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Making the Progressive Case for Israel

By Michael Gugher and Steve Scott

This first appeared in a series of essays compiled by Labour Friends of Israel and edited by Ben Garratt in memory of David Cairns, former Chair of LFI, and appears with permission.

In many ways, trade unions in the UK can look with some envy at the record of trade unionism in Israel. From making a fundamental contribution to the establishment of Israel and its modern, diverse society and economy, to its effectiveness at representing working people – including Arab Israelis – Israeli trade unionism is a good example of what can be achieved by joining together.

The Histadrut (Israeli TUC) was founded in 1920 in pre-state Palestine to mobilise and establish a Jewish workers’ society and a genuine movement for secular socialist Zionism. Its drive and organisational effectiveness was so strong that by 1948, when the State of Israel was established, nearly 75 per cent of the entire national workforce had joined.

In 1948, the links between what the Histadrut stood for and Jewish society, values and aspirations was so close that it was the fatherly figure of the General Secretary of the Histadrut, David Ben-Gurion, who was elected as Israel’s first Prime Minister.

The Histadrut remains influential today, evident by its role in the recent campaigns sparked by the high cost of living, the lack of affordable housing and the squeeze on wages. But like trade unions in other countries, the Histadrut has had to deal with changes to the economy, including more de-regulation and privatisation, and the great challenges of how to organise and recruit in new sectors whilst coping with a declining membership in areas in which they were previously strong.

But the effectiveness of any organization rests in its ability to adapt and change to new circumstances and in recent years the Histadrut has managed to push through notable trade union recognition agreements and benefits in the workplace. This has included: a 20 percent wage rise for social workers last year; improved employment rights for all teachers and lecturers; worker insurance up to the national average monthly wage; a five percent wage rise for all public sector workers; and pension cover for the entire private sector workforce. The Histadrut has also been effective in representing local workers in small businesses, ensuring companies fully comply with Israel’s minimum wage laws, and negotiating innovative and progressive agreements, such as: rights for agency workers, computer privacy for employees and tribunals for sexual harassment complaints.

And as well as fighting for workers rights, Israeli trade unions have played an important role in forging relations with their Palestinian counterparts, an essential component of any peaceful shared future for Israelis and Palestinians. Since the Olso Accords, the Histadrut and the Palestine General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU) have been working together and, in August 2008, they signed a landmark agreement to base future relations on negotiation, dialogue and join-initiatives to promote “fraternity and co-existence.”

Despite the difficulties of recent years, this relationship remains strong and, crucially, both sides are still talking and working together. An example of this came in 2010 when the two sides worked together under the auspices of the International Trade Union Congress (ITUC) and agreed to reject boycotts and to say that co-operation and joint initiatives between the two sides was the best way to aid peace.

Yet, regardless of this positive work, relations between Israeli trade unions and their international counterparts are regrettably mixed. Efforts by the international trade union community to help the PGFTU are to be commended, however some efforts by certain trade unions clearly aim to divide the two sides rather than bring them together. Trade unions around the world, with their age-old belief in internationalism and solidarity, should be helping to build bridges with each other, not tearing them down with calls to boycott the Histadrut. If Palestinian unions want to work with the Histadrut, why should trade unions in the United Kingdom want to see a boycott of one side?

Our great friend Sir Trevor Chinn, who has done so much over the years to support closer engagement between Israeli, Palestinian and British trade unions, once said that “Israel lives in a difficult neighbourhood.” And in these most difficult of economic times, the Histadrut has shown that it is possible to achieve improved workplace conditions and rights, whilst at the same time providing a genuine platform for dialogue and exchange with Palestinian workers. This is something that, as trade unionists in the UK, we should be warmly supporting. Sadly, these voices are too few.

Instead of carping about the Histadrut, trade unions here at home could learn real lessons from Israel about how to organise, negotiate and campaign – even in the most challenging of times.

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