UK UNISON Public Workers Conference rejects “critical engagement” with the Histadrut

Report by Greg Dropkin
Published: 25/06/11

After a lengthy and high level debate, UNISON National Delegate Conference decisively rejected a resolution from the National Executive to restore relations with the Israeli trade union federation Histadrut on the basis of “critical engagement”. Recent documents from the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU) and the newly formed Palestinian Trade Union Coalition for BDS (Boycott Divestment and Sanctions) featured in the debate.

Relations with the Histadrut were suspended last year after the federation defended Israel’s murderous attack on the Mavi Marmara, the Turkish ship on the Freedom Flotilla aiming to break the siege on Gaza. The decision this week leaves the relationship suspended.

As mandated by the 2010 Conference, the union sent a delegation to Palestine last November to investigate whether any relationship with the Histadrut would be appropriate. The delegation reported that both Palestinian trade unionists and Israeli labour rights organisations, whilst highly critical of the Histadrut, thought that Unison should engage with the Israeli union federation. In particular a meeting with the PGFTU convinced the delegation that they should restore the relationship. A resolution reflecting this report was submitted to Conference by the National Executive Committee.

However, things have moved on since last November and the NEC encountered very well-informed opposition and a Conference which really wanted to understand the issues. After about 3 speakers from each side, Conference rejected a move to put the question, and debate continued.

In truth, there were strong opponents of the Histadrut within the Palestinan unions, including within the PGFTU, when the UNISON delegation made their visit. By April, the argument was out in the open and the PGFTU had issued a “clarification” which called on “all international organisations and trade unions not to use the relationship between the PGFTU and the Histadrut to justify establishing relationships with the Israeli occupation and its institutions that contribute towards strengthening the occupation”.

By the May Day weekend, the Palestinian Trade Union Coalition for BDS had formed. Its membership includes the General Union of Palestinian Workers, Federation of Independent Trade Unions (IFU), General Union of Palestinian Women, Union of Palestinian Professional Associations (comprising the professional syndicates of Engineers, Physicians, Pharmacists, Agricultural Engineers, Lawyers, Dentists and Veterinarians), General Union of Palestinian Teachers, General Union of Palestinian Peasants and Co-ops, General Union of Palestinian Writers, Union of Palestinian Farmers, Palestinian Federation of Unions of University Professors and Employees (PFUUPE), Union of Public Employees in Palestine-Civil Sector; and all of the trade union blocks that make up the Palestine General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU).

The PTUC-BDS Statement of Principles deals with the Histadrut as part of the wider issue of Boycott Divestment and Sanctions. It spells out, with references, the Histadrut’s role and then calls on “trade unions around the world to review and sever all ties with the Histadrut”.

The UNISON NEC resolution was moved by President Angela Lynes. Speakers for the resolution concentrated on what the delegation had been told last November.

But Andrew Berry (Islington), who had moved the resolution in 2010 which suspended relations pending a review, and mandated the NEC to send the delegation, pointed out that in view of the new situation the resolution should have been remitted. In the current circumstances, it should be rejected, leaving the resolution from 2010 in place so that UNISON can review and consider the new developments.

Several of those speaking for the NEC resolution seemed unhappy with their script.

The opposition included unlikely allies, ranging from Morning Star supporters to the SWP, Permanent Revolution, and independents. Delegates from the Royal Victoria Hospital (Belfast), Camden, Islington, and Manchester pursued the argument.

Camden Branch Sec George Binette read out the PTUC-BDS five-pronged indictment of the Histadrut’s key role in perpetuating Israel’s occupation, colonization and system of racial discrimination by:

1. Publicly supporting Israel’s violations of the Fourth Geneva Convention and other tenets of international law

2. Maintaining active commercial interests in Israel’s illegal settlement enterprise

3. Allowing Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank to join the organization

4. Supporting Israel’s war of aggression on besieged Gaza in 2008/9; it has later justified Israel’s massacre of humanitarian relief workers and activists aboard the Freedom Flotilla on 31 May 2010

5. Illegally withholding over NIS 8. 3 billion (approximately $2. 43bn) over decades of occupation from wages earned by Palestinian workers from the Occupied Palestinian Territory, deducted for ’social and other trade union benefits’ that Palestinian laborers from the OPT have never received.

For the resolution, NEC member Colm McGee (Northern Ireland) quoted the opening of the PGFTU clarification: “Mr Shaher Saed detested the attempts by some organisations to exploit the relationship between the Histadrut and the PGFTU for political gain and to undermine the international trade unions efforts to defend the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people.” Whilst McGee argued that this supported the NEC position, the next sentences from the PGFTU make clear that Shaher Saed was attacking those apologists for Zionism like the Trade Union Friends of Israel (now TULIP) who use the relationship between the PGFTU and Histadrut, a relationship of unequals, to justify establishing relationships with the Israeli occupation and its institutions.

In reply, South Manchester Hospitals Branch Sec Frances Kelly corrected McGee’s account and held up the PGFTU document to read “It is time all world organisations decided to boycott all Israeli institutions implicated in the occupation and its practices”. Like George Binette, she quoted the PTUC-BDS on the role of the Histadrut in perpetuating Israel’s occupation, colonization and system of racial discrimination.

Winding up for the NEC, President Angela Lynes accepted the criticisms of the Histadrut but insisted that the PGFTU wanted UNISON to restore relations with the Israeli federation.

It was mainly a civil and considered debate. All the speakers against the NEC resolution paid tribute to the delegation for their work in solidarity.

Conference then rejected the resolution decisively.

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