled and unskilled, if we become merely landlords, then this will not be our homeland.”

The Histadrut is a very different union today. It leads the fight for workers’ rights and job security in Israel, uniting over 700,000 union members in one organisation regardless of religion, race or gender. Arab workers have enjoyed full membership since 1959 and there are now many Arab members who are leading at every level of the union. Migrant workers have had membership rights since 2010.

The Histadrut supported Israel’s 2011 mass street protests for social justice and organised a general strike in 2012 to improve conditions for Israel’s most vulnerable contract workers.

According to Uri Davis, a fierce critic of Israel, “the opening of the gates of membership of the Histadrut… to Arab workers who were citizens of Israel did contribute significantly to the progressive empowerment of the Palestinian-Arab community inside the governing institutions of the Histadrut as well as outside.”

The Histadrut has been a force for the inclusion of Israel’s Arab citizens, through the youth movement Hanoa’r HaOved Ve Halomed, the Arab-Jewish Institute of the Histadrut, and through its legal services, which are provided to Israelis (Jews and non-Jews), Palestinians and to those migrant workers who were brought into full Histadrut membership in 2010.

The Histadrut has now given up most of its non-trade-union functions.

As Uri Davis has acknowledged, “the contradiction characterising the Histadrut since its establishment in 1920, the conflict between its interests as the second largest employer in Israel and its trade union interests [has been] greatly reduced… the Histadrut of today is much ‘leaner’ and closer to a trade union in the social-democratic European sense of the term than its earlier form.”

No surprise then that the Histadrut is at the forefront of organising vulnerable workers in Israel. In 2012, it organised a successful, four-day general strike in defence of contract workers. Tellers at banks, thousands of workers in production lines in industrial plants, thousands of chambermaids at hotels, couriers, warehouse workers and more, were absorbed into direct employment.

Avital Shapira-Shabirow, the fiery director of international relations in the international department of the Histadrut said: “We struck to try and equalise the rights of underprivileged workers with those who are strong and organised. A general strike was held to enable the poor to be in a better position.”

The Histadrut supports a negotiated two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It has called on the Israeli government “to make concessions and take courageous and concrete steps towards attaining peace.”

On July 24 2008, a landmark agreement was reached between the Histadrut and the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU). Facilitated by the ITUC, to which both are affiliated, the agreement “aimed at increased protection of Palestinian workers and advancing fraternity and coexistence between the Israeli and Palestinian peoples.”

Guy Ryder, the then ITUC general secretary noted that “with the peace process effectively in stalemate at present, the ITUC’s working together with our Israeli and Palestinian affiliates is especially important.”

The Histadrut paid the PGFTU the outstanding balance of legal representation fees paid by Palestinians working for Israeli employers since 1993 and agreed to transfer at least 50 per cent of such fees to the PGFTU in the future.

The Histadrut also agreed to provide legal assistance to Palestinian workers employed by Israeli employers, to improve their working conditions, and to support the PGFTU in handling such cases.

PGFTU general secretary Shaher Sae’d hailed the agreement as good for the Palestinians. “This removes a key obstacle to future co-operation and the full respect of the rights of Palestinian workers.”

In the UK, TUC general secretary Brendan Barber praised the two federations for “carving a path that political leaders could now follow”. The rapprochement was hailed by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) as offering “hope on the way to peace” between Israel and the Palestinians.

In 2010, the UK union, Unison, sent a delegation to Israel and the territories to “critically review” the union’s links with the Histadrut.

The report concluded that “all the organisations we met during the delegation… stressed that the Histadrut was a legitimate trade union and, with over 700,000 members, was clearly the dominant trade union in terms of members and collective bargaining coverage… Neither did any of them call on Unison to sever its relations with the Histadrut, in fact the opposite. The PGFTU in particular said that Unison should maintain links with the Histadrut so that we could specifically put pressure on them to take a more vocal public stance against the occupation and the settlements.”

This finding, so very inconvenient for the boycotters, was approved by Unison international committee and endorsed by national executive committee. However, at Unison annual conference, Palestine Solidarity Campaign activists circulated misleading anti-Histadrut material.

They overturned the leadership and a boycott motion was passed. The fruits were seen in May, when the Israeli Moty Cristal was banned from speaking at an NHS conference in the UK by Unison.

Boycotts damage Palestinian workers. When Unilever Bagel Bagel, after pressure from Dutch Boycott activists from United Civilians for Peace, relocated from the community of Barkan beyond the Green Line to the Safed industrial zone in northern Israel, 60 Palestinians lost their jobs. “Crazy” was the apt response of Andy Laws of the Bakers Food & Allied Workers Union.

Breaking links with the Histadrut would only isolate British trade unions from the international trade union movement. Not a single global federation supports breaking links with the Histadrut and nor does the ITUC. Quite the reverse. In February 2011, the ITUC general council approved the “Workers’ Pact for Peace and Justice for Palestine and Israel” proposing a pathway to a comprehensive peace between Israel and Palestine.
Breaking links with the Histadrut would be gesture politics. The British trade union movement has traditionally refused to boycott other free trade unions because of what their governments do.

As Jonathan Baume, general secretary of the First Division Association, has said, sectarians have taken over some parts of the UK trade union movement. After meeting the Jewish and Arab shop stewards of the Jerusalem Municipality Employees Committee, he said his hosts “offered hope and a future that could still prevail, as well as a rebuke to the narrow sectarians among the British left who want ceaselessly to foster division.”

And yet they are still some sane voices on the left. The RMT union has stood firm for a democratic two-state settlement for Israelis and Palestinians, criticised Hamas, and its conference overwhelmingly rejected “passive and divisive tactics such as boycotts”, as “inconsistent with the principles of unity and solidarity between workers that our union stands for and wishes to promote.”

Avital Shapira-Shabirow has made a plea to UK trade unionists to sober up. She said: “Some groups have gone well beyond making legitimate criticisms of Israel. Their fight is not really about settlements — they are about demonising Israel itself. I’d say please do not become isolated from the constructive work taking place between the Histadrut and ITUC. Please do not lose your hard-won reputation as even-handed bridge builders. Please do not become cut off from the efforts to develop the 2008 Histadrut-PGFTU agreement. The PSC does not promote peace. It promotes a one-sided and demonising narrative about Israel that pushes us further away from peace. I think the British trade unions should think long and hard before following their lead.”

Indeed, and this requires four basic steps.

First, restart the trilateral delegations of unionists from Israel, Palestine and the UK.
Second, build concrete links with both the Histadrut and the PGFTU. Exchanges, branch-twinning, awareness-raising and financial support to trade unions in Israel and Palestine is the way forward. Let’s learn from the model of the Fire Brigade Union which delivered fire-fighting equipment from Dundee to Nablus with the help of the Histadrut.

Third, engage in dialogue with the Histadrut. Of course, British unions have a duty to make their views known, but as the German trade union leader Michael Sommer has argued, it is possible to do so “in a spirit of critical solidarity.”

Fourth, review the TUC’s relationship with the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) and consider supporting progressive organisations such as One Voice. The TUC supports the two-state solution: two states for two peoples, a secure Israel living in peace alongside a viable Palestine. The PSC does not.

The TUC should consider forging links to genuine progressives such as the One Voice network, and determine only to support grass roots organisations that are explicitly committed to a peaceful two state solution to the conflict.

We need a fight-back in the unions. Time to go to work.

Professor Alan Johnson is a Senior Research Fellow at BICOM

Last updated: 4:20pm, June 21 2012