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U.S. Unions Organize Against British Boycott

The controversy surrounding calls by British unions to boycott Israel is threatening to spill over into a major international union’s next election.

Leaders of some of America’s most powerful unions are said to be considering whether to pull support for a top British union official, Keith Sonnet, in his bid to lead a major international service workers union, Public Services International. The American union leaders are responding to last month’s passage of a resolution proposing a sweeping boycott of Israeli goods by Sonnet’s union, Unison, which represents 1.3 million public service workers.

The group that Sonnet is looking to lead, PSI, is a global federation of more than 600 unions from around the world, but the American labor movement has traditionally wielded significant power in its ranks.

As the number of British labor unions passing Israel boycott resolutions has snowballed in recent months, American trade union officials have raised alarms over the growing phenomenon, which encompasses boycotts of Israeli goods and academic institutions. Last week, nearly every top union leader in America signed on to a statement drafted by the Jewish Labor Committee decrying the raft of boycott proposals as non-constructive.

Avram Lyon, executive director of the JLC, said that Sonnet, who is running against Danish candidate Peter Waldorff for the international union post, had given assurances to American labor leaders in advance of his group’s national delegate conference that the Israel boycott measure up for consideration would either be voted down or have its teeth taken out. But the opposite came to pass, causing Sonnet’s American counterparts to feel misled, Lyon said.

“That has raised questions among some American unions as to whether or not they will support Keith Sonnet’s candidacy,” Lyon said. “The concern is based on the fact that Sonnet put forward a resolution which American unions would consider to be divisive.”

Sonnet did not return a phone call seeking comment.

In late May, Britain’s largest teachers union, the University and College Union, came one step closer to an academic boycott of Israeli academics and institutions when it passed a motion to circulate calls for the boycott to all its branches. The public service union followed suit in June when its delegates passed a far-reaching resolution that called for “an economic, cultural, academic and sporting boycott.” That resolution treaded even closer to testy political waters, proclaiming that Israel should allow the right of return for the Palestinian refugees of 1948 — a Palestinian demand that Israel has thus far been unwilling to consider at the negotiating table. In recent weeks, the Transport and General Workers’ Union became the latest British union to join the widening movement against the Jewish state, when it called for a boycott of Israeli goods.

A boycott measure proposed in April by the National Union of Journalists is the only one, thus far, to have been successfully neutralized by anti-boycott activists. In this case, union leaders reversed course, declaring that the boycott would not be implemented, after 32 union members resigned in protest and hundreds more voiced opposition. That movement was spearheaded by a British Broadcasting Corporation journalist, Rory Cellan-Jones, who coordinated his efforts from the Web site of Engage, a British coalition formed to counter Israel boycotts and antisemitism on the left.

David Hirsh, who is the editor of Engage’s Web site and a lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London, said that while he lauded American anti-boycott efforts, the leaders of the boycott movement in Britain are unlikely to be swayed by American complaints.

“It should be a powerful statement that all of these leaders of the American labor movement are making against the boycott campaign, but I’m skeptical as to how effective it will be,” Hirsh said.

The roster of 29 signatories to the JLC’s statement included a broad spectrum of union leaders, who cut across religious and ethnic lines. Among the signatories to the statement were Ron Gettelfinger, president of United Automobile, Aerospace & Agricultural Implement Workers of America International Union, which tends to stay out of the geo-political arena; William Lucy, president of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, and Larry Cohen, president of Communications Workers of America.

Absent from the list of signatories was Andrew Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, which represents some 1.8 million service workers. An SEIU spokesman said Stern lent his support through Change To Win, a coalition of seven American unions, which signed on to the statement.

Whether or not the Americans’ robust condemnation of the British unions’ boycott measures has an effect, labor leaders here say that the concerns over Sonnet’s handling of the issue could have real consequences for his candidacy. A handful of signatories to the JLC’s anti-boycott statement — including the American Federation of Teachers and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees — are members of PSI, which represents more than 20 million workers from 160 countries. PSI’s election is set to take place during its World Congress, held in Vienna from September 24 to 28.

At least two past PSI presidents — legendary labor leader Victor Gotbaum and AFSCME’s William Lucy — have hailed from American unions.

A source at AFT, who requested anonymity because authorization to speak for the union had not been granted, said that its four delegates to the PSI congress would weigh the Israel boycott issue heavily. “I’m sure there are going to be a lot of people asking questions about Keith Sonnet’s view of the resolution adopted by Unison,” the source said.

According to Lyon, another American effort to stymie the British boycott movement met with success this week, when American unions torpedoed efforts by the UCU to introduce an Israel boycott resolution at the world congress of Education International, a worldwide federation of teachers’ unions, held this past week in Berlin.

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