This article was submitted to Working In These Times on 30 May in response to an article they had published. They have not responded, nor published this, nor even acknowledged receipt of the article despite a reminder. And this after being invited to write for them by their associate editor. Maybe they weren’t interested in this sort of thing. I wonder why.
Michelle Chen’s brief article (“Labor in Palestine: The Work of Resistance Gets a New Push”, Working In These Times, May 25, 2011) tells only half of a complicated story.
The title of the story gives this away. The term “resistance” to describe the Palestinian people’s struggle for self-determination is one that has been adopted by Hamas. Their narrative is a simple one, black and white, good guys versus bad guys.
But the Middle East is not as simple as all that.
Chen notes in passing the International Trade Union Confederation, an organization that will not be familiar to most readers of In These Times. The ITUC is the umbrella organization for the world’s trade unions. It represents 175 million workers in trade unions in 151 countries — including national trade union centers in both Israel and Palestine.
In 2010, the ITUC held its world congress in Vancouver. A resolution expressing full support for the Palestinian “resistance”, calling for boycotts and sanctions targetting the Jewish state, was on the table. The resolution was proposed by the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), which understandably carries a strong moral force in the labor movement. When COSATU says that Israel is worse than apartheid, you’d expect the world’s trade unions to listen.
But that’s not what happened in Vancouver. Instead, the ITUC adopted a resolution supporting a two-state solution. The COSATU resolution was buried.
The ITUC went further: it elected the leader of Israel’s Histadrut, Ofer Eini, as one of its vice presidents and elevated him to all its leading bodies.
These are hardly the actions of a trade union movement which has bought into the Hamas narrative.
Reading Chen’s article, you’d think that the Histadrut was this absolutely awful “Zionist” organization, and yet it is very respected in the international labor movement.
Part of the reason for that respect is that it includes tens of thousands of Israeli Arab members — who often play a leading role in the unions.
Recently, a delegation visited Israel and Palestine from the British public sector union UNISON. UNISON has supported the campaign of boycotts and sanctions against Israel, and its delegates went over to talk with Palestinian trade unions to ask if the union should sever its ties with the Israeli trade union center.
To their surprise, every Palestinian trade unionist they spoke to told them absolutely not to.
The Palestinian unions have had a relationship with the Histadrut going back to the mid-1990s. Today, if a Palestinian worker gets a job in Israel, or on a West Bank Jewish settlement, he or she will pay union dues to the Histadrut, which represents them on the job. But the Histadrut under a decade-old agreement refunds half of those dues to the PGFTU. This in turn is a major source of income for the Palestinian trade union movement.
It would be like American trade unions collecting membership dues for Mexican workers in the USA who they represent, and then paying half the dues collected back to unions in Mexico. There is probably no precedent for this anywhere in the world.
Articles about Palestinian support for the campaign of boycotts, divestments and sanctions targetting Israel always make interesting reading — but one has to know what to look out for. While some labor activists in Palestine do indeed support BDS, the official policy of the PGFTU has always been to support only a boycott of goods produced in the Jewish settlements in the West Bank. And even there, the PGFTU has publicly campaigned against the Abbas government’s threat to punish Palestinians who work in those settlements.
If this all sounds a bit complicated, it is. But some things should be pretty clear to trade union activists.
Palestinian workers don’t need simplistic slogans about boycotting Israel or its trade unions.
Instead, they need genuine solidarity.