The British Trades Union Congress this September passed a resolution reaffirming its position against the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. There’s nothing wrong with, or unusual about, left-wing trade unionists showing solidarity with the dispossessed.
What is unusual — and troubling — is the line dictating that TUC affiliates review their bilateral relations with all Israeli organizations, including the country’s main labor federation, Histadrut. There were some objections to this order, most notably from delegates with the country’s militant National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport workers union who felt that the TUC should support the Israeli working class. Other critics also pointed out that cutting all ties with Israeli worker groups goes even further than Palestinians have gone; the Palestine General Federation of Trade Unions has a working, though chilly, relationship with Histadrut.
British unionists now have a choice: the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement or international labor solidarity. Which side are you on?
As an opponent of both the Israeli occupation and the Likud government’s right-wing agenda within the 1967 borders, I understand the motives of those who choose to boycott products made in Israel, the same way I choose to ship packages via the United Parcel Service because the drivers are Teamsters rather than anti-union FedEx.
But I have to be worried about anyone who claims to be an internationalist and trade unionist and then decides to turn against a worker organization based solely on nationality. Pro-Palestinian writers have argued, perhaps rightly, that Histadrut is no saintly force and that it has represented Israeli right-wing interests abroad and has discriminated against Arab members. Yet, very similar criticisms can be lobbed against the AFL-CIO, which was responsible for buttressing anti-communist unions at home and abroad during the Cold War, and against American building trade unions that have resisted integration in their ranks. Does this mean that all trade unionists should hold the American working class accountable for the crimes of crooked labor leaders?
What’s more, the TUC resolution is a sweeping blackout on any other Israeli worker groups that might offer a better agenda than the mainstream labor federation.
There is the sense among some pro-Palestinian activists that those who shy away from the BDS movement are at best soft in their anti-occupation commitment and at worst neoconservative stooges. In this instance with the TUC, it is amusing that the main detractor is the RMT, whose leader, Bob Crow, is an outspoken socialist and a fan of Fidel Castro, has led numerous strikes against privatization of transit and, it is rumored, was involved in a bar brawl with anti-immigrant hooligans in Edinburgh. I dare anyone to call him soft on anything.
The fact is that global capitalism is the real winner in this recent spat in the British labor movement. Historically and worldwide, capitalists have quelled worker upheaval by playing to nationalism and racism. Keep Polish workers hating black workers in the auto plant, and they won’t forge an alliance against Henry Ford, the idea goes. As unions across the world are under attack and the need for international solidarity is more vital than ever, some troublemakers bring nationality into the equation, turning workers against themselves once again.
Even for those who are against the occupation, there are plenty of practical reasons to oppose BDS. For one thing, Israel may be too integrated into the world economy for such a campaign to be feasible. And in most cases, sanctioning and isolating a country usually has the effect of the targeted government doubling down on its controversial agenda rather than capitulating to foreign demands.
In this case, the BDS movement is being used to break labor, especially when we are seeing the same popular fervor of Cairo’s Tahrir Square come to the streets and squares of Israeli cities against the Likud government’s wrongheaded economic policies. It is my belief that where there have been and continue to be governments that work against the peoples’ interests, organized labor has been in opposition. This is why unionists in places like Britain and the United States have reaffirmed their support for the brave women and men of independent unions in Iran, China and the Philippines.
Those in support of the TUC resolution don’t share that belief with me. That’s their choice, but it means shutting out people from the labor movement and simply telling them they aren’t welcome there.
Ari Paul has written for The Nation, the Guardian, Z Magazine and Al Jazeera English and is a dues-paying member of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.