Eddie Whyte, left, has helped keep Norwegian trade unionists focused on Palestine.(Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign)
Earlier this year the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign organized a fringe meeting at the Scottish Trade Union Congress about how labor activists can support the campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel. The meeting took place just after the STUC had voted to endorse the campaign against G4S, a security company that helps Israel run prisons, where Palestinians political prisoners are held.
One of the speakers at the fringe meeting was Eddie Whyte, a trade union activist with Fagforbundet, the Norwegian Union of Municipal and General Employees. Fagforbundet is Norway’s largest trade union with more than 330,000 members and 500 local union branches.
Whyte spoke about an exciting and effective model of building meaningful solidarity with Palestine that has been developed within his union in recent years. Under a scheme called the Ambassador Corps for Palestine, trade union activists travel to Palestine and help build solidarity campaigns within the union upon their return.
Whyte was a delegate to the recent annual conference of Landsorganisasjonen i Norge (LO), the Norwegian congress of trade unions, which passed a strong policy statement in support of Palestine and BDS campaigning.
This interview took place after the meeting in April.
Michael Deas: Could you start by explaining your work within the Norwegian union and the domestic issues that Norwegian unions are working on?
Eddie Whyte: We organize workers in schools at all levels — primary, secondary, third level, kindergartens and daycare, health and social services. Our membership includes all staff employed by local and county municipalities, hospitals, public transport and numerous other areas. I am the vice-president of the union in county of Vestfold and a member of the union’s national committee.
The main domestic issue at the moment is without a doubt the national parliamentary election in September. After almost eight years and two periods of a progressive center-left red-green coalition, it is imperative that the strong challenge currently being mounted from the rightwing parties is actively countered.
MD: What is the Ambassador Corps for Palestine and how does it work? Why is its local focus so important?
EW: The corps was started a few years back after a proposal was put to our national conference. Norwegian unions have a long tradition of international solidarity and Palestine has been a key area for us. We had been trying for a while to find a way to mobilize more union members on the Palestinian issue. We had previously sent delegations to Palestine on fact-finding missions that consisted mainly of officers and employees at national level. The thinking behind the Ambassador Corps model is to spread both knowledge and activity on Palestine throughout the union on all three organizational levels — local, county and national.
Each of our county organizations has now elected or appointed a representative whose main responsibility is to ensure that Palestine is included on the union agenda in their respective geographical areas or organizational level. These are the members of the Ambassador Corps. It means that all geographic areas of the country and all organizational levels are involved in planning and implementing our solidarity work in Palestine.
One of the duties of the ambassador is to travel as part of a fact-finding delegation to Palestine or the refugee camps in Lebanon to gain first-hand knowledge of the situation. The value of actually visiting the area and experiencing the situation at first hand cannot be overemphasized.
On their return to Norway, the ambassadors have a responsibility to report back at their respective levels and ensure that a continual awareness of Palestine and the major issues are permanently on the union agenda.
So each county area now has a person who can travel out to the local unions and inform them on the issues. It is one thing to get a visit from a union officer at national level talking about the importance of Palestine, something else entirely when that person is a representative from your very own union area. There is a certain degree of increased credibility in that very fact.
MD: What has the union been doing to try and end Norwegian financial support for the occupation?
EW: We have a direct dialogue with Norwegian government politicians and regular ministerial meetings where major trade union issues are discussed. Palestine is one of these issues. In his address to the recent LO Congress, the Norwegian Minister for Foreign Affairs, Espen Barth Eide, was quite clear on government support for many of the proposals that were to be debated later on in the week.
We also have a continual dialog with the various government departments and approach directly those organizations or businesses we know to be directly or indirectly contributing to the funding of the occupation and human rights abuses.
We have actively supported BDS campaigns aimed at [cosmetics manufacturer] Ahava, G4S and against Israel hosting the recent the UEFA under-21 [football] championships. We published a joint report with Norwegian People’s Aid [a group linked to trade unions] that details Norwegian investments — both government and private — in occupied Palestine. It is an excellent, detailed report naming names and documenting the extent of Norwegian investment in the Israeli occupation [available in English here].
MD: You spoke during the meeting about developing ways for large numbers of union activists to get involved in BDS campaigning. What did you mean by that and how have you worked to achieve this?
EW: The G4S campaign is a good example. Of course, the union at the national level lobbies the G4S head office, both in Norway and internationally, but the Ambassador Corps allows us to extend that campaigning work out to both county and local level.
For instance, we have asked all our local unions to contact their local municipality — where a considerable number of the workers are our members — and insist that taxpayers’ money not be abused on a company that is profiting financially by contributing to the illegal occupation, human rights abuses and oppression of Palestinians. Local unions are also encouraged to lobby local businesses that have contracts with G4S to make them aware of the company’s activities in occupied Palestine and their role in human rights abuses.
We have also been successful in raising awareness of Ahava products and their direct connection to the illegal occupation at Mitzpe Shalem [an Israeli settlement in the West Bank]. This resulted in their goods being withdrawn from the Vita retail chain that is one of Norway’s largest. In a statement released at the time, the company said that is was a decision taken on the principle of not contributing to violations of international law.
MD: How has Fagforbundet helped with bringing together different organizations in Norway?
EW: There are many different organizations working on Palestine in Norway and internationally. Various political parties, some excellent solidarity groups, human rights organizations, church groups, youth groups, women’s groups.
The trade union movement can be the umbrella organization that unites these organizations. We have the resources and the political know-how to make it happen. In Norway, for instance, we have an excellent working relationship with Norwegian People’s Aid, which is the labor movement’s humanitarian organization for solidarity. Much our work on Palestine is a joint venture with NPA and other organizations.
MD: There are trade unionists all over the world working to build boycott campaigns and effective solidarity within their unions. What would you say are the most important things you’ve learnt and what advice can you give?
EW: Organize. Use your union experience and your ability to organize. Your union’s involvement in the Palestinian struggle should not be limited to statements from annual congresses and solidarity conferences.
As trade unionists, we have a solid tradition for approving policies and making demands at national level — and we absolutely need to continue doing that. We also need to shift our focus to activist mode and use our experience as union representatives to mobilize for Palestine.
And we are very good at mobilizing the membership on the important issues. We need to make Palestine one of those important issues.
We need to ensure that the whole union organization is made aware of that. This means that the union representatives at national level need to ensure that union representatives at local and provincial or regional level are given the necessary tools to ensure that they can contribute actively to building an organization that can make a difference. Get it on your union’s agenda alongside the other major issues of the day. And make sure it stays there.