Boycott Israel campaign grows among UK unions, despite Zionist backlash

Palestine solidarity has become increasingly visible in the UK trade union movement.

Rod Leon

Over the last few years, UK trade unions have expressed solidarity with Palestine more and more explicitly. Union after union has overturned a previous orthodoxy of balance between “two sides” when it comes to policy on Israel and the Palestinians. So many unions have now passed motions in support of the Palestinian boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement that even the often conservative Trades Union Congress (TUC) has been compelled to change policy.

In 2009, TUC policy on Palestine was — for the first time — brought closer to the policy of member unions. A motion calling for a targeted boycott of Israeli settlement goods was passed at the September congress. It instructed the TUC to “develop an effective Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions campaign by working closely with the PSC [Palestine Solidarity Campaign] to … encourage trade unionists to boycott Israeli goods, especially agricultural products that have been produced in the illegal settlements.”

Each year since has brought progress on BDS, according to trade union official and Palestine solidarity activist Hugh Lanning. “Big players who’ve not had positions before, say like Unite, the largest union — but also little ones — are discussing the issue for the first time,” he said.

Lanning is deputy general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services union (PCS), and also chairman of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign. He has a relaxed air about him, but constructs persuasive arguments. It’s clear to see why he has been able to win so many union activists over to the BDS movement.

The 2010 TUC motion on Palestine moved the focus to “companies who profit from illegal settlements, the occupation and the construction of the wall” Israel is building in the West Bank, rather than just companies based in the settlements.

In September of this year, the TUC annual meeting passed a motion reaffirming previous boycott policy, with an amendment calling for unions to “review their bilateral relations with all Israeli organizations, including Histradrut,” the Israeli trade union federation. This latter point marks this year’s slow, but steady BDS progress in UK unions.

But it’s not the first time Histadrut has come in for criticism from UK unions for its involvement with Israeli war crimes. The 2010 motion stated that TUC “condemns the Histadrut statement of 31 May which sought to justify” the deadly Israeli attack on the Mavi Marmara, while that Turkish ship was attempting to break the blockade of Gaza.

PSC’s director Sarah Colborne said the 2008-09 Histadrut support for the Israeli attack on Gaza was another turning point: “You don’t expect that from any trade union — to be supporting a war of aggression. So I think that was quite a shock for people.”

But after several years of bitter battles, the pro-Israel wing of the unions has dwindled to such a degree that it seems to have given up the battle against BDS. At congress, no one even spoke against the 2011 TUC motion, said Lanning.

Israel lobby’s backroom tactics

But this does not mean the Israel lobby has given up. Backroom tactics, appeals to union official to “see sense” and smearing activists as anti-Semitic seem to be the order of the day.

This year, the Board of Deputies of British Jews wrote to Brendan Barber, the TUC general-secretary, calling for him to revoke the leadership’s support for the motion. “This is a moment for principled leadership to prevail,” the Board wrote in conjunction with the Jewish Leadership Council (another pro-Israel group) (Press release, “Board and JLC write to TUC General Secretary,” 13 September 2011).

In June, there was a landmark defeat for the pro-Israel camp. At their conference, the leadership of the Community union (an recent amalgamation of remaining steelworker and knitwear unions) attempted to pass a motion pushing back against the BDS movement.

The text was a throwback to the era of “balanced” TUC policy on Palestine, including the line “there must be full engagement with both sides.” Eric Lee of the anti-boycott Trade Unions Linking Israel and Palestine (TULIP) admitted afterwards there was “no point in trying diminish the size of this defeat … we have a lot of work to do” (“What happened at the Community union conference,” TULIP, 8 June 2011).

Community’s chairman Michael Leahy co-founded TULIP in 2009. Lanning describes it as a “global trade union friends of Israel.” In an email to The Electronic Intifada, Lee responded that this characterization was inaccurate: “We are what we say we are … That having been said, I think we would consider TUFI [Trade Unions Friends of Israel] to be an ally, as we would similar groups in other countries,” he wrote.

In its founding statement, TULIP lists its first goal as to unite groups “fighting within the labor movement against the boycott of Israel.”

Asked to comment on the successes of BDS in the unions, TULIP’s Lee said: “I agree with Hugh Lanning that the BDS campaigners have scored some impressive victories … This doesn’t mean that the average British trade unionist [is] more, or less, committed to BDS now than he or she was last year. It means that the Palestine Solidarity Campaign has done an excellent job of mobilizing and lobbying British union conferences, including the TUC’s.”

The Electronic Intifada then asked Lee if TULIP has received or solicited funding from any of the following: the Israeli government or any of its embassies; pro-Israel lobby groups in the West; Israeli think tanks such as theReut Institute; or the Histadrut.

Lee responded: “TULIP receives — at the moment — no funding from anyone and is run on a volunteer budget. There are no links between TULIP and any of the groups you mention, though of course we were delighted that Histadrut leader Ofer Eini spoke positively about TULIP, as we have reported on the website. TULIP — like many other organizations — was interviewed by Reut as part of their research projects; I think they cite us but I’m not sure.”

Lanning was invited to debate Lee at the June Community conference. He said that the pro-Israel camp had set him up to be the fall guy at whom members were supposed to be disgusted and therefore vote against. Instead, some seemed open to BDS. During the debate, one delegate, Simon Brears, attacked the leadership for aligning the union to Israel.

“Since 2009, Community has been part of TULIP without a mandate from members.” Brears said. “This motion is a retrospective mandate for TULIP, which acts as an apologist for war crimes and human rights abuses committed by the Israeli government … [rejection of TUC policy would] isolate the union and send a message to the movement that Community is a nasty, right-wing union” (“Keep boycotting Israel say delegates,” Morning Star, 7 June 2011).

The motion was defeated. “I think they were overconfident,” said Lanning, who added that the leadership was expecting the motion to be approved.

But this failed anti-BDS strategy in the unions has been only one strand of the campaign by Israel’s advocates. This year, there has been a detectable return to an old strategy by Israel’s supporters: accusing critics of Israel of anti-Semitism.

Smear campaign revived

The main thrust of the Board of Deputies’ letter to Brendan Barber was to accuse the PSC of anti-Semitism. Lanning said these attacks are just an example of the pro-Israel camp “believing their own mythology” and emphasized that the vast majority of support for Palestine comes from people who simply don’t like the crimes of Israel. People demonstrating against Israel’s attacks on Gaza, for example, took to the streets because they didn’t like what they saw on TV, not because of supposedly latent anti-Semitism.

Lanning told The Electronic Intifada that these attacks will only make the movement stronger, because they are purely negative and often backfire. He also acknowledged that “there are people who attach themselves around Palestine who are driven by the wrong thing” but that it was PSC’s job to make it clear they are not part of the solidarity movement, which is based on solid anti-racist principles.

Colborne is all too aware of the negative strategy. She described it as the anti-BDS camp’s “delegitimization strategy … they are trying to distance people from PSC.” She pointed out that an influential Israeli think tank, the Reut Institute, dedicated five pages to the PSC in a key 2010 report on Palestine solidarity campaigning in London (“Building a Political Firewall Against the Assault on Israel’s Legitimacy,” Reut Institute, November 2010).

“You can almost see the cogs being put into place from the Reut Institute report,” said Colborne.

That report branded London “the ‘hub of hubs’ of the delegitimization network.” It also argued that a successful anti-BDS strategy should challenge BDS campaigners “by forcing them to ‘play defense’ … The goal is to eventually frame them, depending on their agendas, as anti-peace, anti-Semitic, dishonest purveyors of double standards.”

BDS goes mainstream

Since BDS is “becoming a mainstream issue,” said Colborne, the pro-Israel lobby wants to drag Palestine solidarity campaigners into an “Alice in Wonderland world” so that they focus on reacting to attacks, rather than pushing forward the BDS agenda.

“We’ve issued very clear statements opposing anti-Semitism,” Colborne stressed, but despite that, the PSC continues to be attacked constantly. Unions have mass appeal, which is why the Israel lobby is worried at the inroads BDS is making, added Lanning. Reut seems to agree: “With millions of members and a national presence, trade unions can potentially … turn BDS into a potent economic weapon against Israel” stated its report.

But despite such attacks, Colborne said that there is still a great deal of interest amongst trade unionists on Palestine. “Palestine has become this iconic struggle internationally,” she explained. This is not an achievement to be sniffed at, especially in a year that union activists are focused on more bread-and-butter issues of pay, conditions, pensions and the general climate of austerity coming from the UK government.

Despite these successes, Lanning said that although union policy on BDS is now strong, “what we haven’t yet done is translate that into activism at the local level” on a mass scale. Unions are “sort of oil tankers” that take a long time to change, he argued.

Lanning said the next stage of the BDS movement’s advance in the unions will be on the level of global union federations, which have been the “traditional stronghold” for the pro-Israel camp, with the Histadrut being present. In 2016, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) meets again, and Lanning is hoping for a better debate by then.

South African union federation COSATU raised BDS with the ITUC last year, but it was rebuffed. TULIP’s Lee said that “the Histadrut’s leader was elected a vice president” of the ITUC during its most recent congress. Winning the debate is a long term goal that could take five to ten years, said Lanning. But he considered it a good sign that Israel’s only support in the unions now is largely based in the “Anglo-world” — mainly the US and Australia.

Both Lanning and Colborne are hoping for advances on the level of activism, building on the strong policy victories. They are pushing for individual unions to start organizing members to address links their companies have with Israeli firms. For example, the Communication Workers Union has spoken out against British telecommunications firm BT’s links with Israel’s Bezeq over its services to illegal settlements in the West Bank.

To build towards such activism, Colborne said the PSC has started to organize trade union delegations to Palestine, with the next such trip likely to take place during Easter next year. The PSC had also been planning to hold a conference of union activists last month to discuss BDS tactics. But after a 30 November joint day of action on saving workers’ pensions was agreed, the conference had to be postponed so that activists’ efforts were not split. Lanning is hoping it will push ahead early next year.

Asa Winstanley is an investigative journalist based in London who has lived in and reported from occupied Palestine. He edited the book Corporate Complicity in Israel’s Occupation. His website is