Owen Tudor from the TUC speaks to MEMO about their work with the Middle East
The TUC's European Union and International Relations Department, of which he is now head, has long worked with other unions across the world for social justice. Yet "the Middle East is one of the most consistent features on the congress agenda" says Tudor.
This is largely because it's attained a high profile. "People know more in Britain about what's happening, because it's on the TV, than they know about what's going on in Swaziland; so they're more likely to be interested and have a view."
"There's a terrible sense in which some of this stuff just depends on what's happening at the time," he points out, for example the war in Lebanon and the incursions into Gaza galvanized public opinion and put the region high on the international agenda.
Another reason is that the Middle East is contested grounds, which can stretch out the negotiation process particularly when there's disagreement within the union about how to deal with problems.
"Usually there's a union, someone being horrible to them, we defend the union, no discussions" says Tudor. "Whereas problems in the Middle East are more intractable."
Members raise and debate these issues in their individual unions and discuss how they can help address them. Then it turns up on the TUC's agenda.
One proposal to come out of this was the boycotting of settlement goods, something Tudor believes the TUC have made considerable progress on in Britain.
"I think we've managed to reach a stage where almost all British supermarkets have a policy of not actually stocking settlement goods" he says, though admits it's impossible to completely squeeze them out of the supply chain.
Following this success, the TUC now want to take it one stage further and introduce a statutory ban on settlement products entering the UK and the EU. Settlements are considered illegal under international law, and not letting them in is a way of demonstrating they are unacceptable and illegal.
"Regularly the British government will say that these are illegal settlements and that they shouldn't be there and they should be got rid of – that's a commonly held position around the world – but just saying that clearly doesn't have the impact that it needs to have."
According to Tudor, the TUC haven't met huge resistance. Yet even though there is no disagreement in European politics about whether or not the settlements are against the law, the biggest issue is making tactical judgements about how far to push.
"When our actions on settlement goods have been raised in parliament, the general response has been either you shouldn't go further than settlement goods or they're not sure whether the boycott is the right form. No one's said it's wrong, it's just tactics."
Another commonly expressed concern is what the impact will be on Palestinian workers in these settlements and what will happen to their jobs. "Some adopt that policy as a ploy" he points out "but there are people who are genuinely concerned about that."
In direct economic terms, a blanket ban on products coming in from a particular place will undoubtedly hurt people making those goods first and foremost says Owen. "We recognize that, we have to accept that – it was true of South Africa, it's been true of Burma and Western Sahara."
"This is in the bedrock of trade unionism" he continues. "If you go on strike, you will lose money. All economic studies show that whenever a trade unionist goes on strike action, they will never recoup the money that they lose from going on strike. If you win, you'll come out with a slightly higher pay. You can offset that against how much money you lost during the strike, but on balance you will never recoup that money. What you do is that you change the balance of power by having done that and you forestall further attempts to erode your earnings."
It is for this reason, says Owen, that the key question is what do the workers want. The TUC does not take the decision to boycott, but responds to decisions made by the workers themselves.
One criticism raised with the TUC is that they should spend more time working on England. But this is something Tudor doesn't agree with. First and foremost, they do spend a lot of time on individual cases and government policy here.
In any case, the main loyalty trade unions have is to other workers, not to a particular country or a particular region.
"Workers in Birmingham operate in solidarity with workers in Blackburn so why shouldn't they work in solidarity with workers in Bethlehem."
The other objection is how much time the TUC spend on the Middle East compared with other countries. "People often ask us why we boycott Israeli settlements when we don't boycott anything else. Well we do" he says, laughing. "The principles of how we operate in the Middle East are the same as the principles of how we operate anywhere else in the world. Is it a bigger issue? Yes. Turn on the telly you'll find that out."
Officially, the TUC supports the two state solution. This is partly because their colleagues in the region are telling them that's the most appropriate solution; it's also what their members are most committed to. "The bigger question is how sustainable a two state solution is at the moment. We've never been particularly convinced at the arguments for an alternative."
"I think William Hague, very often rhetorically, says he thinks time is running out for a two state solution. I would be slightly concerned with that language on the basis that well and what then and if you think time's run out what do you do next? I don't really think the British government have got an answer to that so it's a bit of an odd ploy to use."
Trade unions, says Tudor, are fundamentally negotiators and keep doing so until they reach the right answer. The issue is a matter of viability and whether we're moving away from a two state solution rather than towards one. "It doesn't look to us as if we're making entirely enormous steps."
"Equal pay for men and women has been on our agenda for a good century or more and we have not achieved it," he says. "Our response to these things is its still wrong and it needs to be addressed. Timetables of when things had to be solved in the Middle East have fallen by the wayside."
Tudor is keen to point out that solutions to problems in the Middle East are only going to be produced by the people themselves – you cannot solve problems externally. "We do think there's an enormous amount that external forces can do to assist the people of the region to solve their own problems but we've never adopted a view that someone can solve your problems for you, they have to be solved by self-organisation."
He explains that 10-20 years ago the Palestinian and Israeli trade union movements had closer and more effective links. Because they have moved apart, neither are in the position to deliver practical benefits, or effectively help the peace process like they have in the past.
"Our experience about the world is that if you can get the trade union movements engaged across those dividing lines and allow them to have some influence, they will be a progressive force in terms of reaching peace with justice."
A motion recently came up at the TUC congress suggesting unions should review their contacts with Israeli organisations. There was concern that Israeli trade unions were not giving sufficient attention to taking a progressive line on this issue.
There has been a "strategic shift" in the Israeli trade union movement says Tudor. When Amir Peretz was the chair of Histadrut he was clearly identified with the peace movement in Israel. Ironically, he then became minister of defence.
Histadrut took the decision to spend less time debating the peace movement and more time concentrating on issues closer to home, for example wages, and create a stronger Israeli trade union movement – a decision that made the unions uncomfortable.
"Obviously it would be utterly impossible for the Palestinian trade union movement to fence off that issue and become solely a workplace bread and butter issue trade union movement. People are nervous about that arrangement and concerned about how far the Israelis trade union movement is fulfilling its solidarity duties with regard to the Palestinian trade union movement."
Still, despite the motion, very few trade unions have actually changed their position on engagement. According to Tudor, Histadrut would say they are still working with the PGFTU, they're still representing Palestinian workers in Israel and the West Bank.
They also take a position of opposition to the illegal settlements. "It's not a straightforward case one way or the other and I think that's probably why very few trade unions have actually changed their position on engagement."
Some of the differences between the TUC and Histadrut are cultural in that they make it clear they would operate a different approach to foreign policy issues. "Some trade unions are less keen to criticise their own governments even where they disagree with them over foreign policy matters and security matters."
"Other trade union movements around the world aren't as vocal about the actions of their own state in that regard" he continues. "It has been suggested to us that we've got a lot more to be vocal about than a lot of other trade union movements who haven't got quite the track record of the British military in terms of invading places. So that might be one of the reasons why we're more attuned to that issue."
Published in Middle East Monitor