Unison, FBU, and the Histadrut: Five steps forward, one step back

Report by Greg Dropkin
Published: 24/06/12

Last week Unison and the Fire Brigades Union took very different decisions on Palestine. Unison reiterated its commitment to suspend relations with the Israeli trade union federation Histadrut, and extended its support for Boycott Divestment and Sanctions, supporting the Russell Tribunal on Palestine, resolving to brief its representatives dealing with pension fund investment and develop guidance to stop public service contracts being awarded to companies whose activities in the Occupied Territories breach the 4th Geneva Convention. The FBU narrowly accepted an Exec recommendation to reject proposals to suspend relations with the Histadrut, despite an email from Nablus firefighters calling on them to do so.

Unison has resolved the conflict at last year’s National Delegate Conference, which overturned an Exec recommendation to renew relations with the Histadrut following a decision in 2010 to suspend them. This time, it was the National Executive Committee which proposed that Conference “reaffirms its decision in 2010 to suspend biliateral relations with the public services federations of the Histadrut given that organisation’s policy on the Occupation and support for military actions by the Israeli government.”

In voting overwhelmingly for Composite L, Conference resolved to “maintain our policy of suspended relations with the public services federations of the Histadrut and to actively explain this policy to other TUC affiliates and sister trade unions internationally” and to “strengthen co-operation with the new trade unions and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Israel who oppose the Occupation and seek to organise Palestinian and migrant workers”.

The Composite included a motion from Northern Ireland Region on the Russell Tribunal, focused on the recent Cape Town session which found that Israel subjects the Palestinian People to an instititutionalised regime of domination amounting to apartheid as defined under international law. Unison noted that this “requires a response from the trade union movement and others equivalent to the scale and intensity of our response on apartheid in South Africa.”

Specific proposals from the Wolverhampton General branch, which organises local government workers, were originally ruled out of order. But after a challenge to the Standing Orders Committee, they were incorporated in Composite L. The union will now:

  • use the Unison website to include an explanation for members on settlement produce, international law and why Unison supports boycotting Israeli settlement goods with template letters to supermarkets and MPs for members use;
  • where Unison is represented on bodies concerned with pension fund investments, ensure such representatives are briefed on Unison policy and trained and supported to carry it out;
  • develop guidance for branches on campaigns to stop public service contracts being awarded to companies which also operate contracts inside the occupied territories that are in breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention;
  • review relations with Unison’s partner organisations which accept sponsorship from companies who are complicit with the occupation.”

Unison policy now sets a strong framework for actually imposing a boycott on Israeli apartheid.

By contrast, the Fire Brigades Union voted 21,565 to 19,478 in favour of an Exec recommendation to maintain links with the Histadrut. At the FBU Conference in May 2011, an emergency resolution from Strathclyde advocated that the FBU and unions in the UK sever all ties to the Histadrut, and this had been remitted to the Executive Council. Their recommendation in April to reject the Strathclyde proposal was bitterly contested, particularly given a message from Nablus firefighters to FBU Scotland Regional Organiser Jim Malone.

On the eve of conference, the Head of the Adminstrative Unit at Nablus Fire Department Shams Eddin Abu-Ghazaleh emailed Jim Malone.

Hello Brother

hope you are doing well

Of course we (Nablus firefighters) support you in this step, and support everything will make a pressure on the Israelis Authorities, which lead to a full Liberty.

We with you to derecognise and condemn the Histadrut, which will press on the Israelis authorities to hear the International voices whom calls for peace and give the Palestinian all rights.

Please pass my best wishes for all FBU officials and members in the conference

May God Bless You

take care and keep in touch

Shams Eddin Abu-Ghazaleh
Head of Adminstrative Unit
Nablus Fire Department
West Bank - Palestine

The Executive Council Policy Statement on FBU relations with the Histadrut declares that “Severing links with the Histadrut is not in the best interests of the FBU at the present time. It is not in the best interests of the Palestinian people struggling for self-determination. Nor does it help those Israelis who support the Palestinians, including firefighters and other workers within the Histadrut.”

But who decides what is in someone else’s best interest? Palestinian trade unionists, like FBU members, have the right to determine their own best interests. The email from Nablus and the recent solidarity statement from the Palestinian Trade Union Coalition for Boycott Divestment and Sanctions, call on the FBU and unions internationally to sever links with the Histadrut because that is how Nablus firefighters and the PTUC-BDS see their own best interests.

The FBU Exec further stated that “The reasons suggested to sever ties are not sufficient. They do not account for changes in the Histadrut in recent years, or for the difference between the Histadrut and the Israeli state. The investigation did not find sufficient evidence of “collusion” by the Histadrut with the ongoing violation of human rights of Palestinians. Nor did it find that Histadrut policy positions “endanger regional peace”.”

However, there is plenty of evidence on the reality of the “New Histadrut”.

http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2004/680/re104.htm A revealing account from 2004 in the mainstream Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram Weekly with information on systematic discrimination against employment of Palestinian workers:

http://arab-workers-union.org/en/?p=30 The position paper of the Arab Workers Union on the Histadrut, by the AWU’s General Secretary Wehbe Badarni, who addressed the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign Trade Union conference in April.

http://arab-workers-union.org/en/?p=25 This account of “welfare-to-work” tribunals includes the role of the Histadrut in denying benefits to Arab unemployed workers.

www.labournet.net/WORLD/0209/histad1.html Immigration fishing raids with the collaboration of the Histadrut

www.labournet.net/WORLD/0507/histadrut1.html A discriminatory agreement signed between the Histadrut and a hotel employing foreign workers.

On the subject of regional peace, the Histadrut supported the Israeli invasion of Gaza and blamed the Freedom Flotilla organisers for Israel’s murderous attack on the Mavi Marmara:

www.labourstart.org/israel/Histadrut_on_Gaza.pdf

www.histadrut.org.il/index.php?page_id=1801

The movement to impose Boycott Divestment and Sanctions on Israeli apartheid cannot avoid the obstacle of the Histadrut, which naturally opposes BDS:

www.labournet.net/world/0902/histadrut1.html

In conclusion the FBU Exec recommended that “links with the Histadrut are maintained on the basis of critical engagement”, and Conference agreed, narrowly. The strength of opposition, and the communication from Nablus, are steps forward.

I hope that in future, the FBU will reconsider its decision in light of further evidence and the views of Palestinian trade unionists, with whom they surely wish to express and implement real solidarity.