Palestinians tell British union: Don’t sever ties with the Histadrut

This piece by Eric Lee is from the TULIP website (Trade Unions Linking Israel and Palestine)

Britain’s giant public sector union UNISON has just issued its long-awaited report on its delegation’s visit to Israel and Palestine.

The visit had been scheduled to take place a year ago, finally happened at the end of 2010, and the report has become available only now.

It is a long and detailed report reflecting the organization’s views of the conflict, but the really interesting bit — the surprising bit — was what happened when the UNISON team asked Palestinian trade unionists and Israeli leftists whether the union should sever its ties with the Histadrut.

The union had been instructed by its governing bodies to look into this very question.

It was, in some ways, the central question, the one that really mattered above all.

And the advice the union got from everyone it talked to was: don’t sever your ties with the Histadrut.

What the report says is so extraordinary that it needs to be quoted at length — and this passage should be shown to any union anywhere in the world that is thinking about cutting off ties with Israel’s trade unions.

Here is what they say:

All the organisations we met during the delegation including the PGFTU, the new Israeli trade unions and Israeli NGOs are or have been critical of the Histadrut in the past for various reasons.

However, they all 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. Even the new Israeli unions accepted that the Histadrut had been responsible for Israel’s strong labour and employment protection legislation. They also recognised that the Histadrut remained influential, although less so than in the past, with the Israeli government.
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.

Kav laOved, Koach laOvdim and WAC/Ma’an all felt that international trade union influence on the Histadrut was essential in moving it towards more progressive policies in relation to migrant workers and discrimination against Palestinian Israeli workers.

There is much in the report that we wouldn’t agree with – including criticism of things we and others have written and said – but the bottom line is that when Palestinian trade unionists are asked, they turn out to be supporters of engagement with the Histadrut and urge unions everywhere to keep up their ties with the Israeli union federation.

This piece by Eric Lee is from the TULIP website (Trade Unions Linking Israel and Palestine)

4 Responses to “Palestinians tell British union: Don’t sever ties with the Histadrut”

  1. Bialik Says:

    I think the Histadrut should be left alone to represent workers and if it does that badly it is rightly criticised and dispensable – hopefully to be replaced by something more effective.
    I don’t understand why British unions would want to cut ties with independent unions anywhere on earth and I don’t see why a union has to articulate policies on political matters agreeable to the British to be accepted. This is a wedged-shape syndrome anyway; it will be universities who must make the correct noises next, if it isn’t already. Industrial sectors, then artistic institutions, then the artists themselves, then the patrons and eventually the whole citizenry. But it doesn’t stay in one country. We have already seen editorials in mainstream newspapers here castigating people who happen to be Jewish for not ‘speaking out’ against Israeli policies. This business is pernicious – and such a waste. Unions should be working together to improve standards universally and oppose anti-union legislation.

  2. Brian Goldfarb Says:

    Bialik, I both agree and disagree with you when you say that “I don’t see why a union has to articulate policies on political matters agreeable to the British to be accepted.” However, trade unions have always been political, even back to their start as we know them in 19th century Britain. They were always radical as far as their politics were concerned, seeking to bring about change in the political system to make Britain a better place for workers to be. Many trade unionists were well-disposed to equality for women and minorities.

    So, not surprisingly, it is probably inevitable that there will be demands from other trade unionists, whether in the same country or from abroad, for unions to live up to principles of equality for all. Why should the Histradut be exempt from such demands, when it wishes to be part of the brother and sisterhood of free trade unions everywhere. Nor should the PGFTU be exempt from such pressures, should it slip. If it makes unreasonable demands on the Histradut, then it too should be sanctioned.

    However, what is not legitimate is a free trade union movement or a constituent part of such a movement demanding that a free trade union or movement act against a legally elected and democratic government under threat of sanctions. Especially when the demands and threats are ones that are not even being debated against clearly undemocratic governments, which are also serial breachers of human rights.

    And, yes, I do mean UCU.

  3. Bialik Says:

    I agree that trade unions have had a political voice and used it, sometimes well and sometimes against women and immigration (ie minorities). However, the British Labour movement created the Labour Party to engage in politics and have influence, apparently from the right in the 80s and the left later on. I think that where there is a democratically elected government and political parties are free to establish themselves as labour, in the sense of working people, representatives, unions cannot be castigated for staying out of politics. It is not wrong for them to get involved, but neither is it wrong for them to stay out. And if you think all things are political – which I think I do – then unions’ fight for workers rights cannot be separated from class politics generally, but the international element concerns working people abroad, not border disputes. But what concerns me, and I tried to articulate, is the expectation that representational organisations must obey external demands concerning their attitudes to non-labour issues. I can imagine an independent trade union being expelled from the ILO, or boycotted by other unions, for giving up its independence. But not for other matters.

  4. Brian Goldfarb Says:

    Well, we agree on much, but when you say “…the international element concerns working people abroad, not border disputes”, I have to disagree. International trade unions have a proud history of involving cross-border worker co-operatioon, sometimes taking on governments, even those of democracies.

    A broader point is that so much of life is politics and political. The mere existence of a trade union, especially when they are legally part of the political fabric, tells us much about that society. Their activities in seeking to advance the interests of their members is, inevitably, political, as are the alliance they make, and those they avoid. In many respects, many if not most social actions are at some level political.

    This is not to excuse, therefore, any action that may be taken, but to broaden our understanding of what is going on out there.

    This thread started because Unison of UK members found themselves receiving a message that the union leadership probably doesn’t want to hear: members of the PGFTU want other free trade unions to keep their hands off Israel’s Histradut, because they are a fellow trade union AND they are working with the PGFTU to advance the living standards of Palestinian workers, to the benefit of both sets of workers. And Histradut is a free trade union, whatever its links to particular parties in Israel.

    The (possibly implied and unstated) other part of the message directed to the Unison hierarchy is that they should be directing their reforming zeal towards governments that restrict and restrain free trade unions.

    I suspect that if the attention of the Unison delegation had been directed towards Zimbabwe or China or Iran, we wouldn’t be having this discussion.


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