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It’s Time for Trade Unions to Back BDS

Recent weeks have seen historic demonstrations in support of Palestine, but protests alone won't be enough to turn the tide – trade unions must be at the forefront of a new wave of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions.

Palestinians embarked on a historic general strike on 18 May, against a backdrop of yet another Israeli military assault on the Gaza Strip and the ongoing forced displacement in Jerusalem. The general strike itself, widely observed by Palestinians, was a remarkable show of unity and strength against decades of settler colonialism and military occupation that has dominated every aspect of Palestinian life.

In the spirit of the general strike, Palestinians also appealed to trade unions internationally to halt material support for Israel’s crimes. The Italian union L’Unione Sindacale di Base (USB) in the Tuscan city of Livorno led the way by refusing to load a shipment of weapons onto a vessel bound for Israel, explaining ‘we don’t want to be accomplices in the massacre of Palestinian civilians.’ A week later, the South African Transport and Allied Workers’ Union (SATAWU) refused to offload the Zim Shanghai owned by Israeli company Zim Lines. Dockworkers in Oakland, California were also planning to refuse to offload another Israeli-owned ship before it was diverted.

Meanwhile in Britain, a group of activists occupied the rooftop of Israeli-owned Elbit subsidiary UAV Tactical Systems in Leicester, a facility which produces parts for military drones. The Leicestershire Fire Brigades Union, whose members had been called to the scene, refused to remove them, stating that ‘the Fire Brigades Union stands in support of Palestinian solidarity and the right to protest.’ All this happened amidst substantial trade union presence at demonstrations and mobilisations for Palestine around the world.

These are significant acts of defiance that register strongly among Palestinians. However, they must not be sporadic and limited only to those times when Palestine is in the news. Acts of solidarity, and the recognition that Israel should be isolated in the manner of the South African apartheid state, must become an established principle of progressive trade union politics.

Following the successful general strike, Palestinian trade unions have issued an important international call for action,

In the spirit of internationalism and solidarity, we are calling on trade unions to take immediate and concrete steps to ensure that unions themselves are not complicit in supporting and sustaining Israeli oppression.

The call is signed by major official and independent trade union federations, representing the vast majority of Palestinian workers. It makes specific demands to translate positive statements and sentiments into action, including the divestment of pension funds from firms complicit in the Israeli occupation, encouraging workers to refuse to handle Israeli goods and supporting members who refuse to build weapons intended for use by Israeli forces.

Exploitation of Palestinian Workers

The onus on trade unionists around the world to support Palestine is made even clearer by the degrading conditions facing Palestinian workers, who bear the brunt of Israel’s military aggression and economic strangulation. They are denied the right to move freely, the right to decent wages and are forced into miserable working conditions as a result of Israel’s continued occupation.

The discriminatory permit system enforced on Palestinian workers is reminiscent of South Africa’s apartheid laws, and the Palestinian economy in the Occupied Territories is completely dependent upon Israel due to its control of the movement of both people and goods in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Palestinian workers face constant discrimination and harassment at Israeli checkpoints simply for wanting to put food on the table.

Meanwhile, the erosion of the Palestinian economy’s productive base has led to limited job opportunities. In recent years, the number of workers employed in the informal sector has significantly increased – with 48% of waged workers employed without a formal contract.

Many commentators have noted the degree to which the recent protests in Palestine are a youth-led movement – and this is no coincidence: Palestinian youth (19- 29 years) have been the most impacted by unbearable levels of unemployment. According to the latest numbers from the Palestinian Bureau of Statistics, the unemployment rate among young people has reached 39%, distributed at 24% in the West Bank and 67% in Gaza Strip.

The highest figures are among university graduates, reaching 36% in the West Bank and 79% in Gaza Strip. These are the results of years of systematic Israeli intervention to un-develop the Palestinian economy; policies which have left Palestinian workers with inadequate health infrastructure, a stagnating economy and unprecedented levels of unemployment.

In the meantime, Israel’s Palestinian citizens are also subject to vast discrimination in funding and access to services. After participating in the general strike, many Palestinian workers were fired, some through WhatsApp messages, illustrating their precarious status. The assault on the livelihoods of Palestinians, no matter where they reside, is continuous. It is precisely why international solidarity and trade union action are so necessary.

Trade Union Action

There have been numerous motions in support of the Palestinian people among trade unions internationally. This is thanks to many tireless rank-and-file activists who ensure that the issue is consistently presented and discussed at conferences.

At the same time, countless union delegations have travelled to Palestine to collect evidence and produce reports. There is no shortage of information about the violence of military occupation and the mistreatment of Palestinian workers. Indeed, most unions officially support Palestinian rights and join protests when there is an Israeli military aggression.

There is, however, reluctance among many union leaders to go beyond these existing positions. We have to face the reality that a certain comfort comes with having a motion to point to without the action to back it up. But the situation is grave and the violence does not stop when there is a ceasefire.

There is no calm under conditions of colonialism and occupation. The difficult truth is that trade union solidarity is undermined when, despite formally standing with Palestinians, union members are helping to build and transport the weapons used by Israel’s military to kill Palestinians every year.

Palestinian trade unions made clear in their statement this weekend that more must be done,

As trade unions… we have power to halt support for racist regimes. The global trade union movement has always played a key and inspiring role in its courageous commitment and adoption of concrete, groundbreaking, labour-led sanctions against oppressive regimes. The trade union boycott of South Africa stands out as a bright example of this tradition of effective solidarity.

A meaningful response to the Palestinian trade union call to action could make a huge difference. An important first step would be working to divest trade union pension funds from corporations complicit in Israel’s oppression. While many pension funds do have ethical investment policies, they tend to be very guarded about implementing them. As we see from cases of divestment from the fossil fuel industry, it is possible for pension funds to take a stand by challenging injustice.

Rank-and-file activists must keep building momentum for the strategy of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) within the trade union movement. This should mean regular union education and use of union resources to train activists, as well as reaching out and connecting with Palestinian workers directly.

In short, we need internal mobilisation that pushes the trade union movement to halt to all forms of complicity with Israel’s crimes. The labour movement is not the preserve of any one country, but an international movement of workers who share in a common struggle for a better world.

We cannot be consistent in fighting injustice – policies like privatisation, outsourcing, or casualisation – while workers here contribute to the oppression of workers abroad.

What Next?

It has been seventy-three years since the original ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people from their homes and lands during the Nakba. Decades later, two million people in the Gaza Strip are still imprisoned behind a military siege in one of the cruellest examples of collective punishment in the world.

In the midst of a global pandemic, the devastation inflicted to Gaza’s medical infrastructure and personnel by eleven days of bombing will be deeply felt. As 90,000 people fled for their lives, hiding in overcrowded homes and schools, Israel destroyed the only Covid-19 testing lab in the besieged territory. This is the context – and it won’t disappear with a ceasefire.

Yet despite the military assaults and expulsions, from Sheikh Jarrah in Jerusalem to Palestinian communities in the Jordan Valley, Palestinians remain as determined as ever. The past two weeks have had their horrors, but they have also been marked by moments of collective rebellion and joy – and the power of a community coming together to stand up against injustice.

The general strike across historic Palestine demonstrated unequivocally that attempts to fragment Palestinians have failed. Principled actions by trade unionists around the world can make a powerful difference in this struggle – now is the time to take a stand.

You can read more about the Palestinian labour movement’s call for international solidarity here.

About the Author

Rafeef Ziadah is a Palestinian human rights activist. She is a lecturer in Middle Eastern Politics at SOAS, University of London and member of the University and College Union (UCU).