As PCS convenes this week (23-24 May) in Brighton for their annual conference, delegates will be be expected to vote on a wide range of issues, including some international ones.
Buried deep in the more than 200 pages of conference documents is this sentence: “Conference … instructs the NEC to … [c]all on trade unions around the world to review and sever all ties with the Histadrut.”
This the only reference to the Histadrut in the entire document - and there is no explanation to PCS delegates what the Histadrut actually is. Delegates presumably know that the Histadrut is something evil, and that unions in other countries would almost certainly welcome the PCS call for the them to “review and sever” ties with Israel’s national trade union centre.
There is no indication in the resolution that there is anything remotely controversial about this.
If the resolution passes, and if the PCS NEC actually does go about telling unions around the world to break with the Histadrut, they may be in for a rather unpleasant surprise.
Let’s start with the two global union federations that the PCS proudly affiliates to — Public Services International and UNI Global Union.
Both have Histadrut affiliates as members and both publicised the Histadrut’s recent general strike.
PCS is also affiliated to the TUC, which in turn is part of the International Trade Union Confederation — which not only has the Histadrut as a member, but which elected Histadrut chairman Ofer Eini as one of its vice presidents. I think it’s unlikely that PSI, UNI or the ITUC will be particularly welcoming to the PCS call to toss the Histadrut out.
A week before PCS convened in Brighton, representatives of nearly 400 trade unions in the food and agriculture sector met in Geneva for the world congress of the International Union of Food workers (IUF). The Histadrut representative addressed the congress twice. The first time, she spoke about precarious work — a key priority of trade unions around the globe. When she mentioned that the Histadrut had secured a collective bargaining agreement with a local subsidiary of catering giant Sodexo, her speech was interrupted with applause. During the closing session, she spoke again — this time following speakers from Egypt, Bahrain, Tunisia, Algeria and Palestine. She welcomed the new Palestinian affiliate to the IUF and asked unions to help build up links between Palestinian and Israeli unions — and was once again applauded. When elections were held to choose the IUF’s new Executive Committee, a representative of Histadrut was re-elected.
No one at the IUF congress called for the Histadrut to be expelled from the organisation. No one rose to leave the hall when the Histadrut representative spoke. No one heckled or booed her speeches.
And I repeat: in the hall were representatives of the newly-independent unions from the countries of the “Arab Spring” — including the Palestinian agricultural workers union. None of them mentioned the Histadrut in their speeches. There was only one reference that I heard to Israel, and that was a sentence or two from the Palestinian delegate about how difficult the occupation of the West Bank was for workers — a valid point. But not a word of criticism of the Histadrut.
Even the South African unions, some of which have been outspokenly anti-Israel, had not a word to say on the subject. Nor did the British trade unions, some of which have said some very critical things in the past about Histadrut.
Something very odd is going on in the British labour movement.
Unison, for example, sent a delegation to Israel and Palestine and asked everyone — Palestinians, left-wing Israelis, and others — whether British unions should sever relations with the Histadrut. And every single one of them said “no”. The Palestine General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU) was adamant on this point. They don’t agree with everything the Histadrut says or does — but they are convinced that only by engaging with it can one influence it. The report of the Unison delegation was approved by the union’s NEC, but then Unison went on to call for a boycott of the Histadrut. In spite of what its own delegation learned.
The fact is that British trade unionists are deeply ignorant about the Histadrut. Many of them believe that Histadrut doesn’t have Arab members, for example. This ignorance drives them to adopt resolutions whose only effect is to isolate British unions from the mainstream of the international trade union movement, which has much more realistic and informed view.
When representatives of PCS start telling “trade unions around the world” what to do about the Histadrut, they may find themselves compelled instead to listen and to learn. Maybe they would even reconsider their view.