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In Defense of the Histadrut: A Response to Gary Spedding

Prof. Alan Johnson
By Alan Johnson

Prof. Alan Johnson is the editor of Fathom: For a Deeper Understanding of Israel and the Region, and is the author of The New Histadrut: Peace, Social Justice and the Israeli Trade Unions

“Quite simply, Histadrut is not a progressive force inside Israel today. Through boycotting, the international community sends a critical message [about] Histadrut’s unwillingness to challenge right-wing anti-Palestinian policies held by Israel’s government.”  –Gary Spedding, Left Foot Forward, 3 July 2013

Every last thing about Gary Spedding’s argument in favour of boycotting Histadrut, Israel’s free and democratic Israeli trade union movement, is wrong.  Speeding does not so much put a left foot forward as trip over his own feet.

It is wrong to claim the Histadrut is not a progressive force in Israel today

It is the Israeli TUC. It leads the fight for workers’ rights and job security in Israel. It unites over 700,000 union members in one organisation regardless of religion, race or gender and has organised Arab workers with full membership since 1959 and the super-exploited migrant workers since 2009.

It supported Israel’s 2011 mass street protests for social justice and in 2012 organised a successful four-day General Strike in solidarity with Israel’s most vulnerable contract workers.

It is wrong to say the Histadrut does not challenge the Israeli government

It  supports a negotiated two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Histadrut has called on the Israeli government ‘to make concessions and take courageous and concrete steps towards attaining peace.

More importantly, it is engaged in making a reality of two-states. It signed a landmark agreement with the Palestinian national trade union centre, the Palestine General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU) in 2008 under the auspices of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). That agreement was hailed by the TUC and the International Labour Organisation.

When Unison sent a delegation to Israel and the Territories in 2010 it reported that “The PGFTU in particular said that UNISON should maintain links with the Histadrut so that we could specifically put pressure on them to take a more vocal public stance against the occupation and the settlements. [The other independent Israeli pro-labour organisations] Kav laOved, Koach laOvdim and WAC/Ma’an all felt that international trade union influence on the Histadrut was essential.” [Yes, the Unison leadership was unable to carry its own report at conference, but that does not alter one jot what the Israeli and Palestinian trade unionists told the delegation.]

However, even if the Histadrut didn’t challenge the government, it would still be wrong to think this a good reason to boycott the Histadrut

Free and democratic trade unions do not boycott other free and democratic trade unions because they are not left-wing enough. That way madness lies; it is not how we do things in the international labour movement. We do not punish trade unions for the policies of their governments. Even if unions support reactionary government policies – as most American trade unions did during the Vietnam war – we do not boycott them!

As Michael Leahy, general secretary of Community Union, wrote in the preface to the pamphlet ‘The New Histadrut: Peace, Social Justice and the Israeli Trade Unions’ (2012): “Breaking links with the Israeli trade union movement would be a radical departure from the best internationalist traditions of our movement, in favour of a new kind of gesture politics. Progressive voices in the British trade union movement have traditionally refused to boycott other free trade unions because of what their governments do. We have not gone in for gesture politics. We have preferred engagement, worker-to-worker links, practical solidarity and, yes, a critical dialogue. Those traditions have served us well. We should stick to them.”

Oh, and when Spedding says “the Histadrut fails to represent [Palestinian Arabs], especially in the occupied Territories” he trips over his own feet one more time. In fact, The Histadrut does not organise Palestinian workers in the West Bank by agreement between the two federations.

Nonetheless, in October 2007 the Histadrut’s campaign to apply Israeli labor laws to Palestinian workers who work in the settlements was successful. As a direct result of the Histadrut petition to the Courts, Israeli employers in West Bank settlements must now provide improved work benefits according to (much better) Israeli, rather than Jordanian law.

Former TUC general secretary Brendan Barber has praised the two federations for “carving a path that political leaders could now follow”. Spedding’s boycott delusion would make that impossible. Guy Ryder, the ITUC general secretary said Israeli-Palestinian trade union co-operation has an important “contribution to make in promoting peace and mutual understanding in the Middle East.” Spedding’s boycott would send all that into reverse.  That’s why not one Global Federation or national centre supports breaking links with the Histadrut. Not one. And nor does the ITUC.

The alternative to Spedding’s boycott is critical engagement

We can restart the trilateral delegations of unionists from Israel, Palestine and the UK, build concrete links with both the Histadrut and the PGFTU (exchanges, branch twinning, awareness-raising and financial support to trade unions in Israel and Palestine is the real way forward. We can learn from the model of the FBU-Histadrut-PGFTU cooperation. We can support all steps, however small, to unite Israeli and Palestinian workers. And we can support a just settlement based on mutual respect and acknowledgement of national rights. To that end, we should review the TUC’s relationship with the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) and consider supporting progressive organisations such as One Voice.

Why? Because the TUC supports the two-state solution: two states for two peoples, a secure Israel living in peace alongside a viable Palestine. The PSC does not. One Voice does.

The internationalist traditions of the British trade union movement have traditionally been all about engagement, building bridges, forging worker-to-worker links, delivering practical solidarity, and comradely criticism when it is due. To break links with the Histadrut would be a giant step towards a different kind of ‘internationalism’  – alien to the British trade unions, demonising one party, glamorising the other, stoking divisions on the ground, and isolating the TUC from the constructive work of its global partners and the ITUC.

The TUC and ITUC have worked for over forty years to build bridges between the Histadrut and the PGFTU. Those efforts bore fruit in 2008, with a landmark agreement between the two federations. We should not let sectarians and political activists in the West ruin all that work.

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