Think the BBC’s coverage of Gaza is unbalanced? Check out the Guardian

Three hours after the end of the 72-hour ceasefire, Israeli finally retaliated with air strikes.  Hamas missiles were fired at a range of different target’s in southern parts of Israel.

The BBC headline at the moment reads:

Gaza rockets fired as ceasefire ends
Palestinian militant group Hamas rejects any extension of the three-day Gaza ceasefire, with rockets fired at Israel as the truce ends.

That seems a fair statement of things. But here’s what the Guardian leads with:

Israel orders response to rockets fired from Gaza
A rocket trail over the northern Gaza Strip after the expiration of the 72-hour ceasefire with Israel.
LIVE Israel claims at least 10 rockets were fired by Hamas after temporary truce expired on Friday morning
LATEST
“The Israel Defence Force has confirmed it has renewed strikes on Gaza:”
Gaza ceasefire ends

Now, Hamas has been threatening to break the ceasefire since it began on Tuesday, so it’s hardly a surprise.

From the BBC account, you’d learn that Hamas is responsible for the renewal of violence.

But from the Guardian, you’d think that the Gaza ceasefire ended because the IDF renewed strikes.

Though it does says that “Israel claims at least 10 rockets were fired”.

The use of the word “claims” in this context is deliberate; while the IDF’s decision to bomb Gaza is taken as a fact, the rocket attacks on Israel (which at least the BBC thinks are real) are cited as “Israeli claims”.

It’s this kind of totally unfair, biased and inaccurate reporting that it helping to whip up anti-Israel (and anti-Jewish) hysteria to new levels in Britain — something which, ironically, is the subject of a top Guardian news story today.

Hamas has been defeated – now Israel must seize the opportunity

That headline will seem premature to post people, but any strictly military analysis of what’s happened in the last month confirms Hamas’ defeat.

This was supposed to be a war that would see Tel Aviv go up in flames, and Israeli cities were to be flattened by thousands of Hamas rockets. That didn’t happen. Israel’s “Iron Dome” missile defense system worked exceptionally well.

And though Hamas started the war with its missile attacks, it soon lost the initiative to Israel, which attacked Gaza in force. The result was the destruction of hundreds of missiles, the capture of large numbers of Hamas fighters, and the killing of hundreds more.

Hamas’ “secret weapon” — the vast network of attack tunnels to allow its fighters to enter Israel — has been exposed and largely destroyed.

If this had been any other war, at any other time, the results would be clear to all. Israel’s military has won; Hamas has lost.

But this is war in the age of Twitter — and politics has become the extension of war by other means.

While Israeli forces have routed their Hamas opponents on the ground, in the battlefield of global public opinion, Hamas has the upper hand.

This has happened largely because of Israel’s failure to minimize the number of civilians killed on the Palestinian side.

Israel has made huge efforts to do this, including dropping leaflets from the sky, sending text messages to Palestinian families, and even the practice of hitting buildings that are about to the struck with dud warheads, as a warning. No doubt this has reduced the number of civilian deaths. But it has not been good enough, and that’s not me saying that, it’s President Obama.  And he is right.

There can be no more civilian deaths on either side; this has to stop now.

I believe that a ceasefire will happen, sooner or later, even if all the ceasefires so far have been failures. When that ceasefire does come, its terms will confirm what I have already said.

The latest ceasefire (already broken) saw Hamas back down from all its preconditions, agreeing to quiet in exchange for quiet. It accepted that Israeli forces could remain in place, inside Gaza, during the ceasefire.  It agreed that they could continue to destroy tunnels, if those tunnels were behind Israeli lines.

That was a massive capitulation by Hamas, and evidence of its military weakness.

The question now is, what next? What happens after a ceasefire?

This is where the Israeli leadership needs to show courage, and to take some risks. Because in the immediate aftermath of the eventual ceasefire we’re going to get, we have an historic opportunity to break the deadlock.

Netanyahu and the Israeli right are not going to like this, but this will be the perfect moment for Israel to make some big changes to its policies.

  • Instead of refusing to talk to the Hamas-PLO unity government, Israel should join the USA in welcoming its formation, and welcoming it to peace talks.  Israel should apply an updated version of the old Shemtov-Yariv formula which allowed negotiations with any Palestinians who recognized Israel and repudiated terror.
  • Israel should encourage the Palestinian Authority (PA), possibly with Egyptian help, to immediately take control of security in Gaza and to bring a permanent halt to missile attacks on the Jewish state.
  • Israel and Egypt should end the blockade of Gaza, and together with the PA ensure that the flow of weapons from Iran and elsewhere to Gaza ceases immediately. The same measures that are in place today in the West Bank (where no one speaks of a blockade) should be in place in Gaza as well.
  • Israel should welcome the PA’s application to become full members of the United Nations, and should offer to be the first state in the world to welcome a full Palestinian ambassador to present his credentials to the Israeli President in Jerusalem.
  • Israel should announce that it embraces the principles of the Geneva Accord and welcomes the Arab Peace Initiative, is prepared to give up land for peace, and to close down the settlements.

I admit that it’s hard to imagine Netanyahu and his right-wing allies embracing any of these points. But that doesn’t mean it can’t happen. Netanyahu’s party represents a small fraction of Israeli voters (only 20 of the 120 seats in the Knesset are held by the Likud). Alternative ruling coalitions are possible, with or without new elections.

It is not guaranteed that Netanyahu will continue to benefit from high levels of public support. Just as there are signs in Gaza of ordinary people growing tired of Hamas, most Israelis want peace and quiet too.

Whoever leads Israel needs to show the same courage that its soldiers have always shown, and to take risks for peace. Because the alternative — endless war — cannot be allowed to happen.

Amnesty lost its way long ago

This article appeared today in the Jewish Chronicle.

Imagine Israel without guns or ammunition, without Iron Dome, as helpless before the armed fanatics of Hamas as Jews had been for centuries. Of course we can’t imagine such a thing. But Amnesty International can.

Its response to the current fighting in Gaza is a campaign to “stop the arms, stop the killing” — and Amnesty is concerned about only one side. They write “The death toll is rising as rockets rain down on the citizens of Gaza … nobody is safe from the indiscriminate bombing. Israel says it’s targeting ‘Hamas operatives’ but most of the dead are civilians.”

No mention of Hamas rocket attacks, terrorist infiltrators, attack tunnels, the right of self-defence, nothing. Israel “says” it’s targeting Hamas fighters, but Amnesty thinks Israel is lying.

Amnesty calls “on the UK government to halt the supply of arms to Israel.”

This view has a long history in Amnesty.

Four years ago, I ran as a candidate for the Board of Amnesty’s UK Section, which has a quarter of a million members. Though only a small fraction of them voted in those elections, I placed fifth out of the ten candidates, four of whom were elected. And I ran on platform explicitly critical of Amnesty’s views on Israel.

Amnesty lost its way a long time ago when it turned against Israel. They’re not alone in that view, which is shared by many in the UK and elsewhere. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Amnesty remains a democratic organisation where the members can change policies.

Amnesty won the Nobel Peace Prize for good reason. It does fantastic work in defence of human rights. It should not be allowed to sleepwalk its way into irrelevance with these kinds of stupid and uninformed positions on Israel and Palestine. Amnesty needs a wake-up call now.

How to stop Hamas’s terror-blitz on Israel

The Islamist terror group Hamas cannot conquer Israel; in fact, it can’t even run the Gaza Strip.  Unable to provide anything useful for the Palestinians, it engages in endless and pointless confrontations with Israel.

The local population, cowed by terror, is unable to get rid of these gangsters that rule them.

Israel, though not under existential threat, faces up to 10,000 rockets, hundreds of which have already been fired at it.

Many in Israel and elsewhere have expressed a kind of despair, a “what can you do” attitude.  This was reflected in most media, which point to the seemingly endless nature of the conflict, and the lack of leverage now that the USA seems disengaged, and post-Morsi Egypt without any leverage on the Islamists.

Even a temporary cease-fire, let alone a peace agreement, seems impossible.

But I think this is not entirely the case, and I want to make a few comments on a number of ways out — ways to put an end to Hamas’s rocket terrorism.

1. The IDF.  The common wisdom says that there is no military solution to terrorism.  But this is untrue.  Throughout history, terrorist movements have been crushed by superior military force many times.  Israel has learned from experience that all steps forward in a peace process are conditional upon its own military strength.  Sadat came to Jerusalem and signed the Camp David accord only after the Israeli military inflicted crushing defeats on the Egyptian army in 1967 and again in 1973.  Arafat and the PLO finally embraced a two-state solution and recognized Israel in 1988, in a prelude to Oslo, only after the first Palestinian intifada fizzled out.  Don’t underestimate the effectiveness of military force in ending conflict; it’s an important ingredient in persuading one side (or both) to lay down arms and start talking.

2. The USA.  While Secretary of State John Kerry may have left the Middle East without having made any progress on restarting an Israeli-Palestinian dialogue, it’s not true that the Obama administration doesn’t care.  They do care, as the region seems to be spiralling out of control, and they understand that the US has a strategic interest not only in a strong Israel, but in Hamas’s defeat.  And while the USA may have little or no leverage with the Islamists, it has lots of leverage in the region — including Abbas and the Palestinian Authority.  

3. The Palestinian Authority.  This is the key.   Mahmoud Abbas has called on Israel to show restraint.  What he needs to do is call on Hamas to show restraint.  Abbas needs to make it absolutely clear to Hamas that if it wants to be part of the unity government, the condition for that is stopping the rocket terror.   (One can argue that Abbas has essentially said this in the past, declaring the newly-formed unity government will respect the Oslo accords and is committed to a peaceful resolution of the conflict with Israel based on a two-state solution.)  Abbas is not making this clear, and those who have influence on him (and this includes Israel and the USA) must press him to press his Hamas partners.

4. Iran.  The mullahs in Tehran have in recent weeks become the darlings of the West.  No longer seen as a nuclear-armed Third Reich aiming to obliterate Israel, the Iranians are now seen as partners in nuclear disarmament and, more important, in stabilizing Iraq in face of the Sunni Islamist threat.  In Iraq, Iran, the USA, Israel, and the Kurds are all on the same side in battling the terrorist group now known as Islamic State.  The USA and others can use this de facto alliance, and Iran’s desire to appear to be committed to de-escalation in the region, to get Tehran to place a phone call to Gaza and tell their Hamas clients to back down.

5. The Palestinian people.  The people of Gaza were terrorized into accepting Hamas rule, and have been silent even as their Hamas rulers have brought down utter destruction upon them.  From time to time, when things are relatively quiet, there are signs of unrest, such as the occasional strike by workers.  We know from history that sometimes, wars end when a people decides to get rid of the rulers who caused the wars, as happened across Europe in 1918.  I’m not expecting a Gazan uprising any time soon, but the conditions for a “Palestinian Spring” exist in widespread disillusionment with the corrupt warlords of Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

6. World public opinion.  Being outside the region, one often feels powerless to do anything.  But actually, the world does have leverage — if not directly on the gangsters running the Islamist groups in Gaza, at least on the Palestinian Authority (which is completely dependent on international support and goodwill) and on Iran, which arms and pays for the terrorist gangs in Gaza.  The USA, and to an even larger degree, the countries of the European Union, have real leverage here.  They can pressure Abbas and the Iranians to tell Hamas to back down, and should do so.

Stopping Hamas’s rocket blitz against Israel will not be easy.

But a combination of precision military strikes and diplomatic pressure targetting the Palestinian Authority and Iran will work.

In the long run, the Palestinian people themselves will need to stand up and say to the criminal gang that calls itself Hamas — enough is enough.

That day may be a long way off, but it will happen, and when the Palestinians have had enough, there will be peace. 

Labour needs a new leader – and not one of the usual suspects

This article appeared in Solidarity.


After Labour’s abysmal showing in the Newark by-election, which closely followed on its poor showing in the European elections, it is becoming increasingly clear that the party faces defeat yet again in the 2015 general election. That would mean another five years of Tory rule, something which would be a disaster for working people in this country.

There’s considerable discontent and unease in Labour’s ranks, and disappointment at Ed Miliband’s role as party leader, making the question of who should lead Labour into the election a crucial one. Yet there are very few good suggestions.

Tony Blair seems to want to return to political life, but that’s not going to happen. Gordon Brown already proved himself a completely ineffective campaigner when he lost to Cameron in 2010. Ed’s brother David has wandered off to do good work for the International Rescue Committee. There seems to be no one around to step in and provide leadership at a time when it is sorely needed.

But let’s try to imagine for just a moment what the ideal Labour leader might look like.

First of all, if Labour is to be in touch with the party’s working-class roots, to re-capture those communities from UKIP, Labour should choose someone who shares those roots, who comes out of the working class.

Second, Labour needs to rebuild its links — already quite tenuous — with the trade union movement. The 54 TUC-affiliated unions have nearly six million members, all of them potential voters, and a leader who could appeal to them specifically would do well in attracting many of them back to the party that bears their name. That leader would also need to appeal to the many millions of working people who are not currently in trade unions, and who often do not vote — the people who feel excluded, disengaged and ignored.

Third, Labour needs to understand how deeply disillusioned voters are with the political class. Its next leader shouldn’t come out of the ranks of Labour’s contingent in Westminster. Labour needs a fresh face, someone who’s not been an MP or Minister.

And finally, the time has come — indeed, it is long overdue — for Labour to have a female leader. Nearly 40 years have passed since the Conservatives accepted that a woman could lead a party (albeit with disastrous results for the country). Why has Labour in opposition and in power always been led by those who are “stale, pale and male”, as I once heard them described?

The person who I heard that from more than a decade ago was running the TUC’s innovative experiment in trade union revitalisation — the Organising Academy. Her name was Frances O’Grady and today she’s the first female general secretary of the TUC in its history.

I think she should also be first female leader of the Labour Party, and the sooner the better.

I doubt very much if Frances would want to do this.

And yet she meets all the criteria I mentioned above. She’s a committed trade unionist, on the Left, articulate, experienced and a proven leader.

If anyone could re-energize the Labour Party, she’s the one.

People who can’t bear the thought of David Cameron being re-elected Prime Minister in 2015 should be prepared to take risks, to do what’s not been done before.

That’s why Labour supporters should launch a ‘Draft Frances’ movement today.

 

Life with a Chromebook: The first month

acer-c720About a month ago, my very expensive and much-loved MacBook Air died a sudden and painful death.  The screen fractured, initially displaying some thin vertical lines that I could ignore, and then becoming completely useless.

The “geniuses” at the Apple Store “Genius Bar” told me that it was all my fault and couldn’t possibly be an issue with how the thing is manufactured, and as a result, it wasn’t covered by the warranty and a repair would cost around £380 (US$636).

For that price, I thought, I could pick up a couple of brand new Chromebooks.

So I bought one (an Acer C720) and have been using it for 28 days.

(Meanwhile, the corpse of my brand-new MacBook Air sits on a shelf as I try to decide what to do with it.  Any suggestions welcome.)

There are basically four kinds of laptops you can own these days.  Most people buy Windows laptops.  Those with a bit more money buy Macs.  (A word of warning to them: don’t let your screen fracture.)  The more ambitious configure their laptops to run a variant of GNU Linux.  I’ve done all three over the years.

The fourth kind of laptop is what is properly known as a “thin client”, meaning a laptop with little or no actual software or memory.  It’s essentially a web browser, with screen and keyboard.

Like everyone else, I thought the problem here is what could I do with a thin client — don’t I need a “proper” laptop?

Short answer — no, I don’t.

Now this is not for everyone, but everything I did on the MacBook Air (and on my desktop, which is a Mac Mini) I can do on the Chromebook.

This includes the following:

  • Email: I’ve been using a web-based email system anyway, no need for a local client.  (They all work well here.)
  • Web: Goes without saying.  Limited to Chrome, but I don’t mind.
  • Social networks: Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn all work fine.
  • Photo editing: I’ve only used Pixlr anyway 90% of the time (to crop or shrink images), and never owned Photoshop.
  • File editing and file transfer: I use ShiftEdit — works pretty much as well as using a more conventional text editor and dedicated FTP client.  Certainly useful for when I’m away from the office.
  • Music: I’ve been a Spotify fan for some time now, and don’t keep music on a hard drive anyway.
  • Word processing and spreadsheets: Google Docs is a reasonable substitute for OpenOffice and LibreOffice; I haven’t used Microsoft Office for many years.
  • Evernote: The Chrome app works like a charm.

So what’s missing?  It’s not possible that I can do absolutely everything with a ChromeBook, right?  I mean, it costs one fourth the price of a MacBook Air.

There is one thing: Skype.  It doesn’t work.  But I don’t care — I never use Skype on a laptop anyway.  I use it on my iPod touch, or a phone when I had one.

So what do I miss about my Mac Book Air?

The money I wasted buying it.

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.

Unions and smartphones: Time to get it right

The wrong way, an improvement, and the right way to do responsive design for union websites.
The wrong way, an improvement, and the right way to do responsive design for union websites.

In recent weeks, I’ve gotten a few requests for information about a survey LabourStart did a couple of years ago. It’s odd because we’ve not done anything to publicize this. So I asked one of those who wrote to me where they’d heard about it.

It turned out it was on a website for business people, in an article about how advanced unions were in their use of the net. Author Jessica Miller-Merrell warned companies that “While HR is slow to adopt and understand social media, unions on the other hand are very open to using this online technology.”

I think anyone who has spent time working with unions and new media will smile reading that sentence.

Because even if we’ve managed to get a website for nearly every union, we still lag far behind, and run the risk of disappearing completely from the online world if we don’t catch up.

I’m thinking specifically of the problem known in the IT world as “responsive design”.

What this basically means is that every website should render correctly on every device, regardless of screen size.

There should be no need to scroll horizontally, or squint at tiny letters, or any of the other problems that might come up when trying to view a website on a phone or tablet.

If a union does this right, if its website appears correctly on a smartphone, it may not even need a dedicated app. There are huge advantages to this, as apps need to be written to work on specific operating systems (ones that work on Apple devices won’t work on Android phones) and apps can be expensive to create.

If a union were to embrace responsive design, it would already have what is sometimes called a “web app” — which is essentially a website that works correctly on small screens.

This is important because increasing numbers of people access our movement’s websites on smartphones and tablets.

16% of the visitors to LabourStart last month came on small screen devices, and 19% of the visitors to our online campaigns were on such devices as well.

This is probably because people often visit a website by clicking on a link in an email message.

As anyone who’s been on a bus in the UK in the last few years knows, millions of people now routinely access their email on their phones.

The notion of responsive design for the web was first raised in a groundbreaking article by Ethan Marcotte in May 2010.

I doubt if any trade union communication officers read it then and I doubt if many of them are familiar with Marcotte’s arguments even now.

Here is a nutshell is what he said:

“Rather than tailoring disconnected designs to each of an ever-increasing number of web devices, we can treat them as facets of the same experience. We can design for an optimal viewing experience, but embed standards-based technologies into our designs to make them not only more flexible, but more adaptive to the media that renders them. In short, we need to practice responsive web design.”

So four years after his article, and with many thousands of websites now taking on board his arguments, how do union websites in the UK rate?

Can our members correctly use their union’s website on a smartphone or tablet?

Let’s have a look.

The TUC website gets it right, sort-of. Viewed on a small screen, it correctly displays just one column. Unfortunately, that column is essentially a menu of everything on the site. To see the latest news, which is prominent on the full-screen version, you need to scroll down quite a bit.

The GMB works pretty much like the TUC website, with the same problems.

The RMT to its credit does a better job, showing not a menu, but the main news story on top of the page.

But UNISON gets it all wrong. Imagine if someone printed out the UNISON home page as you’d see it on your desktop PC — and then cuts off the upper left corner, taking about a fifth of the page width. That’s what you’ll see on your phone. Click on the link to News, and you’ll see just the first few words — you need to keep scrolling left and right to see the whole thing.

Look at the websites of Unite, the CWU, PCS, NASUWT and NUT and you see the same thing: a site that just doesn’t work correctly on a small screen device. Do members of these unions not use smartphones and tablets?

Some unions, like UNISON, have invested heavily in apps for smartphones. UNISON’s app, for example, works on Apple’s iOS devices, Android phone and tables, and even on Blackberry phones (which have an absolutely tiny market share these days).

Why invest in expensive apps when a web app can do pretty much the same thing at a fraction of the price?

Why reinvent the wheel when a union’s existing website can be fairly easily adapted using the principles of responsive design?

As our union websites because an increasingly important part of how we communicate with members and with the outside world, it’s essential that we get this right.

Four years after Ethan Marcotte’s call to arms, most unions are still lagging far behind.


This article appears in Solidarity.

Welcoming China’s unions back into the family?

This article appears in the current issue of Solidarity.

At the end of March, the International Labour Organisation’s Bureau for Workers Activities (known as ILO-ACTRAV) and the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) signed a Memorandum of Understanding “to promote Trade unions South-South Cooperation in the Asia- Pacific region”.

The Director-General of the ILO, Guy Ryder, said “we need to find a way which so that the ACFTU can work more closely with other parts of the international trade union movement, sharing common objectives.”

Ryder is a former General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, which has decided to invite the ACFTU to attend its upcoming World Congress in Berlin in May.

These two events illustrate the fact that the trade union leadership in much of the developed world now seems keen on putting the past behind us and welcoming China’s trade unions back into our “global family”.

This is the culmination of efforts going back several years, and the British TUC has played a prominent — indeed, enthusiastic — part in this process.

I think that this is a problem for the trade union movement because the officially sanctioned, legal trade unions in China are not trade unions in the sense that we understand them in a country like the UK.

Historically, the ACFTU differed not one iota from, say, the “All-Union Central Council of Trade Unions” in the USSR. In fact, it was set up based on the Soviet model.

And that model had nothing to do with worker representation, collective bargaining, or class struggle.

In the Soviet model, unions were organs of the Communist Party and the state, designed to enforce workplace discipline and provide some welfare benefits to workers.

I think few would deny that the Chinese unions fit that description perfectly, at least up until a few years ago.

For that reason, for many decades the ACFTU was quite isolated in the international trade union movement. Like trade unions in Cuba, North Korea or Vietnam, it was seen as a “state labour front” — and not a union.

What has changed in the last few decades is that China has embraced the free market. And as a result, there is the sudden re-emergence of class struggle.

Strikes occur every day, all over the country, and they are often allowed to run their course — winning workers improved wages and working conditions.

The Communist Party seems to have decided that it is best to let workers let off steam this way, rather than attempting to suppress every strike and protest.

So strikes are tolerated — but it stops there. The regime does not tolerate, and cannot tolerate, the emergence of truly free and independent trade unions controlled by their members.

The formation of a nationwide Chinese version of “Solidarity” is a nightmare scenario for the ruling Party elite.

In most cases, the strikes taking place are local with very little nationwide coordination. The organisations set up by workers spontaneously tend to fade away fairly quickly.

In some cases, local officials of the ACFTU unions support the workers or even lead them.

But the ACFTU as a whole remains firmly in the grasp of the Communist Party.

Its leader, Li Jianguo, is a member of the Politburo of the Party. His entire political career spanning some 40 years has been as a Party official. He was given the task of the leading the ACFTU in early 2013.

Just to emphasize — Li rose up through the ranks of the Communist Party, not the unions. As a very senior Party leader, he was brought in to take charge of the ACFTU. This is typical of the authoritarian, top-down style of Chinese politics — and trade unionism.

Just before his elevation to the leadership of the Chinese unions, Li faced public accusations of favouritism. He was accused with promoting his nephew to a plum position.

The website of the ACFTU speaks a great deal about how the organisation protects workers:

“The fundamental task of the Chinese trade unions is to carry out the various social functions of the trade unions in line with the guiding principle of reflecting and safeguarding concrete interests of the workers and staff members in a better way while safeguarding the overall interests of the people throughout the whole country, and, united with the broad masses of workers and staff members, strive for the realization of China’s socialist modernization. The major social functions of the Chinese trade unions are as follows: (1) to protect the legitimate interests and democratic rights of the workers and staff members, (2) to mobilize and organize the workers and staff members to take part in the construction and reform and accomplish the tasks in the economic and social development, (3) to represent and organize the workers and staff members to take part in the administration of the State and social affairs and to participate in the democratic management of enterprises, (4) to educate the workers and staff members to constantly improve their ideological and moral qualities and raise their scientific and cultural levels.”

That was quite a mouthful, but the operative phrases emphasize the ACFTU’s role regarding the “overall interests of the people” rather than its own members, and its striving for the country’s “socialist modernization”. It includes in its job description the accomplishing of tasks and taking part in construction and reform — all of this being code for supporting the Communist Party.

The Orwellian language about improving the “ideological and moral qualities” of its members reflect the ACFTU’s origins as a Soviet-style state labour front.

But it may be a bit more complicated than that today.

The authoritative — and fiercely independent — China Labour Bulletin offers a nuanced view of the ACFTU:

“The ACFTU is China’s sole official union. It has traditionally been an adjunct of the Chinese Communist Party and government, serving as a ‘bridge’ between workers and management in state-owned enterprises. With the economic reforms and development of the private economy over the last two decades the ACTFU’s role has been blurred. It has sought to unionize the private sector but thus far has failed to encourage the development of genuinely representative grassroots unions. It has adopted a top-down approach, imposing unions and collective contracts on enterprises without consulting the workers themselves. However CLB believes the ACFTU, especially at the local level, can play a positive role in the future development of grassroots unions.”

An example of that kind of local initiative could be seen earlier this week, as the FT and others reported that China’s “normally reticient official union” has been “involved in at least one of three protests that have erupted at [Walmart] stores slated for closure this month.”

While there may well be local examples of ACFTU bureaucrats taking the workers’ side, no one seriously views people like ACFTU leader Li Jianguo as anything but a Communist Party hack. And a corrupt one at that.

The vast majority of trade unionists in Britain or elsewhere in the developed world know very little about the Chinese trade union movement, and presumably trust their leaders’ decisions to engage with, or not engage with, the ACFTU.

The issue is unlikely to be addressed at a congress of the TUC, or even at the ITUC’s World Congress in Berlin.

And yet it should be — for two reasons.

First of all, because in order to genuinely help Chinese workers, the international trade union movement should fully support real unions, democratically controlled by their members — and this includes first and foremost the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions.

The principle of trade union independence (from both employers and the state) should be defended.

Chinese workers are not helped by pandering to the likes of Li Jianguo and his Communist Party bosses.

And second, by blurring the distinction between state labour fronts and actual trade unions, we lose something of importance.

We lose a sense of who we are, and of what it means to be a trade union.

We don’t need more handshakes and photo-ops in Geneva and Berlin, nor trade unionists flying off on junkets to Beijing to be wined and dined by Communist Party officials.

We need an open and honest discussion of these issues — for the sake of our Chinese brothers and sisters, and for ourselves.