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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

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They shall not pass!


This is the speech I gave today in Trafalgar Square at the demonstration in support of Kobane — part of an international day of action.

Comrades and friends, brothers and sisters, good afternoon.

I have been asked to speak with you today about the support trade unions are showing for the heroic people of Kobane.

We are all inspired by the steadfast resistance shown by the people of Kobane, men and women, working people like ourselves.

We must be clear about our language here: Islamic State is a fascist organization and the fighters in Kobane are on the front lines of the fight against fascism in our time.

They are fighting with great heroism and determination and I am confident that they will win.

This is a fight that the international trade union movement needs to support.

It is our fight too.

erickobaneBut we are not doing enough.

The British and international trade union movements have the moral responsibility to come to the defense of the heroic fighters in Kobane.

In the past, the trade union movement has known what it needs to do.

Eight decades ago, when fascists were besieging Madrid, trade unionists were on the front lines — literally — in the fight. The entire international working class movement, Communists and Socialists alike, were inspired by the slogan “No pasaran!” — “They shall not pass!”

Today it is the responsibility of trade unionists to once again throw our full support behind a people standing up to a fascist onslaught.

It is not enough to issue a press release.

It is not enough to pass a resolution in a trade union branch.

Comrades and friends, brothers and sisters, we must do more.

The TUC must take the lead and mobilize British workers in acts of solidarity, including bringing thousands of them into the streets to rallies like this one.

The International Trade Union Confederation and the global union federations must do the same at global level.

In the 1930s, we were not strong enough and we were unable to stop the fascists from taking Madrid.

That victory for Franco, Hitler and Mussolini must not be repeated today.

Kobane must not be allowed to fall.

They shall not pass! No pasaran!

Two months without a mobile phone

It’s now been two months since I published my blog “Why I’m throwing my mobile phone away“.  I thought this might be a good time for an update.

Since I wrote the article, I have been using my iPod Touch as a phone, mostly using free wifi in my home, office and outdoors, sometimes using a Huawei Mobile Wifi device with a GiffGaff SIM card thrown in.  (This creates a Wifi zone whereever I happen to be.)

I can receive the occasional rare phone call on my incoming Skype number, and text messages (also rare) are received by the Huawei device, and I can view them via a web interface on the iPod Touch.  I can send SMS messages the same way.

The main things I use a smartphone for — checking emails, updating my todo list, checking things like news and weather, reading e-books using the Kindle reader, listening to music on Spotify or iTunes, checking for cinema times in Flixster, syncing my FitBit, etc. — I do without difficulty on the iPod Touch.  I don’t need an iPhone for any of this.

The experiment, so far, has been a success.

So now a word about costs.  Previously I was paying on average £58 a month for all my mobile telecoms costs.

The iPod Touch cost more than I planned on, as I needed to get the 32 GB version for £249 — £50 more than I would have paid for the 16GB version.  Why pay extra?  Not for the extra gigabytes, but for the additional camera, which I learned did not come on the 16 GB version.

I got the Huawei Mobile Wifi device on eBay for £35.50.

So I spent £284.50 on hardware — but sold my old Samsung Galaxy Note for £110.  So the total investment in hardware was just £174.50.

The Skype online number for the occasional incoming phone call costs £3.35 per month.  I may get rid of this as I hardly ever use it, and anyway it’s not a contract.  I can cancel at any time.

To use the Huawei Mobile Wifi (mostly on busses, to check news and emails) I took a GiffGaff SIM card for data only.  This is costing me £5 a month for 500 MB of data.  In addition, I had to do a one-off top-up of £10 to allow me to send and receive SMS messages.

So in addition to the £174.50 for hardware, in the first two months I’ve spent £20 on Giffgaff and £6.70 on Skype.  Assuming I continue with this, over the first two years, my total expenses should be  £388.25 all told.  This is just £16.17 per month.  By year three, this will drop to probably just £5 a month, if I chuck the Skype number.

This is considerably less than I would have paid for any iPhone plan offered by any UK carrier.

For example, Carphone Warehouse is currently promoting the iPhone 5C for £49 plus £23.99 per month.

That offer is for an 8GB model (my iPod Touch is 32 GB) with 500 UK minutes and 500 MB of data (the same amount of data that I’m getting from GiffGaff for £5 per month).  The carrier is EE.  Over 2 years, that would cost £634.76 — more than 63% more than what I am paying now.

It’s a savings of nearly £250 in the first two years.

The savings will grow even more after the first two years.

I’m not missing a “proper” smartphone at all, and while my experience may not be similar to others (I do, for example, have access to wifi at home and at work), surely others are also overpaying for devices that may not be necessary.

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Fighting anti-semitism the old fashioned way: I send an actual letter to Facebook

stampAs I reported a couple of days ago, Facebook is hosting a page that promotes the “blood libel” against Jews in breach of its own Acceptable Use Policy (AUP) and, probably, British and European law.

My attempts to complain using their online system failed.

So today I’m trying something new: I’ve sent them a letter.

By post.

With a stamp on it.

I promise to report back if they respond …

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Facebook promotes the oldest anti-Jewish libel

I learned this morning that Facebook has a page devoted to “Jewish ritual murder” which I found hard to believe — so I checked and found it’s true.

So, as one does, I used Facebook’s complaint procedure to formally report harassment.  After all, I do feel harassed — as a Jew and a human being — by people promoting vile anti-Jewish propaganda.

It took Facebook 32 minutes to respond, which is great.

Good to see that they care about racism and antisemitism and are as keen as I am to … wait a minute … here’s a screenshot of their response:

Screen Shot 2014-02-12 at 10




Just in case you can’t read that, here’s the essence of it:

You reported Jewish ritual murder for harassment.
Status    This page wasn’t removed
Thank you for taking the time to report something that you feel may violate our Community Standards. Reports like yours are an important part of making Facebook a safe and welcoming environment. We reviewed the page you reported for harassment and found it doesn’t violate our Community Standards.

When I went to look at the Facebook “Community Standards” here’s what I found under “Hate Speech”:

Facebook does not permit hate speech, but distinguishes between serious and humorous speech. While we encourage you to challenge ideas, institutions, events, and practices, we do not permit individuals or groups to attack others based on their race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sex, gender, sexual orientation, disability or medical condition.”

So, Facebook, how is a page promoting the oldest anti-Semitic slur, the infamous “blood libel”, not hate speech?


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ახალბედა პროფკავშირული მოძრაობა საქართველოში

My first article to appear in Georgian — on the website of the Georgian Trade Union Confederation (GTUC).

ავტორი: ერიკ ლი

ნოემბერში, ორი დღის მანძილზე, საქართველოს რკინიგზაში დრამა გათამაშდა, რამაც მშრომელთა მოძრაობა საუკეთესო მხრიდან წარმოგვიდგინა.ეს მოხდა იმ პატარა ქვეყანაში, რომელიც შავ ზღვისა და კავკასიის მთებში მდებარეობს.

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My new best friend: todo.txt

As some of you will be aware, I’m an avid user of to-do lists.

Long before such lists were commonplace on the net, I used something we techies call “pen and paper” to keep my lists.

By the late 1990s, I had my first Palm Pilot and still think that the To Do list that came with the device was one of the best thought-out bits of software I’ve ever used.

Ever since then I’ve tried pretty much all the available options and have to say that I liked Toodledo best of all of them, and synced it to my various phones and tablets over the years.

I recently thought I’d give Wunderlist another try as it keeps getting amazing reviews from places like Lifehacker.

But Wunderlist has one fatal flaw.

The default display of tasks is not in the order in which you need to do them.  In other words, if I have 100 tasks, some of them due today, some due next month, the default should be to show the ones due today first, right?

But if I look at all tasks, Wunderlist shows me them grouped by category — so I may very well see non-urgent tasks appearing on top of the page, but urgent ones appearing far further down.

As I use my to-do list as a calendar, I need to be able to see rather quickly if I’m free on a certain date.  With Wunderlist, that’s pretty much impossible, especially if you have a bunch of categories.  (If you keep everything in a single category, it would work.)

So I decided this week to try, once again, an old favorite — todo.txt.

Originally developed by Gina Trapani, who founded Lifehacker, todo.txt is basically a stripped-down, open source system for power users of to do lists.

It’s feature-poor, which is perfect, because you can add the features you want.

And it’s based a simple text file (todo.txt) with a human-readable, easy-to-understand syntax, which you ideally host on Dropbox.

Here’s what a typical task would look like in todo.txt:

Write article about todo.txt

That’s right — that’s all you’d need.  Make a list of those, and you’ve got a working database for todo.txt.

But I’m going to improve it by adding a category, in the case, “Writing”.

Write article about todo.txt +Writing

That’s built-in to the “official” spec for todo.txt.  But it’s also very easy to hack.

For example, the default version that appears on my Android devices doesn’t include a field for the due date (though there is a way to due this using the command line interface).

This would normally be a deal-breaker.

But I can insert a date as the first bit of text in the title, and voila, it sorts by date when you sort alphabetically, which I can leave as the default (unlike Wunderlist).

Here’s how the line would now look:

2013.11.26 Write article about todo.txt +Writing

And within a single date, I’d like to highlight essential tasks without using the existing priority field, which would look like this:

(A) 2013.11.26 Write article about todo.txt +Writing

This is because I don’t want to choose between sorting by priority and sorting by date.

So instead, I put an asterisk just after the date.  That way, the automatic alphabetic sort by title works perfectly.  In other words, this would be one line for a top priority task for me, due today:

2013.11.26 * Write article about todo.txt +Writing

The one thing that would make todo.txt perfect would be if the Android version would include recurring tasks and the due date, but maybe that will happen in the future.

So, sorry Toodledo — you’re not getting a renewal of my $14.99 “Silver” subscription.

And Wunderlist — well you can forget about getting those €45.00 you ask to become a “pro”.

I’m sticking with Gina’s solution because, while not perfect, it’s flexible and it’s free.


JFK fifty years on: What Marxists need to remember

This article was published in Solidarity.

In about a month, the world will remember the assassination of US President John F. Kennedy fifty years ago – on 22 November 1963.

It’s easy to predict how the media will play this – people will talk about where they were when Kennedy was shot, there will be some speculation about what might have been had he lived, the old conspiracy debate will resurface, and there will be lots of film footage of the American Camelot, with the President’s photogenic family once again put on display.

The Left is likely to engage in a bit of myth-busting and no doubt articles will appear about the dark side of Kennedy, his role in starting up the Vietnam war, his ruthless opposition to the Cuban revolution, and his relatively weak commitment to civil rights.

Both accounts will leave something to be desired because the reality is, as always, a bit more complex than that.

While all the negative criticism of the Kennedy administration will be based on fact, one almost needed to be around in 1963 to get why everyone was so upset when he died.

I should qualify that: not everyone was upset. The far-right lunatic fringe in America, including the terrorist Ku Klux Klan, was not upset at all. They considered Kennedy to be a Negro-loving liberal from the north, someone who was “soft” on Castro and who was willing to sign a nuclear test ban treaty that would weaken the “Free World” in its fight with Communism.

But the people who today we’d consider essential for any progressive coalition politics in America – the Blacks, Hispanics, young people, union members – were all deeply affected by the killing.

It wasn’t just the horror of seeing a relatively young man (with an even younger family) cut down brutally in his prime, though that played a role – as it did a generation later when Diana died. There was more to it.

The American folk singer Phil Ochs, who famously trashed mainstream liberalism in some of his songs, had a soft spot for Kennedy. In his song “That Was the President” he writes of the assassination, “it seemed as though a friendless world had lost itself a friend.”

In the liner notes to the album that song appeared on, Ochs wrote that his Marxist friends couldn’t understand why he’d write such a song. And he added – that’s why he couldn’t be a Marxist.

It would be a pity if Marxists fifty years on can’t understand what Phil Ochs could about the tragedy of Kennedy’s death.

The point is not that Kennedy would have stopped the Vietnam war from getting any more serious, or that he would have wound down the Cold War a generation earlier, or that he would eventually have passed the civil rights laws that his successor, Lyndon Johnson, got through.

Oliver Stone and others imagine a different decade, with a second Kennedy administration taking on the Military-Industrial Complex and the white racist Southern politicians, in a way that he hadn’t done in his first term. I don’t think these fantasies help us understand the Kennedy years at all.

Instead, it’s important to remember the context in which Kennedy was elected, the tremendous sense of relief progressive Americans felt at the end of eight years of the Eisenhower-Nixon administration, with the McCarthy era now fading into memory. The March on Washington with Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech took place only weeks before the killing in Dallas. Millions of people thought that, as another folk singer of the time put it, “the times they are a changin’”.

It was a time of enormous hopes, hopes that would be dashed by the end of the decade.

But those hopes were very real in November 1963.

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10. Spring cleaning to make our inboxes manageable

techtipsfortradeunionistsLots of people complain that they get tons of spam, but on closer examination, you learn that what they’re getting are messages from mailing lists they’ve signed up to, or from social networks they’ve joined, or from companies they’re purchased things from.

That’s not, properly speaking, spam.

But it is a headache and there is no simple cure.

Here’s what I do:

Once a year, usually in summer, I set myself the task of doing a cleanup of the lists I’m on. My goal this year was to get off 100 lists and I did manage to reach that.

Every day during the summer, when I look at my inbox, I try to pick one message that has come in which I really don’t need to receive. It can be an advertisement from a company I have bought something from, for example. Usually, if it’s a legitimate company, the message itself will contain a link to get off their mailing list.

The same is true of the messages one gets from Facebook, LinkedIn, and so on. There’s often a link on the email message itself telling you how to stop getting more of these.

Sometimes you do need to go the website that’s sending you such messages and change the instructions there.

Often it’s mailing lists for organizations that may well be worthy, but you don’t actually ever read their messages or act on their appeals. Unsubscribe from these. No one will take personal offense if you. (Unless of course it’s LabourStart — don’t ever unsubscribe from that.)

Sometimes, rarely, it’s just someone, an individual perhaps, who is keen to send on messages to people who haven’t really asked to read them. In those cases, a polite request to be taken off the mailing list is all that is needed.

Once I’ve done this “spring cleaning”, and I combine that effort with blacklisting the spammers and using a strong spam filter, I find that my inbox becomes manageable — until next summer, when I start all over again …