Boycott movement takes hold in British unions

Asa Winstanley, The Electronic Intifada, 14 August 2009

The international campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel has won several important victories in recent months. At this summer’s trade union conferences in Britain, BDS activists have made significant progress.

While the campaign has been building momentum in unions globally since the 2005 Palestinian call for BDS, Israel’s winter invasion of Gaza has spurred several trade unions and union federations in Britain and Ireland to pass motions more explicitly in favor of BDS. Several are calling for BDS for the first time.

Tom Hickey, a member of the University and College Union’s (UCU) national executive committee, said, “The question of the moral rightness or wrongness [of BDS against Israel] has effectively already been decided.”

Although the Trade Union Congress (the British union federation) has not yet passed a BDS motion, affiliated unions have begun taking up the Palestinian call themselves. So far this summer, the public sector union PCS, the UCU and the Fire Brigades Union have all passed strong motions explicitly calling for a general policy of boycott of Israeli goods, divestment from Israeli companies and government sanctions against the state.

Unions such as public sector union UNISON, the National Union of Teachers, USDAW and the Communication Workers Union (CWU) have this summer passed softer motions calling for elements of BDS. These are usually calls for a boycott of settlement goods, or for the government to suspend arms sales to Israel. The CWU and others have condemned the infamous 13 January 2008 statement of the Israeli trade union federation in support of Israel’s invasion of Gaza, which read: “The Histadrut recognizes the urgent need for the State of Israel to operate against the command and control centers of the organizational terror network …”

In addition, a report has been circulating on the Internet that the rail workers’ union, the RMT, has reversed an earlier policy of “solidarity not boycott” and passed a motion in favor of some sort of BDS policy at their July Annual General Meeting. The official AGM report has yet to be released to the general public, but the RMT’s media office confirmed the report was probably accurate. However, they did not return calls for official confirmation in time for publication.

In April, the independent Scottish Trade Union Congress (STUC) for the first time voted to endorse a report recommending “boycott and disinvest from Israeli companies” and a “call for sanctions against Israel” at their annual delegates’ congress.

This decision was not arrived at overnight. STUC Assistant Secretary Mary Senior said, “it was very important we carefully considered the issue.” A motion passed at the 2007 congress called on the leadership to “explore the merits of the calls” for BDS. In February-March of this year, Senior participated in an official STUC delegation to Palestine. It was this visit that formed the basis of the report recommending BDS.

The delegation met with Israeli and Palestinian officials, trade unionists and civil society groups in the occupied West Bank and in Israel. Almost all of the representatives were asked their opinion on BDS.

The report criticized the Israeli trade union federation, stating “At no time did Histadrut acknowledge that the West Bank is occupied” — an occupation that delegation members witnessed first hand.

The report ultimately concluded “there was strong support for BDS amongst Palestinian trade unions and civic society.”

Senior believes this report was vital, and that if the vote had been held two years earlier, it might not have passed. “It was important to have … the consultation and the delegation. That helped to bring all of our affiliates on board,” she said.

At their May congress, the UCU’s most recent motion demanding support “for the Palestinian call for a boycott, disinvestment and sanctions campaign” was passed. This victory occurred despite the general secretary’s statement that on legal advice this amendment would be “void and of no effect.”

News reports at the time focused on the leadership’s negation of the vote. However, most reports failed to mention that several other Palestine motions were carried at the congress. This included a motion that urged “branches to discuss prior to Congress 2010 the Palestinian call for a boycott, disinvestment and sanctions campaign.” The specific wording was used to accommodate the legal advice, and prevent the motion from being voided.

UCU activist Sue Blackwell explained that in previous congresses, “people thought the union could be taken to court.” But this year, lawyers advised the union leadership to say the new BDS motion “would not be binding” in advance. Yet, it was “very clear there was an overwhelming majority for the principle of boycott and it is only the legal threats preventing the union from implementing it,” she explained. “It gave the lie to all the Zionists who say that only a minority in UCU support this.” Judging from the tactical wording of similar motions passed by other unions this summer, it seems trade unionists are learning the lessons of the UCU’s BDS experience.

This success has certainly not gone unchallenged. In late June, after several unions had passed BDS motions, opposition was voiced from the highest levels of government. In an unprecedented statement, Foreign Secretary David Miliband issued a press release on 23 June that stated “The Government is dismayed that motions calling for boycotts of Israel are being discussed at trade union congresses and conferences this summer.” The staunchly pro-Israel Jewish Chronicle offered this headline on the statement: “Stop boycotting, Miliband tells unions.”

Miliband said he would dispatch Ivan Lewis to dissuade union leaders from the boycott. Lewis is the new foreign office minister for the Middle East, and is also a member and former vice-chair of the lobbying group, Labor Friends of Israel. According to The Independent, his appointment “raised eyebrows in the Foreign Office” as he had been one “one of the most outspoken political supporters of Israel’s military assault on Gaza. Critics can’t help but wonder how objective Lewis is likely to be in his new post.”

Union activists have been less than impressed. UCU’s Blackwell stated that the British government “should do more to enforce human rights and to put pressure on Israel to comply with international law.” The STUC replied the following day with its own statement, rejecting Miliband’s remarks: “The UK Government is out of step with the views of workers on this matter.” STUC’s Senior added that the organization was “very surprised he would say that.”

Martial Kurtz, Campaigns and Events Officer of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, said, “We are not all that worried about Lewis or Miliband going around trying to stop this … BDS is well on its way and their response smacks of desperation.”

STUC representatives, including Senior, met with Lewis in early July. “This was the first time we’ve met with a foreign office minister for a good number of years,” she recalled.

“Ivan Lewis is fairly new but he was very well briefed,” Senior said. “He didn’t agree with the boycott … He indicated a desire to maintain contact with us, [but] he was regretting the position we have.”

Senior recounted that during the meeting, Lewis argued that “when President Bush was at the helm in the US, he could understand how the BDS movement had sort of grown at frustration” with Bush’s foreign policies but now “he was positive about recent developments in Palestine and Israel” since Barack Obama took office.

A spokesperson for the minister at the Foreign Office confirmed Senior’s account that he regretted the STUC’s position on boycott, as well as the point about frustration over Bush’s polices.

Lewis’s implication was apparently that BDS needs to stop so Obama can work his magic. However, the delegation was not convinced and stated that “We’ve got our position at the STUC, and it’s a very strong position because it’s debated and considered and voted upon: a unanimous decision taken at our congress. For us it was important to convey that to the minister.”

The British TUC’s negative policy on BDS could be reversed at this September’s congress. There, the Fire Brigades Union is planning to put forward a motion that calls for “trade unionists to boycott Israeli goods, especially agricultural products that have been produced in the illegal settlements.”

Whether or not the motion passes at this year’s TUC, something does seem to have changed in the unions and the discussion is now moving on to more practical questions. In the fall and winter, the UCU and STUC will be hosting BDS conferences. According to the STUC’s Senior, the conference will be for trade unionists “to discuss practical questions and learn lessons from apartheid South Africa.”

Asa Winstanley is a freelance journalist who has lived in and reported from occupied Ramallah, working for the Palestine Times and the Jerusalem Media and Communications Centre. His website is

Comments are closed.