Trade unions in the Middle East: Opening remarks at the Svensson Prize panel

Last week the International Trade Union Confederation released its annual Global Rights Index. The Index reviews the state of workers rights in 141 countries. “The Middle East and North Africa,” it reported, “were again the worst region for working people.”

In the section on Libya, the ITUC reports that “an attempt was made on the life of Nermin Al-Sharif, head of the Libyan Dockers’ and Seafarers’ Union.” Nermin “was at the wheel of a car on the outskirts of Benghazi when the occupants of two vehicles began pursuing her and shooting at her. Hit by a bullet, the trade unionist was unable to avoid crashing. She had to be hospitalised. This is the second attempt to murder Nermin Al-Sharif. Like many other human rights activists, she was targeted by fanatics.”

Referring to Bahrain, the ITUC reports on “the guilty verdict issued against the” leaders of the teachers union Mahdi Abu Dheeb and Jalila al-Salman “for allegedly attempting to overthrow the ruling system by force and inciting hatred of the regime.” Jalila was released in 2012, while Mahdi remained in prison to serve out his sentence and has only recently been freed. According to the ITUC report, both Mahdi and Jalila were tortured in detention.

And in the section on Egypt, the ITUC discusses the Centre for Trade Unions and Workers’ Services, which denounced a renewed attempt to muzzle independent trade unions. The CTUWS and its leader Kamal Abbas have long been targetted by the regime – and its predecessors – for their unshakeable commitment to independent trade unionism.

LabourStart has been involved in all three countries, launching global online campaigns in support of these brave individuals and their unions.

In 2012, working together with the ITUC, we campaigned demanding that the Egyptian government drop the charges against Kamal Abbas, who was accused of “insulting a public officer”. Over 7,000 trade unionists around the world supported that campaign.

That same year, our campaign calling on the Bahrain government to free Mahdi and Jalila got the support of more than 11,000 union members, and we hope that this contributed to the decision by the government to free Jalila.

And in November 2015, working together with the International Transport Workers Federation, we launched a campaign demanding justice for Nermin and calling on the Libyan government to take steps to protect the lives of trade unionists and human rights defenders.

All three campaigns are bound up with the story of the “Arab Spring” which began in 2011.

The revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and elsewhere have had mixed results. We are all thrilled that our brothers and sisters in the Tunisian trade union movement UGTT shared the Nobel Peace Prize last year. The success of the democratic revolution in Tunisia is due in no small part to the trade union movement there.

I have no doubt that in the coming months and years we will see the ideals of the Arab Spring come to life again in Egypt, Bahrain and Libya — and that the independent trade unions in those countries will play central roles in the battle for democracy. People like Nermin, Mahdi and Kamal, who have been jailed, shot at, harassed and denounced by authoritarian regimes and fanatics, will be free to do their jobs as trade union leaders — and recognized for their heroic efforts in the fight for democracy and social justice.

I am glad that LabourStart, working together with our partners in the international trade union movement, has been able to play a small role in all this.

And I can promise to our brothers and sisters here today, to Nermin, Mahdi and Kamal, that we will stand by your side in the struggles to come.

Thank you.

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The Arthur Svensson International Prize for Trade Union Rights – my speech in Oslo

leif-arthur-eric 020

It is a great honour to be here today and to receive the Arthur Svensson International Prize for Trade Union Rights on behalf of LabourStart. I want to thank the union Industri Energi for awarding the Prize to us this year.

It is truly humbling to read the names of winners in previous years. The people and organisations you have selected represent the very best of the trade union movement, people who are often on the front lines of the fight for democracy and social justice.

In previous years the focus of the prize has been on individuals and unions which have taken great risks and sometimes suffered enormously for the “crime” of defending workers’ rights.

Mahdi Abu Dheeb, who together with Jalila al-Salman, was jailed and tortured by a government which was willing to go to enormous lengths to prevent the spread of the “Arab Spring” to Bahrain.

Napoléon Gómez, the leader of Los Mineros in Mexico, a victim of repression and death threats who is forced to live in exile from his country.

Russian trade union leader Valentin Urusov, jailed on fabricated charges when his real crime was to stand up for workers.

We who campaign in support of people like Mahdi, Napoleon and Valentin here in places like Oslo and London take few personal risks in doing so.

We are unlikely to be jailed and tortured, or shot at or forced into exile.

We live in countries with strong trade union movements, with a democratic tradition where human rights are largely respected.

We are not on the front lines in the way that our brothers and sisters in Bahrain, Mexico or Russia are.

And yet, the role we play in building global solidarity and in particular with our online campaigns, is critical.

LabourStart was founded 18 years ago, a time when few trade unions fully grasped the importance of the internet.

Today, I think that pretty much everyone understands that the Internet has changed completely how we organize, how we campaign, how we fight.

But LabourStart, from the very beginning, this was not just about the technology.

It was about internationalism. About global solidarity. About a world where the differences between social classes are more important than the differences between nations.

In a globalized economy, we made the case a globalized labour movement.

At first, we struggled to be heard.

But over the years, what we offer to the international trade union movement is increasingly understood and valued.

When it comes to campaigning in defense of workers rights we bring two things to the table: a platform and a network.

The platform is the web-based ActNOW system, which is a bespoke system we use to make it easy for trade unionists working in any language to support our campaigns.

The network is at its core a mailing list of just under 137,000 names and addresses of trade unionists who are prepared to support our campaigns. 88,000 of them are on our English list and the other 49,000 on dozens of other lists in all the major and several minor languages.

So how does it work?

Unions come to us with problems and we offer solutions.

For a number of reasons we work mostly with the global union federations and the International Trade Union Confederation. But we also work with national trade union centres, national unions, and in some cases, even local unions and pro-union NGOs.

Those organisations come to us with issues like an employer who has sacked union officials for doing their jobs, or a government which has jailed union leaders, or — in the worst case scenario — cases where trade unionists have lost their lives and the demand is simple justice.

Working together with our union partners, we figure out what the message of the campaign needs to be, who the target of our messages will be, and how we can achieve our goal.

Once this is all agreed upon, we put the campaign online and begin translating it. Typically, a campaign will appear in 15 – 20 languages, all the translations done by volunteers.

Anyone visiting LabourStart’s website will learn about the campaign, and it will appear on many other union websites automatically. We make sure it gets known on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other social networks.

And if that’s all we do, the campaign will be a failure and very few people will know about it.

We have learned over the years that the only effective way to get the word out about these campaigns is email.

Email, that old, low-tech, boring communications tool turns out to be the killer app of online campaigning.

When we launch a campaign targetting a company or government, within minutes of our email message going out, the first few hundred messages of protest will have been delivered.

Within a day, we could be looking at 5,000 or more messages.

Never before in the long history of the international trade union movement have we had a tool like this.

That’s great, you may be thinking, but does it work? Do sacked trade unionists get their jobs back? Do jailed union leaders get released? Is anyone listening to our protests?

The answer is yes, sometimes. Not all the time. There is no guarantee that a campaign will work. But our campaigns succeed often enough that we actually published a short book a couple of years ago called Campaigning Online and Winning where we talked about dozens of successful LabourStart campaigns.

It’s probably time to do an updated version of that book — and to translate it into Norwegian.

And I should say a word about what we mean by winning.

We don’t mean “sending a lot of protest messages”. I don’t care if we send 1,000 messages or 20,000 messages — what matters is only this: did we get the result we were looking for?

There are campaigns we have won with very few messages sent. And campaigns we’ve lost despite having mobilized very large numbers of people.

That doesn’t mean numbers don’t matter. They do. It certainly helps to have more people involved in a campaign.

But other factors play a role as well.

The central one is the role played by people on the ground. We win campaigns when the workers on the ground, the ones we are fighting for and with, show determination and grit.

The courage of so many of the workers we campaign with is truly inspiring. Our role is clearly secondary — it is their heroic struggle that wins the day.

Which brings me here today, speaking to you in Oslo at this wonderful event.

I want to speak about your role, the role of Norwegian trade unionists in the work we do at LabourStart.

More than a decade ago, Espen Loken launched the Norwegian version of LabourStart. It was one of our very first versions in a language other than English and it flourished. We tapped into a couple of things that made it a success.

First of all, Norwegian trade unionists have been using computers and the Internet for a long time. So it was relatively easy, even some years ago, to reach large numbers of workers in this country using the Internet.

And second, we tapped into a long and proud history of international solidarity in the Norwegian labour movement. On one of my visits to Oslo — I think it was my last one — I was invited by one of your unions to speak at a full-day event on international solidarity. It was part of the union’s regular congress. I can’t imagine unions in most countries doing that sort of thing, and giving international work such prominence.

As a result of our work here in Norway, we now have 2,700 trade unionists from your country on our mailing list. Every campaign we do is quickly translated into Norwegian and every mass mailing goes out to those 2,700 people.

I’m tempted to say, thanks very much. If only we had such a large group of committed trade unionists in every country.

And yet — we could do better.

The unions affiliated to the LO claim 900,000 members. YS claims 220,000 members. These are extraordinarily high numbers considering that Norway only has about five million people.

But it also tells me that the potential for LabourStart here is much greater than the 2,700 people we currently talk to and who are involved in our campaigns.

It’s important to remember that only a fraction of the people on our mailing list actually sign up to support each campaign.

Our most successful campaign at the moment in Norway is one demanding justice for the murdered Italian researcher Giulio Regeni, who was killed in Egypt while doing research into independent trade unionism.

That campaign got the support of 185 people in Norway. Which means that over 2,500 Norwegian trade unionists who are on our mailing list have not yet supported the campaign. And another million or so organized workers in Norway, members of trade unions here, have probably never heard of the campaign.

Imagine if our mailing list consisted of, say, 10% of the members of Norwegian unions. The 10% who care the most about international solidarity.

Instead of having 2,700 people as part of our global network, we’d have 110,000. Instead of sending 185 messages of protest to the Egyptian government from here, we’d have sent over 7,500.

Is that overly ambitious?

I don’t think so.

When we started LabourStart back in March, 1998, there was no staff, no network, no resources. It was just an idea.

It grew slowly, year on year, and today we have the capacity to rapidly deliver thousands of messages of protest by email to targetted governments and employers.

But we can do so much more.

Our global solidarity conferences — the most recent ones were in Toronto, Berlin, Sydney and Istanbul — show that we can also work outside of cyberspace.

I think we’ve made great progress, and we’ve won some inspiring victories, but I’m not content and not resting on our laurels.

Looking back at the last 18 years, seeing what’s been achieved and how far we’ve come, my conclusion is a simple one.

This is only the beginning. Now, let’s start the real work.

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For this activist, the battle of Berlin is over

Larry Sanders and Eric Lee at a campaign event in London.
Larry Sanders and Eric Lee at a campaign event in London.

I have just left the Global Convention of Democrats Abroad here in Berlin where I represented Senator Bernie Sanders.

I was not a delegate, or elector, and hold no office in Democrats Abroad. But I was there to ensure that the best possible delegation was elected to represent our political revolution and I’m pleased with the results.

Not only did we manage to get Bernie’s brother Larry Sanders elected to the first position with nearly unanimous support, but we elected a whole team of excellent campaigners and activists. I’m particularly proud of the election of two women, one an old friend (Penny Schantz) and the other who was one of the key volunteers in London for Bernie (Kari Mosleh). I am sorry that of the 211 people who proposed themselves to be Sanders delegates from Democrats Abroad, only 9 will be going to Philadelphia in July to represent our campaign.

Among those 202 disappointed people I now have to count myself. This morning I was defeated in voting to be an alternate.

I won’t go into all the gory detail of what happened, except to say this.

Inside the Sanders Presidential Preference Group which I attended, I saw candidates rise to make their case, talking about themselves, or what they did for the campaign, or their political vision. I did not see people rising to attack other candidates, to question their integrity or make accusations against them.

Except in one case.

Over the course of the last several days, I was repeatedly accused, publicly and in private conversations, from the floor and in the corridors, of the worst possible crime.

That crime was denying the existing leadership of Democrats Abroad, meaning the people who gathered together in Berlin this week, the right to choose the 9 people who would go to represent the 24,000 people who voted for Bernie Sanders in the Global Presidential Primary.

In the Delegate Selection Plan drafted by Democrats Abroad, campaigns are given the right to review the lists of self-nominated candidates, and to submit a shortlist. The campaign is obligated to submit at least two names for every open position so that in the end, the leaders of Democrats Abroad still get a say in the matter.

Instead of submitting the minimum requirement of 18 names, we submitted 34. It goes without saying that many people were disappointed not to be included on that list.

Anticipating that, I wrote to everyone who had submitted their names, explaining what we had done and why.

I’m pleased to say that I received many emails thanking me for my transparency and fairness. I did not hear a single complaint from the self-nominated candidates who were excluded from the shortlist.

That shortlist met the requirement for gender balance, and 60% of the names on it met the affirmative action criteria as well. It included young and old people, Democrats Abroad veterans and people who have never been active in the organization.

Our idea was to ensure that some of the latter group, newcomers who the existing leaders of Democrats Abroad would not know, would go as delegates to Philadelphia. Their chances were increased because of the shortlist.

And as Larry Sanders just told the participants in the convention this morning, that is what is normally done in political organizations, and is particularly needed by insurgent campaigns like ours.

Unfortunately, not everyone in Democrats Abroad shared that view, and some began spreading rumors which had no basis in fact, and which served to cast the campaign in general and me in particular in the worst possible light.

Those attacks began well before we gathered in Berlin and picked up steam over the last few days despite our best efforts to clear the air.

They reached a peak this morning when the time came for the small number of electors who showed up for an early morning session to vote in the final round for an alternate.

I was given an opportunity for speak for one minute, and used it to say what I’d done for the campaign.

The winning candidate also had a minute and used all of it to denounce me for being involved in the creation of a shortlist of candidates.

And in the midst of all this nastiness, several people worked very hard openly and behind the scenes to clear up the rumors and encourage people to vote for me. In particular I want to thank Larry Sanders, Penny Schantz, Travis Mooney, Rob and Sanja Carolina. Your support and friendship have gotten me through a difficult few days.

In the end, the delegation we are sending of Sanders supporters to Philadelphia is a good one and I’m proud to have played a role in ensuring that happened. I’m even more proud of having played a role in mobilizing thousands of people in London and around the world since June 2015, winning a spectacular victory in the Global Presidential Primary in March this year.

I expect to be in Philadelphia for the convention in one capacity or another, and look forward to meeting many of you there.

The old politics may have won a small victory in Berlin this morning. As Bernie Sanders constantly reminds us, it is a rigged system.

But I am confident that we are strong and we are growing, and the political revolution Bernie speaks about is a reality.

The struggle continues.

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The final solution on Sark

This article appears today in the Jewish Chronicle.

One of the most shocking documents on display at Yad Vashem is a typed list prepared by Adolf Eichmann for the Wannsee conference held in January 1942. That meeting sealed the fate of Europe’s Jews, and Eichmann’s research gave a breakdown, country-by-country of the estimated eleven million Jews on the continent. A meticulous bureaucrat, Eichmann didn’t pass over even the smallest Jewish communities, noting the estimated 200 Jews in Albania or the 1,300 in Norway. Every single Jew was noted, each one considered a suitable target for extermination.

Eighteen months earlier, the German army occupied the Channel Islands, the only part of Britain to come under Nazi rule. In Jersey and Guernsey, the German arrested a handful of Jews (whose names and addresses were turned over to them by local authorities) and several of these died in Auschwitz. But the tiny island of Sark, with a population of less than 600, presented a problem. There may have been a single Jew there – or maybe not. The issue preoccupied the German army for several years. Continue reading

Proud to be a Zionist

Mapam campaign poster 1944
Mapam campaign poster 1944

Jeremy Corbyn’s brother recently made headlines by tweeting that “#Zionists cant cope with anyone supporting rights for #Palestine”. That the tweet took place in the context of a heated discussion about how the Labour Party is coping with increasing allegations of anti-Semitism is not the point. The point is that the word “Zionist” has become toxic on the British Left, and I have a problem with this.

On one of the Sunday morning radio shows, Jonathan Freedland was asked about this. He quoted the Israeli author Amos Oz who said that “Zionist” was like a family name. There always needs to be a first name, such as “Religious Zionist” or “Socialist Zionist”. But Freedland himself, when asked, said he’d rather not use the label “Zionist” to describe his own views as it would just cause confusion.

There are really two approaches to dealing with political labels that become toxic. One is to accept reality and abandon them. The other is to be defiant and embrace them. Continue reading

After Wisconsin, can Sanders still win?

This article appears in today’s edition of the Morning Star.

Bernie Sanders’ victory in the Wisconsin Democratic Primary this week is being spun by the mainstream media as “too little, too late”. The consensus among pundits is that Hillary Clinton’s delegate lead is so huge that there is simply no way for the democratic socialist senator from Vermont to catch up.

That has been the case for every single one of Sanders’ recent victories, starting with his wins in Idaho and Utah on 22 March. Those two victories, in two small states, went barely noticed even if they were shocking in their scale. In Idaho, Sanders took 78% of the vote and in Utah he won over 79%. His supporters reacted by donating a staggering amount of money online, making it the third month in a row that Sanders has out-raised Clinton. But the consensus among experts was that he didn’t have a chance. Continue reading

Haufenweise schwarze Schafe

This article appears in this week’s edition of Jungle World.

Die britische Labour Party und ihr neuer Vorsitzender Jeremy Corbyn haben ein Problem mit dem Antisemitismus in den eigenen Reihen. Das wird zwar öffentlich kritisiert, aber ihre politischen Prioritäten liegen anderswo. Continue reading

Trumbo: Stalinists as Victims

Earl Browder, American Communist Party leader.

“Trumbo” is a the latest in a series of Hollywood films that looks back nostalgically at the McCarthy era, a time when the good guys were blacklisted writers accused of membership in the Communist Party, and the bad guys were the US government, studio bosses, and right-wing media.

The first of those films was probably “The Way We Were” (1973) starring Barbra Streisand and Robert Redford. Made only a few years after blacklisting had ended, when the Cold War was still raging, it became a template for future films on the subject. The film takes place over several decades, as Streisand and Redford fall in and out of love. In the opening scenes, Streisand plays the very young Katie, a committed activist, and is initially shown as campus leader of the Young Communist League (YCL). Continue reading

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