In the course of just a few days, three news stories came across my desk that highlighted one of the problems we face in the British trade union movement.
As I write these words, the Israeli nurses’ union is engaged in a major fight with the Netanyahu government. Netanyahu is the health minister (as well as prime minister) and his government stands accused of starving public hospitals, while coming up with millions to construct new illegal settlement housing. The nurses strike deserves the support of unions everywhere, in particular unions which organise nurses.
Israel’s public sector unions solidified a major victory early this month. An agreement that ended February’s general strike has now been translated into results on the ground. The general strike had been fought over the question of precarious employment and the Histadrut won a substantial victory. This week, contract workers in the public sector will get huge wage gains and back pay thanks to the solidarity of unionised workers who shut the country down and compelled the government to make concessions.
Both examples show an independent, and sometimes militant, Israeli trade union movement that deserves the solidarity of trade unionists in Britain. Indeed, the Israel public sector unions may even have a thing or two to teach their British counterparts about how to win on issues like contract labour.
But unfortunately Unison and the Public and Commercial Services union (PCS), unions which should, in theory, be promoting solidarity with the Israeli nurses and indeed with all the Israeli public sector unions, have played a rather different role recently.
Unison and PCS were among the leading unions which actively pushed the recent congress of Public Services International (PSI) to adopt a new policy supporting boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) targetting Israel. PSI is also now on record supporting the slander that Israel is an “apartheid state”.
It is unusual for a global union federation like PSI to take such a strong position in opposition to Israel, even if its BDS call was limited to “firms complicit with the occupation”.
The pro-Hamas Palestine Solidarity Campaign hailed the decision as a breakthrough. I want to step back here and try to understand what is going on.
Israel is the only country in the region with a strong, independent trade union movement. It is not a perfect movement and there is much to criticise about it. But when Unison sent a delegation over to meet with Israelis and Palestinians, everyone they spoke to — including the Palestinians — encouraged the British union to keep up its relationship with the Histadrut.
No one, not even the far-left critics of the Histadrut, suggested to Unison that it disengage.
But when the report of the Unison delegation was put to the national executive, it was rejected and Unison carried on with a policy supporting boycotts of the Jewish state and its trade union movement as well.
This makes absolutely no sense.
If you oppose the right-wing, neoliberal policies of the Netanyahu government, shouldn’ t you support the struggle of the Israeli nurses? Shouldn’t you support the Histadrut’s general strike which resulted in such an important victory?
Instead of engaging with the Israeli labour movement, unions like Unison and PCS are moving away from it.
There was a time not long ago when British unions played a more constructive role. They would bring over representatives of the Histadrut and the Palestinian unions to Britain where they could meet British trade unionists — and each other. British unions saw their role as bridge-builders, taking no sides in a tragic conflict between two nations.
One doesn’t want to get all nostalgic about this -- instead, I suggest we try to find ways restore some sanity and balance into the British labour movement’s view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Above all this means educating activists and members, whose only source of information seems to be the pro-Hamas camp, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign.
Unfortunately, there is no effective alternative voice in the British labour movement today.
If members of Unison, PCS and other unions were to be made aware of the reality of the Israeli trade union movement, its struggles and its victories, I think it might be possible to have a more interesting and productive debate.
At the moment, the agenda in those unions is being dictated by supporters of Hamas, and that, comrades, is not a good thing.