Building global labor solidarity – challenges and opportunities

This article appeared in the Labor Day issue of Democratic Left.

In 1847, when Marx and Engels issued their ringing call for workers of all countries to unite, it fell on deaf ears. However, by the 1890s, trade unions had begun to operate across borders, creating permanent institutions that are today known as “global union federations,” which unite transport workers, food and agriculture workers, journalists, teachers and others.

These federations, which have lasted for more than a century, are at the heart of the global labor movement. They represent the promise of working-class internationalism.

But the global union federations have never had the resources to play the role envisaged for them by such pioneers as Edo Fimmen, who headed up the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) in the inter-war years. Fimmen saw these industrial federations, and not the organization now known as the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), as the heart of a true global working-class movement.

The global union federations include as members individual national unions, not national trade union centers. So, while the ITF will have the Teamsters as one of its U.S affiliates–and thus be only one step removed from actual workers on the shop floor–the ITUC has as its U.S. affiliate the AFL-CIO, which is somewhat more distant from the shop floor.

It was only in the 1970s, with the rise of what is now called “globalization,” that serious thought was given to turning these incipient global unions into what Charles “Chip” Levinson would call a “countervailing power” to the multinational corporations. In Levinson’s view, it was only a matter of time until employers would be compelled to bargain collectively with global union federations directly.

At the core of Levinson’s vision when he headed the international chemical workers federation (now a part of IndustriALL) were “company councils,” which consisted of worker representatives from transnational corporations who would meet to share ideas and experiences, and to plan strategy. The idea was only a limited success as the costs of flying in representatives of unions from all over the world eventually proved to be prohibitive. Levinson’s counterpart in the International Union of Food Workers (IUF), Dan Gallin, was also a strong advocate of powerful, independent global unions to counter the growing power of transnational corporations.

It was not until the advent of the Internet in the 1990s that unions were finally able to overcome the very high costs of communication and transportation and begin to truly challenge corporate power across borders.

The global union federations, including the ITF, IUF and IndustriALL, were quick to embrace the net, and were among the first avid users of email back in the 1980s.

In a recent example of how global unions work in this new environment, we need only look at the reaction to the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh in April 2013 in which more than 1,000 workers, mainly in the garment industry, were killed in a building collapse. IndustriALL was able to campaign online and off with considerable success, eventually forcing most of the global clothing brands to contribute to a relief fund.

In addition to the traditional, formal structures using the new technology, entirely new formations exploited the developing technology in order to realize a very old vision of working-class internationalism.

Foremost among these has been the LabourStart project, founded in 1998. LabourStart was born as a news aggregator, a website where several hundred volunteers regularly post links to news stories about workers and unions in more than 30 languages. They post on average 250 such stories a day, or more than 90,000 every year, making LabourStart the best source of online news for trade unionists.That news is widely syndicated to hundreds of other trade union websites.

For the last decade or more, LabourStart has become known increasingly as the international trade union movement’s campaigns platform, a place where unions can mobilize thousands of activists to challenge corporate power and to defend workers’ rights where they are under attack.

As I write these words, in the summer of 2015, LabourStart is currently working with global unions on a half dozen online campaigns, including a demand for the release of a jailed Iranian teacher trade unionist, a call for a forestry company in Malaysia to stop union busting, and a campaign to pressure the Chinese government to stop targeting pro-labor non-governmental organizations.

LabourStart has also become a network of over 130,000 trade unionists who can be mobilized in a matter of hours in a way that was unimaginable even two decades ago. Using that network, those campaigns have resulted in a number of significant wins, including getting trade unionists released from jail, forcing employers back to the bargaining table, ending lockouts and helping unions win strikes.

But the new technology is a double-edge sword. Companies have access to the same technologies, but with much more money. When we flood their inboxes with messages of protest, we also give them the opportunity to write back to thousands of our supporters, giving their point of view. Unions are not always prepared to effectively answer in these cases.

The activists involved in those campaigns and that news service come together every year or so in “global solidarity conferences” which have been held recently in London, Berlin, Sydney and Istanbul. In 2016, there will be another in Toronto. These conferences are unlike anything else in the international labor movement as they are open to all trade unionists to attend.

Despite the benefits of new technology, global trade union solidarity is still far from a reality. The existing bureaucratic structures of unions sometimes do slow things down and stand in the way. Unions, as everyone who works in them will be aware, are often the most conservative institutions.

Even when unions, and particularly global union federations, get it right, there remain challenges, not least of which is the problem of language. With more than 6,000 spoken languages in the world, and machine translation still not perfect, unions that are serious about global solidarity are obliged to spend ever-increasing sums on interpretation and translation.

Unions are divided over how to relate to the Chinese working class, with some (particularly in the top leadership of the ITUC) urging some kind of constructive engagement with the existing state-controlled “unions” while others hold fast to the traditional Western union stance of working only with independent, genuine unions (which remain illegal in China).

And China’s not the only government that represses trade unions. The ITUC’s annual report on trade union rights around the globe always makes headlines with its chilling statistics regarding how many trade unionists were murdered in the previous year.

And even if union leaders get everything right, there remains the problem of what used to be called “class consciousness”–working people who do not yet fully understand that the things which unite us as a class are far more important than the things that divide us, such as nationality, ethnicity, religion and race.

We see this in the unfortunate call by former British Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown for “British Jobs for British Workers” and the use of “Buy American” as a synonym for “Buy Union” among some trade unionists in the United States.

It’s not about defending our jobs against other workers who are competing for them; it’s about building solidarity across borders and cultures and languages. That means support for migrant workers, solidarity with countries like Greece fighting against austerity, and a strategy toward China that focusses on building genuine independent trade unions from the ground up.

Even with those challenges, I’m convinced that the vision of Marx and Engels, Fimmen and Levinson, will become real, and sooner rather than later. This is true due to the combination of the powerful traditions of trade union solidarity with the very latest technologies that make that solidarity possible.

The workers of the world will unite, and they’ll be using their tablets and smartphones to do it.

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Dr Arieh Yaari, 1918-2005

ariehToday marks the tenth anniversary of the passing of Dr Arieh Yaari — socialist, Zionist and fighter for peace.

I first met Arieh in January 1981 when I arrived at Kibbutz Ein Dor as a new immigrant from America.  Arieh and his wife Regina “adopted” me and my family and over the course of the next 17 years, our friendship grew closer and my respect for the man and his work grew deeper.

It is unlikely that Arieh’s name is familiar to socialists outside of Israel (and probably even inside Israel) and that is unfortunate.  Because Arieh represented the very best of socialist Zionism.

He was both an outstanding Marxist thinker and lived his ideals in practice as a member of a kibbutz.  He fought for socialist values as he attempted to live a life according to those values.

Born in Hungary, raised in the Hashomer Hatzair youth movement there, Arieh came to Palestine in time to miss the German occupation of his country and the Holocaust.  His brother was not so lucky, and wound up playing a leading role in the Jewish resistance to the Nazis, eventually to die at the hands of the Germans.

Arieh came with a small group of Hungarian members of Hashomer Hatzair to create a kibbutz in the lower Galilee, Ein Dor, which was established at its current location in 1948.

He wrote numerous articles; was fluent in more languages than I can remember; and was blessed with a sharp sense of humor.

Arieh’s most important and enduring work was written and published in French and called La defi national.  It appeared in a Hebrew edition thirty years ago.  The book opens with the following sentence:

“Marxism must set for itself a rule – to update itself constantly, in order to serve as a theoretical basis for revolutionary practice.”

His book was an attempt to do precisely that in regards to the national question which Arieh correctly saw as central to the problem facing both the socialist Zionists and the Palestinians.

Arieh was an outspoken opponent of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.  As early as 1967, shortly after the Israeli victory in the Six Day War, he warned against the dangers of occupation and the illegal Jewish settlements that were being built even then — under a Labour Party government.

He could not bring himself to support the party to which he had devoted the first several decades of his life — Mapam, the United Workers Party — when it formed an alliance with the Israel Labour Party.  In his view, the country needed a party of the left that was uncompromising in its opposition to the occupation and its support for the creation of an independent Palestinian state.

The Labour Party was not then, or now, that party.

Arieh returned to the ranks of Mapam only when it finally broke free from Labour in the last 1980s.  He was a strong supporter of Meretz which was the result of Mapam’s merger with other pro-peace factions.

His main political activity over the last several years of his life was as ‘academic director’ of the Tel-Aviv based International Center for Peace in the Middle East.

In discussions with me, I recall him constantly hammering home the idea that first of all, and above all, Israel must reach an agreement with the Palestinians — that without this, there could be no struggle for social justice in Israel.  Solve the national question first — then work on everything else.

I imagine that when most people on the left in Europe and elsewhere picture in their mind an Israeli, they think of someone like Benjamin Netanyahu.  But there was always another kind of Israeli, the kind typified by Arieh Yaari.  A man who devoted his entire life to the struggle for peace and socialism.

May his memory be blessed.

The problem with Bernie Sanders

The Bernie Sanders campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination is probably the most exciting development in US politics since the 1930s. And it’s not a coincidence that both the resurgent left of that decade and the Sanders phenomenon have followed the spectacular economic crashes of 1929 and 2008.


The Sanders campaign is a phenomenon. He’s not only rising rapidly in the polls, posing a clear threat to Hillary Clinton, but he’s raising millions of dollars in small donations and filling arenas with supporters – including in some surprising places, like Phoenix, Arizona.

A self-described democratic socialist and a former member of the Young Peoples Socialist League (YPSL), Sanders was influenced by an early visit to a kibbutz in Israel in the 1960s, and by the model of Scandinavian social democracy. He’s proposed a number of radical reforms that put him far to the left not only of any other mainstream presidential candidate this year, but to the left of anyone in living memory.

There’s not been a campaign like this since Norman Thomas led the Socialist Party to its second-best result ever in 1932, polling just under 900,000 votes. (The Communist Party back then polled only a fraction of the Socialist vote.)

But there’s a problem with Sanders’ call for a “political revolution” in America. It’s not going to happen without organisation. And a presidential election campaign is not an organisation.

In 2008 Hillary Clinton ran for president and built a huge base of supporters, coming close to defeating Obama for the Democratic nomination. She managed to sign up about 2.5 million supporters. Keeping in mind that Clinton has always had money and staff, and always intended to make another try for the presidency (as she’s now doing), the New York Times story last week about her campaign contained this stunning fact: of those 2.5 million names, only 100,000 turned out to be valid email addresses just eight years later.

Hillary Clinton managed to lose 96% of her supporters’ contact details in just eight years. And she’s struggling to raise money from individual small donors, which Sanders is doing exceptionally well.

That’s what happens when you run a presidential campaign every four or eight years. You can’t sustain the organisation, and you lose valuable contact details from people who clearly support you and your ideas.

Even worse than Clinton is the example of John Edwards, who ran an unashamedly social democratic campaign in 2008, far to the left of both Clinton and Obama. Of the hundreds of thousands of people who signed up to support his agenda for change, there is nothing left at all.

Bernie Sanders will understand all of this. On the wall of his office in the US Senate is a framed photo of the legendary American Socialist Eugene V. Debs. Debs, as Sanders knows, founded one organisation after another in his life, starting with railway workers, and continuing with the Industrial Workers of the World and the Socialist Party.


That Party for all its flaws managed to build a nationwide organisation with hundreds of elected officials, thousands of local branches, and hundreds of local and national publications. Though the Party had a “near death experience” in the 1920s, it was still around – if crippled and weak – in time for the Great Depression and its revival.

There is nothing like this today in the US. The last remaining survivors of Debs’ and Thomas’ party helped found the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) more than 40 years ago. But DSA has not thrived, and never achieved its goal of creating a powerful democratic socialist presence in the country.

There needs to be such an organisation, whether it’s a socialist party, or a labour party, or even something like DSA, but with real clout. Without those things, electoral campaigns become meaningless expressions every few years of protest or hope – and not sustained movements for social change.

So what happens now? The most likely thing is that Sanders will wage a good fight, and then Hillary Clinton will capture the Democratic nomination. When that happens, Sanders himself and most of his supporters will support Clinton, because the alternative of someone like Donald Trump winning the presidency is truly terrifying.

But a second Clinton presidency will almost certainly disappoint most of those who voted for it, just as the first did, and some will grow disillusioned and withdraw from politics. This may be particularly true with young people for whom the Sanders campaign is their first taste of politics.

Sanders is calling for a “political revolution”, and for giving the “billionaire class” (as he calls it) a good kicking.

But revolutions take time, and even the lengthy presidential campaign in America is not long enough.

What America needs is a mass party of the left. This can be built inside the Democratic party or outside of it. But it cannot be replaced by a presidential campaign, no matter how charismatic the candidate or how compelling the message.

I doubt very much if anyone in the Sanders campaign is giving any thought to this at all. I doubt it. And that’s the problem with Bernie Sanders.

This article appears in Solidarity.

Organizing the unorganized

No one has any time.  We all have too much to do.

This is true for businessmen; it’s true for students; it’s true for activists like myself.

Is your email inbox overflowing?  Do you have more things to do than hours in the day to do them?

If so, read on.

Personal productivity

An entire industry has grown up in recent years around the idea of personal productivity and people who follow these sorts of things tend to identify with this or that guru, and this or that system.

I first came across this stuff more than a decade ago when I read Stephen R. Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. I thought it had some interesting ideas, but Covey’s underlying religious faith and the faddishness of some of it put me off.  I asked a respected trade unionist in the U.S. what he thought of Covey, who he’d read, and he replied to me, “Stephen Covey is a sage.”

Well then, if I was allowed to read Covey, I could read the others.  The floodgates had opened.

David Allen’s book Getting Things Done was a revelation.  His system — known to adherents as “GTD” — has helped me to understand how we work and how we can work more effectively.

I’ve read many more writers than Covey and Allen, but often I remember only the titles of the books and perhaps one productivity tip.

For example, Eat that Frog made the great point that if you have one task to do which you really don’t want to do, and have been putting off doing, do that first.

I remember also the title — and little else — from a book called Never check email in the morning.  I didn’t agree with the title (I do check my emails first thing in the morning) but  remember little else.

What I’ve learned about personal productivity I’ve mostly learned from reading websites like Lifehacker and various blogs, and of course from trial and error.  Lots of trials, lots of errors.

The traditional to-do list

toodledoFor a very long time, I stuck to the most traditional kind of to-do list, and used Toodledo both on the web and on my smartphone.  It worked well, better than challengers like Todo.txt, Wunderlist or, though I understand the appeal of those.  (And have written about todo.txt in a blog.)

My main problem with Toodledo  and the others is that they are boring, and present a linear list of hundreds of tasks that can be downright depressing to look at.

And as software written by others, they never exactly meet my needs, nor would they meet yours.  It’s a compromise to use them.

Let me give one example: Toodledo offers you five different priorities for any task you add — they range from 0 to 3 (3 is the most important) and even include a negative one (-1), though I have no idea what that means.

But what if you want more than 5 priorities?  What if you want to create your own order of the 10 or more tasks you have facing you this morning?

And Toodledo, like any good to-do list, includes categorization.  So you can tag a task as being, for example, related to a particular project or client.  But here’s the rub: you can only select one tag.  What if a task actually fits in more than one category?

Toodledo is a task list.  It’s not a calendar, though I use it as one because I don’t see the point of keeping separate to-do lists and calendar.

And it’s not great for storing notes (though it has a rudimentary note system) — so I use the fantastic Evernote, as do millions of other people, to store my notes.

Until a short while ago, that was how I worked — with the limited capacity of Toodledo, no calendar to speak of, and Evernote for storing my notes.

The solution: Trello

trellogo-sidebarMeanwhile, I’ve found myself drawn more and more to Trello, an interesting and increasingly popular tool that works on my computer and of course on my phone.

I use Trello as do many others as a personal kanban — a bit of geek-speak that describes a whiteboard with some vertical lines drawn on it, with sticky notes pasted in various places.

Trello has begun to replace Toodledo and Evernote, as I migrate my tasks and notes to it.

In addition to handling my task list and notes, it automatically generates a calendar, a real one, that allows me to quickly answer the question of  “when are you free?”.

So, how does it all work?

First, visit and set up an account.  Trello is free of charge.

Your account consists of boards (my key ones are called Tasks and Notes), and each board contains lists.  Lists contain cards.  Cards are the basic building blocks of Trello, or any personal kanban system.

Got that?  Boards, then lists within boards, then cards.  Trello allows you to create as many boards, lists and cards as you want.

A card is not just short text, as you’d find in a traditional to-do list like Toodledo.  A card offers considerably more, including attachments, and setting a due date and time, which is tightly integrated into the calendar.

You can tag a card, which color-codes it, and you can choose more than one tag.   You can filter the cards so you’ll see only the ones for a specific tag (or multiple tags).

And you prioritize by dragging cards up and down the screen, left and right, rather than the arbitrary priorities you find in most systems.

There are certain things missing — recurring tasks, for one — but with the ease of dragging cards around the screen, you don’t really need this.

Everyone has a different way of implementing Trello and the classic approach is three lists (those vertical columns) labelled To Do, Doing, and Done, or something similar.  (Geeks like to call the middle column WIP — works in progress.)  I work differently.

My personal kanban

kanbanIn my Tasks board, I have about a dozen lists that scroll across from left to right.

The first is called “Next actions” and that’s a phrase from David Allen’s Getting Things Done.  I limit it to 4 or 5 tasks that I need to work on right now.

The next column is for today, and I label these Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and so on.  There are columns for each day of the week.

When I look at my screen (on a computer) I can see 5 or more of these, and get a real sense of what lies ahead.  Instead of one long scrolling list as you’d have with Toodledo, you have five or more in front of you, side by side.

After the seventh day, I have one called “Inbox” (again, a nod to David Allen) where I put stuff that has no other place — yet.

To the right of that is a list of tasks with specific dates on them; I call that column “Later” and include the date as the first few characters (e.g., 31/12).  When the time comes, I drag these over to the seven daily lists.

So instead of seeing a single column on my screen showing 200 tasks (if I scroll), I now see five columns showing about seven tasks each.

More manageable, easier to work with, easier to make changes.

Trello and personal kanban are not for everyone.  Some people keep their to-do lists in their heads; some write them down on paper.

But if you’re using computers and smartphones to track your tasks, I recommend this solution.

P.S. Did I mention that Trello works particularly well for groups?  Probably not …

West Bank: Police question union leader over LabourStart campaign

This article appears in the next issue of International Union Rights, the publication of the International Centre for Trade Union Rights.

In early August 2014, the Workers Advice Center (WAC MAAN) asked LabourStart, the news and campaigning website of the international trade union movement, to launch an online campaign to protest union-busting at a garage in the illegal Jewish settlement of Mishor Adumim in the occupied West Bank.

WAC MAAN is a relatively small union based in Israel which organises workers in both Israel and in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

The Palestinian workers at the Zarfaty Garage in Mishur Adumim had recently joined WAC and gone on strike to defend their rights. Their employer, Moshe (Moris) Zarfaty, had retaliated by fabricating false “security” charges against local union leader Hatem Abu Ziadeh, using the war in Gaza as a cover. As a result of those false charges, the Israeli police revoked Abu Ziadeh’s work permit, which was in effect a dismissal, after working in the garage faithfully for 17 years. Eventually the criminal case against Abu Ziadeh collapsed, and the union continues to fight for his reinstatement.

Meanwhile, the LabourStart campaign resulted in 8,500 email messages being sent in 17 languages from around the world to two Israeli government officials and to Moshe Zarfaty, the owner of the garage.

Though the online campaign was closed after a few months, and despite the decision by an Israeli labour court in April that WAC is in fact the legal union representing the workers in the garage, Zarfaty remained furious that he had been the target of a large global online campaign.

Zarfaty contacted the Israeli police and demanded that they investigate WAC, declaring that the LabourStart campaign “was an offence committed according to Communication Law 621 – an attempt to harass a person using phone company equipment,” according to WAC’s leader Assaf Adiv.

Adiv was summoned to report to the Israeli Police station in Ma’ale Adumim, in the West Bank, on 5 May 2015, where he was closely questioned and denied the charges.

“They were suspicious of my role as chairperson of the union and my involvement in creating the global protest campaign,” he explained.

Two days later, Adiv’s lawyer, Michal Pomerantz, sent a letter to both the legal advisor of the Government and the Police demanding they close the investigation against him. The letter explained the background to the case and the need of the Police to stay clear from labour disputes like the one at the Zarfaty Garage.

Less than a week later, they had an answer from the Police.

Shaul Gordon, the legal advisor to the Israeli Police, explained that while the complaint by Zarfaty was treated as an ordinary complaint, the police did not pay proper attention to the fact that this was part of an industrial dispute.

He admitted that it was wrong of the police to have summoned Adiv for investigation. And he added: “I made it clear to the responsible people in the Police region of the West Bank that the policy of the Police in such circumstances when you have a labour dispute is to deal with it with the utmost carefulness, especially as in some cases one side in such disputes tries to mobilize the Police to its side in order to put pressure on the other side.”

He indicated that the police would be making no further enquiries.

“It was simply a false complaint by the Garage managers as a tactic in a long running industrial dispute,” Adiv said.

“The police investigation of WAC MAAN’s leader should be seen as a very dangerous precedent for freedom of association in Israel.

“WAC-MAAN made it clear that it is not going to retreat or give up the right to organise ALL workers, including Palestinian workers who are employed in the Settlements.

“We plan to continue with our mission to defend all workers regardless of their national or religious affiliation or the colour of their skin.”

Adiv concluded: “WAC MAAN drew encouragement from its ability first to force upon the police to cancel the case against the leader of the workers Hatem Abu Ziadeh, and then to cancel the complaint against Adiv as a reflection of its growing influence and the possibility to push forward our drive to organize workers for their rights including Palestinian workers in the settlements.”

Bernie Sanders and Michael Harrington: A second chance?

My first article ever for Salon.  That’s my original title, and this is how my version of it opened:

Current speculation about a possible Bernie Sanders challenge to Hillary Clinton in 2016 is not the first time a prominent socialist has considered a bid for the Democratic nomination.

It reminds me of a time nearly four decades ago when I was a young socialist in New York. It was the summer of 1978, and liberal Democrats had grown increasingly disillusioned with the Carter presidency.

Carter was never going to be our favorite candidate. On the eve of the 1976 elections, Michael Harrington, the leader of the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC) had called on Leftists to vote for Carter “without illusions”. We expected very little and that’s exactly what we got.

Read the full article here.

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Shock victory for the Left as Tories ousted

Tomorrow is election day here in Britain, and that headline is unlikely to grace the front page of any of our newspapers on the morning after.

But it’s a real headline and it describes what happened yesterday in the Canadian province of Alberta.

The New Democratic Party (NDP), which is a sister party to the British Labour Party and a member party of the Socialist International, just won a historic victory.  The word “historic” is tossed around quite a bit lately, but let me explain by anecdote.

The first and only time I ever visited Alberta was in early 1977.  I arrived in Edmonton planning to spend a couple of days there.  As one does, I went to visit the local NDP, which was a small, sleepy office with one or two people hanging around.

The Provincial Secretary, Ray Martin, had time on his hands and though my visit was unannounced, he was happy to talk me through Alberta politics.  He explained that as the party would be holding its provincial convention in a couple of weeks, I should stick around.  And while in Edmonton, I should check the opening of the provincial parliament, known as the Legislative Assembly.  So I did.

I attended the colourful opening of parliament, and heard the speeches by the conservative government, which were followed by a speech by the lone dissenter, the only NDP member of Alberta’s parliament, Grant Notley.   I met Notley later at the provincial NDP convention, where I delivered greetings from our little group south of the border, the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee.  And then I left.

Notley tragically died in a plane crash seven years later.  The party he left behind was stronger, and picked up 16 seats (up from just two) in the election that year.  The leader was Ray Martin, who I’d chatted with just a few years earlier.  It was to be the NDP’s high point, never matched again in what has long been considered Canada’s most right-wing province.

Now fast forward to May 2015.

Yesterday, Notley’s daughter Rachel, who would have been 13 when I visited Edmonton, led the NDP to a landslide victory in the provincial elections.  The party won 55 seats, and the ruling Tories, just 11, in the 87 seat legislature.  

In Canada’s most right-wing province, the democratic socialists are now in power.

So, yes, pigs fly, miracles happen — and one should never, ever give up.

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Why Israel is losing the battle in the world’s trade unions

Text of my presentation at Limmud, University of Warwick, 29 December 2014

My name is Eric Lee and I’m speaking to you tonight on behalf of TULIP – Trade Unions Linking Israel and Palestine.

TULIP was founded about 5 years ago and in its founding statement, signed by three very prominent trade union leaders in the UK, the USA and Australia, we said:

“At the moment, the opponents of a two-state solution are on the offensive, working hard to promote their destructive agenda of boycotts and sanctions targetting Israel. It’s time for trade unionists in all countries to go on the offensive ourselves, to challenge the apologists for Hamas and Hizbollah in the labour movement.”

To learn more about TULIP I strongly recommend you visit our website – – and join our mailing list there.

In tonight’s talk, I want to discuss three things –

  • What is happening in the world’s trade unions with regard to Israel
  • Why I think this is happening
  • And finally, what we can do to reverse this trend

Continue reading

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Combatting human trafficking – without the unions?

A version of this article appears today on Equal Times, a global news, opinion and campaign website about work, politics, the economy, development and the environment which is supported by the 175 million-member International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).

Sherlock Holmes once pointed out “the curious incident of the dog in the night-time” to a police officer. The officer replied that “the dog did nothing in the night-time.” To which Holmes famously responded, “That was the curious incident.”

The “curious incident” at a major international conference on human trafficking held in Vienna earlier this month concerns the international trade union movement. Those attending the conference may reply, “but there were no unions in the room”. And that is curious.

The conference was sponsored by the “Alliance Against Trafficking in Persons” which was set up by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) some years ago. While the OSCE is a group of 57 countries, mainly in Europe, the Alliance is described as a “broad voluntary platform of over 30 members including international and non-governmental organizations”. To the organizers of the event, unions are apparently not an important part of the fight to end human trafficking.

The conference opened in one of the grand halls of the Vienna Hofburg and began with speakers congratulating the OSCE on its decision to appoint a “special representative and co-ordinator for combating trafficking in human beings”. That co-ordinator is Madina Jarbussynova, a veteran diplomat from Kazakhstan who (according to the OSCE) is strong promoter of human rights. The same cannot be said of her government, which still has questions to answer about the December 2011 massacre of striking oil workers in Zhanaozen.

The opening session included other prominent speakers whose record, or the record of the governments they represented, were not ideal on the subject of human rights. Vladimir Garkun from Belarus spoke on the opening panel, representing a government widely described as the “last dictatorship in Europe” with a notorious record on human and workers’ rights.

And one of the first participants to intervene in debates was the representative of the government of Uzbekistan, who rattled off a list of laws his country has adopted to fight human trafficking. According to the OSCE’s own report (more on this later), the ratification in 2008 by Uzbekistan of ILO conventions banning trafficking had little effect. “A report in 2010,” the OSCE states, “estimated that forced child labour accounted for over half the country’s cotton harvest.”

The tone of many of the early speeches was self-congratulatory. One could not help but wonder why a conference was needed at all, as organizations like the OSCE had not only adopted an “Action Plan” in 2000 to combat human trafficking, but had even passed an “Addendum” in 2013. (Did anyone outside of the hall even know this?)

The fact that this was the 14th conference of the Alliance hints at the fact that combatting human trafficking has become a sort of cottage industry, with a wide range of players, many of them quite sincere, producing reports and holding conferences.

But was any of this helping put an end to modern slavery, to the scourge of human trafficking?

Not according to William Lacy Swing, the 80-year-old Director General of the International Organization for Migration. Swing, a veteran US diplomat, made a forceful speech that raised serious issues about the effectiveness of the international response to trafficking. “We have hardly made a dent in solving the problem,” he said.

Swing also raised the question of Europe becoming the most dangerous destination in the world for migrant workers, some of them trafficked, and criticized the recent European decision to reduce efforts to rescue migrants at sea. (This was another issue few participants were keen to discuss.)

It was not until the late afternoon on the first day that a panel was held which included speakers who were not diplomats, who did not represent states, and who could say interesting things about the subject of human trafficking.

Igor Kovalchuk from the Seafarers Trade Union of the Russian Federation was on the panel. Kovalchuk spoke about some successes his union had in Russian courts, and about their good relationship with government ministries being a key to their work. He spoke proudly about his union’s “interactive website” and print publication, and that was it. He was the only spokesperson for the international labour movement.

Fortunately, three of the other speakers on the panel did introduce unions into the equation — though none of them were there representing unions.

One was John Morrison of the London-based Institute for Human Rights and Businesses. Morrison mentioned unions as partners with business in the fight to bring an end to human trafficking, though inevitably his focus was on what business could do.

A second was Reverend Noelle Damico from the USA, who spoke about the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which though not technically a trade union has had some success in putting an end to human slavery in Florida’s tomato farms.

The third — the one who most explicitly spoke about the key role trade unions can play in the fight against modern slavery — was Cindy Berman, from the Ethical Trading Initiative in the UK. ETI is a coalition representing business, NGOs and trade unions — where unions are not simply part of the NGO component. Her message could not have been clearer:

“Unionised workers are unlikely to be trafficked workers. . . . Governments can play a vital role through laws and policies that enable workers to have the right to organize and that they can claim these rights in practice. . . . Nothing is as effective as having organized workers that are democratically represented to negotiate their own terms and conditions of work.”

That panel was chaired by Beate Andrees, from the ILO’s Special Action Programme to Combat Forced Labour, and she emphasized the importance of the ILO conventions as a legal basis for the fight against slavery.

One tangible thing that did come out of the conference was a 100 page report entitled “Ending exploitation” published by the OSCE. Though the report’s subtitle references the role of businesses and states, it does include two pages on “initiatives by trade unions or workers’ organizations” including the Italian national trade union center CGIL and the International Transport Workers Federation. It is worth reading (

The conference ended with Madina Jarbussynova saying that “we can and must move from policy to practice in combating human trafficking.” This is an odd observation fourteen years after the OSCE adopted its “Action Plan” and during the course of its 14th conference on the subject.

Maybe next time they might consider bringing unions to the table. We may have something to add to the conversation.

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