September 17, 2009 Toufic Haddad
British trade unions representing 6.5 million workers have overwhelmingly passed a resolution voting to commit its members to participate in and build a campaign involving boycott, disinvestment and sanctions against Israel.
The motion was passed at the 2009 annual Trades Union Congress (TUC) held in Liverpool after being submitted by the Fire Brigades” Union. The TUC is a coalition of 60 different unions representing the vast majority of organized British workers.
The congress voted to condemn “Israeli military aggression and end the blockade on Gaza” and calls for an end on all arms trade with Israel, the imposition of a ban on the importing of goods produced in Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and to support moves to suspend the E.U.-Israel Association Agreement.
It also calls for the TUC”s main leadership body, the General Council, to affiliate with the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC), to push for boycott, divestment and sanctions of Israel. The PSC is a major Palestinian solidarity organization in the U.K. that has worked with British trade unionists in different capacities to advance their work on Palestinian-related causes.
The motion is one of the most significant victories to date for the global movement to promote boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel – a movement whose roots stem from a 2005 call for such measures by wide swathes of Palestinian civil society organizations and actors.
I interviewed PSC”s General Secretary, Betty Hunter, to learn more about the organization”s work to get the motion passed and its significance.
The Boycott Movement”s “Big Step Forward”
Interview with Betty Hunter, General Secretary of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC)
Can you speak a little about how this vote came about?
The Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) has been working with the trade union movement for some years. We won affiliations from the major trade unions to us. Over the years we”ve spent time working with them on bringing people over to Palestine to meet Palestinian workers and obviously Palestinian people, and to see what the reality of occupation is.
They have taken positions of course in support of Palestinian rights, but we”ve worked on convincing them that there is a need for practical action to be taken. They are very concerned obviously, and they have I think, put in money, to help projects [on the ground in Palestine]. But also we wanted them to actually get active here [in the U.K.] in helping to put pressure on, since our government simply does nothing about all the international humanitarian law that exists that should mean that Israel”s war crimes and Israel”s oppression should end.
So it”s taken some time to win them, but we have won unions over individually to a policy of boycott in some cases, mainly on consumer boycott and disinvestment, and that”s a big start. But this particular event is the Congress – the meeting of all of the union movement, and in a sense it represents the main stream of the British labor movement in Britain. So it”s a big step forward.
What about the motion”s impact? What effect would these 6.5 million workers potentially have?
It is significant. Obviously we believe that our government is complicit. It”s done nothing. It did very little, even about the massacres in Gaza, and it”s certainly done nothing as far as we can see about the increase in settlement building and so on. They keep telling us of course that they are having talks with Israel. But talks with Israel have been going on for 60 years, and have resulted in no progress, but in fact increased oppression. So our government needs to feel the fact that the British public are against what their policy is, and I think that”s the significance of today”s vote. Because the Labor government does have close links with the trade union movement.
I haven”t got direct evidence, but we believe that the British government has been putting pressure on the trade union movement to not take this decision. But that”s what makes it so significant: that despite pressure – I mean the BBC has twice this week in the morning had people speaking on the main news program on the radio, against this resolution without having anybody speaking about it who supports the resolution. That”s pressure in our opinion. So we believe there has been a lot of pressure on, and so it just shows how strong the trade union leadership now believes that they have to do something to help the Palestinians” situation.
Does this vote mean that 6.5 million British workers will no longer handle, for example, Israeli settlement products?
No I can”t promise that. Not immediately. What it means is that we can now campaign with more authority with workers. We haven”t called on workers not to handle goods, because our laws – our anti-trade union laws – in this country, are much stronger than they were during the period of our campaign against apartheid in South Africa. So we haven”t called for that because that would have resulted in I think a stalemate. What we have asked for is to encourage the actual trade unionists as individuals to boycott Israeli goods especially the agricultural products that have been produced in the illegal settlements. We believe that is a good way to start the ball rolling so that this becomes really a mass campaign where everybody in Britain will start to boycott Israeli goods. That”s I think the significance of it. Of course this resolution calls for an end to all arms trading with Israel. And it calls for the General Council, which is this very important trade union body, to pressure the government to do that, and to pressure the government to support the suspension of the E.U.-Israel trade association agreement. So there is quite a lot involved in the resolution.
What were the vote totals?
It was almost overwhelming.
What are the next steps of the campaign?
The next steps for us at the Palestine Solidarity Campaign is to make contacts with all our affiliated trade unions, go and talk with them, discuss with them how they will get this message out to their members because that”s what we really need to do. The 6.5 million workers obviously don”t all necessarily agree with this yet. Most of them will. We”ve got to get them actually convinced. So we will be talking with the trade unions individually about how they can actually take up the issues in this resolution. We will also ask for a meeting with the Trade Union Congress General Council, which is this , if you like, “supreme body” of the trade unions in this country, and which has definitely got significant opportunity to discuss with the government that we as a solidarity campaign do not have. We will go and talk with them about how we can take this forward too.