Be fair, give unions their due

The TUC's statement on Israel is policy we can work with

By Roger Lyons, September 24, 2009

There has been confusion and anger over the past week about the criticism of Israel by the TUC at its annual conference last week.  The initial picture does look negative, but when you look at the final motion, and understand how trade unions develop policy, its final bark is probably much worse than its bite.    

The main confusion has arisen because both the Fire Brigades’ Union (FBU) motion — which called for a full consumer boycott of Israel — and a much softer, negotiated statement by the TUC General Council, were both passed by the conference floor.  But through the rules of the TUC, the statement, which was overwhelmingly supported, superseded the FBU motion. 

In essence, the FBU motion was made null and void two minutes after it was passed by the very same people who had just voted for it.  Delegates knew that the FBU motion would be knocked out seconds later by the General Council statement, but voted for it as a way to vent their genuine anger over Israel’s military action in Gaza. It was a way for delegates to make themselves feel better without consequence; like screaming into a pillow.       

The fact that the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, under the influence of the Socialist Workers’ Party and Socialist Action, are so pleased about the FBU motion — and that they pretend the General Council statement doesn’t exist — proves what many have suspected: that they don’t care about Palestinian workers, only about motions whose aim is to ostracise Israel.    

So what are all the “terrible” things the TUC plans to do against Israel?  The statement says: “The TUC calls on the British Government to condemn the Israeli military aggression in Gaza and the continuing blockade of Gaza; end arms sales to Israel and support moves to suspend the EU-Israel Association Agreement.”

These are calls for the government to act in a certain way, not the TUC.   The calls have been accomplished in the statement; so no further action is required. Now for the main point of contention: the statement says the TUC will support a boycott of goods from “illegal” Israeli settlements. There is no doubt this is a call for a targeted boycott. However, the statement then adds the caveats that each union should operate within its own aims and objectives and that pressure to boycott such products should not be applied to union members. This means that the TUC leadership will not put pressure on affiliated unions, or its members, to implement a boycott. 

Again, no action will be taken and the call, though unwelcome and hostile, becomes less relevant.       

It was a way for delegates to feel better without consequence

So, instead of concentrating on what won’t happen we should concentrate on the positive things in the statement that will, such as support for stronger relations between Israeli and Palestinian trade unions and funding for joint trade union projects.

The sad irony of the political charade that is the trade union boycott campaign is that it has been a complete diversion at a time when real co-operation between Israeli and Palestinian trade unions is gathering pace, with keynote agreements covering transport and construction sectors. 

Palestinian trade unionists don’t want boycotts. In fact quite the opposite; they have vowed, along with the Histadrut (Israeli TUC), to work together and be “a role model for their political leaders”. 

The TUC’s General Secretary, Brendan Barber, has said he wants to focus on supporting these initiatives, and he now has a full mandate from the General Council statement to continue with this work on the basis of the Histadrut’s recent statement on peace and co-operation.

The trade unions that fought so hard to make sure the FBU motion did not become TUC policy should be praised. They have prevented an outright boycott that would have harmed both Israeli and Palestinian workers alike.

Roger Lyons is a former President of the TUC and current chair of Trade Union Friends of Israel

Last updated: 12:12pm, September 25 2009