June 08, 2010

Unions and the global Boycott Divestment Sanctions Movement, bdsmovement.net


Aims | Why | Do it yourself

The trade union boycott works very like the consumer boycott or divestment campaign at an institutional level.


* Build solidarity with Palestinian trade unions and communities and send a message to Israel that their policies against Palestinians are unacceptable.
* Ensure that contracts and business do not go to Israeli companies and companies supporting Israel.
* Build greater awareness among trade unionists, with the goal of gaining union support for all aspects of the BDS campaign.


A trade union boycott of Israel means that trade unions cut economic, social and political ties with Israel and build ties with Palestinian unions. Trade unions should respond to the BDS call that has, among others, been put forward by the major Palestinian trade unions. Palestinian workers are suffering under Israeli apartheid policies of exploitation that aim to bring in the profits necessary to maintain the occupation. Trade unions globally must transform workers solidarity into practice and ensure that they are not indirectly providing financial support to the Occupation by propping up the Israeli economy.

The organized labour movement in Palestine has, since its inception in the 1920’s, faced attacks from the Zionist movement, in particular the Histadrut. The Histadrut championed the idea of the "conquest of labour", aiming to replace Arab workers with Jewish ones. Histadrut activists campaigned against the Jewish businessmen employing Arab workers, at times engaging in violence. The early Histradrut union structures reflected the discriminatory nature of Zionism, trying both to elevate Jewish workers above Arab ones while at the same time organizing Arab labour in separate unions linked to and under Histradrut control. Furthermore, the union actively undermined Arab strikes, supplying Jewish scab workers. Following the Nakba, the indigenous Palestinian movement collapsed, leaving the Histradrut in full control. In 1965, the General Union of Palestinian Workers (GUPW) was founded to organize Palestinian labour in the West Bank and Gaza and in the diaspora. In 1986, the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU) was formed out of the labour movement in the West Bank and Gaza.

Labour in the West Bank in Gaza is greatly suffering on account of the Occupation. In Gaza, unemployment and poverty have skyrocketed. In the most recent siege, Israeli jets bombed the PGFTU building. In the West Bank, both employers and workers have been hurt by the destruction of infrastructure, land theft and movement restrictions. Palestinian agricultural workers in both Gaza and the West Bank have been especially hard hit. Those in the West Bank are forced to compete, on a totally unequal level, with Israeli agro-business in the Jordan Valley while those in Gaza are unable to move their produce to do lack of fuel and Israeli closure polices. The Occupation aims to further conquer Palestinian labour through a series of joint industrial zones wherein Palestinians will essentially work as migrant workers on their own land for low wages in poor conditions without the option to organize.

Palestinian workers living inside the Green Line face apartheid labour conditions. The Histradrut is the only trade union in Israel and continues to work on a racist framework. It was not until 1965 that Palestinians could vote in union elections, and until today no Palestinian citizen of Israel has been a part of the high governing body of the union. Around half of legally employed Palestinians in Israel work in low-wage sectors. Palestinians are barred through a number of mechanisms from holding high-level jobs in Israel. More that half of Palestinian citizens of Israel are below the poverty line, as opposed to around 16% of Jewish Israelis. Palestinian women are grossly under represented in the Histadrut, with little being done to improve their situation. Rather than taking up these problems, the Histadrut chooses to ignore them. Barred from building their trade union, Palestinians are mobilizing in workers organizations such as Sawt al Amel (Labourers Voice) to struggle for their rights.


The South African struggle serves as a model for how a movement can be built. Trade unions played a huge role in implementing various components of BDS against South Africa. Trade unions were involved on the international level, for example in the UN International Trade Union Conference against Apartheid. Unions also fought against the South African regime on the national level. In 1963 Danish dock workers refused to unload a shipment of South African goods. When the transport arrived in Sweden, Swedish dock workers joined the boycott. Two months later, governing parties in Scandinavia jointly advocated for sanctions on South Africa. In the 1980’s, Finland’s transport workers union (AKT) imposed a ban on trade with South Africa. In the UK, the Trades Union Council (TUC) began pressing for union trustees to challenge the use of those funds for investment in South Africa, with the first pensions divesting from 1982. During this time, trade unions were also active in the successful campaign against Barclays bank, sold its South African operations in 1986. Since unions place notions of international workers solidarity at the heart of organizing and purpose, they have significant potential for greater interaction and work on Palestine.

1. Motions, measures and resolutions

Trade unions can support the boycott by passing motions, measures and resolutions in support of the Palestinian struggle and condemning Israeli occupation and apartheid; promoting a consumer boycott among their members and citizens; changing purchasing and investment policy to ensure that trade unions are not contributing financially to the occupation; and partner with Palestinian unions.

Trade union investment portfolios should not include Israeli state bonds, shares in Israeli companies (especially those directly linked to the state’s breaches of international law and human rights and with connections to the military sector and research); or investments in international companies investing directly or indirectly in Israel. Trade union members should investigate possible holdings in companies investing in Israel and seek to end them. Trade unionists should participate in campaigns to persuade particular companies to withdraw from Israel.

2. Form or join a "Friends of Palestine" group inside your union

Pressure is more effective from coordinated group than from individuals. Think about joining or forming a "trade union friends of Palestine" group in your union that can promote sustained action. Much more needs to be done to make trade unionists aware of the need for disinvestments, by circulating material to branches, organising meetings, showing films, exhibitions, etc.

Union representatives need to be made aware that Israel's breaches of international law are a matter of serious concern to their members. Speak to them in person or work on discussing during meetings Israel's breaches of international law and the reality of apartheid on the ground Palestine, and suggesting motions of support and boycott.

3. Show the commitment of your union at national and international level

At a national level, the issue of sanctions could be raised on industry-wide national negotiating bodies. At an international level, trade unions should work through international trade union bodies to coordinate and build pressure for sanctions, divestment and boycotts.

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