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Report reveals International Trade Union Confederation's pro-Israel bias

Palestinians from the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip queue at a checkpoint in the West Bank city of Qalqiliya as they attempt to reach their jobs in Israel. Photo by Khaleel Reash/MaanImages.

By Sarah Irving

July 23, 2010 -- The Electronic Intifada -- Every June, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) releases its Annual Survey of Violations of Trade Union Rights. According to a press release that accompanied the 2010 publication (which reports on events in 2009), "the Middle East remains among the regions of the world where union rights are least protected". The report describes repression meted out to Palestinian workers and trade unionists by both the Israeli authorities and the Palestinian factions. But the ITUC's omissions and brevity both disguise the complexity of life for Palestinian workers, and reveal some of the international union confederation's own biases.

The most violent repression of Palestinian trade union activities came, as in previous years, from the Israeli military. A May Day march of around 250 persons in Bethlehem was stopped by Israeli soldiers who fired sound grenades and tear gas canisters directly into the crowd, injuring demonstrators. Three workers and a journalist were arrested, according to the ITUC. Another march, in East Jerusalem, which was deliberately kept low-key by its organisers from the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU) was also broken up. And in July last year, Israeli soldiers surrounded and raided the Biddya home of Palestinian Workers Union head and Fatah campaigner Yasser Taha, detaining him for questioning as a "wanted activist."

Among other events outlined in the 2010 survey was the strike held by 16,000 workers with UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestine refugees and one of the largest employers in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, calling for the reinstatement of 312 West Bank colleagues fired for violating the organisation's "non-partisan" policy. UNRWA workers also went on strike to demand pay increases in line with Palestinian Authority (PA) staff and UN employees elsewhere in the world. Public sector workers in both the West Bank and Gaza had multiple disputes with both the PA and Hamas authorities over late payment of wages, mainly due to Israel's withholding of revenues owed.

In September 2009, rising tensions between the PA and transport, education and health unions over late payment of overtime and transport costs culminated in the health ministry sacking Osama al-Najjar, head of the health professionals union, and a colleague. Al-Najjar had publicly accused the ministry of "targeting union activities" and avoiding dialogue. During a radio interview, PA health minister Fathi Abu Moghli referred to the ensuing strike by health workers as "illegal". Union leaders demanded an urgent meeting with appointed PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

In Gaza, meanwhile, the ITUC described conditions for trade unionists as "extremely difficult", commenting that the exercise of freedom of association or collective bargaining was simply not possible, partly because trade union membership tended to be bound up in ongoing clashes between Hamas and Fatah. In 2008, Al-Jazeera reported Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU) claims that its offices in Gaza had been seized by Hamas authorities and when staff refused to negotiate over their future role, several were subjected to assassination attempts and other harassment. Hamas spokesmen have made similar counter-claims against the largely Fatah-linked PGFTU in the West Bank.

Hamas

According to Khaled Hroub, author of Hamas: A Beginner's Guide, the association of trade unions with specific political factions is deep-rooted. "Initially, Hamas' interest in trade unions stemmed from a Muslim Brotherhood culture that focuses on these institutions as hubs of cultivating support and popularity", Hroub explained in an interview with the Electronic Intifada. "Hamas' activism in trade unions is more political than professional -- using unions as political platforms for higher goals. This doesn't mean that Hamas-led unions have been entirely political, but what I mean is that the main impetus was driven by finding venues to express their political [and resistance] views."

The ITUC's has publically rejected Hamas, which it declared at its June 2010 congress in Canada as "extremist" and blamed for inciting the winter 2008-09 assault on Gaza through its rocket attacks on southern Israel. While he does not share that assessment, Hroub does agree with the confederation's analysis that Hamas has dealt severely with trade unions which are not affiliated to it.

"Once in power, Hamas became the regime that put these unions under check and heat if they raise the ceiling of criticism against the Hamas status quo", Hroub said. "Those unions that remained outside Hamas control in Gaza are subjected to harsh measures that are almost identical to those imposed on Hamas-controlled unions by the Palestinian Authority in the 1990s and until the 2006 elections."

The Islamic trade unions with which Hamas works are almost entirely rejected by both the Ramallah-based Democracy & Workers Rights Center (DWRC), an explicitly non-affiliated labour rights organisation which has campaigned against perceived inaction and corruption amongst the established trade unions, as well as by the PGFTU.

Salwa Alinat works with the Israeli labour rights non-governmental organisation Kav LaOved (Workers' Hotline), supporting Palestinian workers employed in Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank. She describes a similar situation there to the one in Gaza outlined by Khaled Hroub. She reports that "in the past, the trade unions have not been interested in dealing with the workers. There are two or three trade unions divided according to political lines, and they are not really in contact with the workers, so there are problems of trust. To join a trade union, until recently, was a political act, like joining a party. It's not like in the West where a trade union is something that looks after a worker's interests."

The political nature of trade unions also means that even if employers do not discriminate against workers as trade union members per se, they may discriminate against them on the basis of their political affiliations. This is a widespread problem, according to several reports by the DWRC.

Histadrut

As well as infringements of trade union rights by Palestinian employers and by the Israeli military and Palestinian faction authorities within the West Bank and Gaza, the ITUC's Israel report also raises the issue of discrimination against Palestinian workers in Israel and in Israeli settlements. Here, the shortcomings of ITUC's approach become apparent. The confederation has been accused of bias towards the Histadrut, literally the "General Federation of Laborers in the Land of Israel", an ITUC member alongside the PGFTU. This accusation is likely to gain ground with the June 2010 appointment of Histadrut head Ofer Eini as an ITUC vice-president and executive member.

ITUC's report on conditions for Palestinian workers in Israel -- whether citizens of Israel or West Bank labourers working with or without permits in Israel -- does acknowledge that "Palestinian workers in Israel, even with permits, are hounded by the authorities and are often subject to abuse, illegal detentions and deportations while Israeli Arabs [Palestinian citizens in Israel] are subject to extensive employment-related discrimination".

The ITUC admits that "Palestinians who work in Israel enjoy freedom of association [but] they may not elect or be elected to trade union leadership bodies", apparently referring to West Bank Palestinians working in Israel; the report seems to differentiate between these and Palestinian citizens of Israel by using the term "Israeli Arabs". The ITUC report also notes that in November 2009 the Histadrut amended its constitution to allow migrant workers, brought to Israel in large numbers, mainly from Southeast Asia to work in the domestic service and agricultural sectors, to join the union with "equal rights". According to the ITUC, this explicitly does include Palestinian workers from the West Bank or Gaza working within Israel.

In 2008, the Histadrut finally started to repay union dues, which since 1970 it had been docking from the pay of every Palestinian employee of an Israeli employer, claiming that half of this income would be handed to the PGFTU. This was the outcome of an agreement reached in 1995, but the 2008 move has remained controversial after it was used by Israeli sympathisers to argue against boycott calls.

BDS movement opposed

The Progressive Labour Action Front, linked to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, issued a statement noting that "the Histadrut is engaging, as part of the world Zionist movement, in an international campaign designed to undermine international labour support for the Palestinian people and to oppose the Palestinian and international campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel. As part of this campaign, the Histadrut issued a statement on `peace and cooperation' posted on the [ITUC] website on 11 September 2009."

[The ITUC congress refused to allow an amendement by South Africa's Congress of South African Trade Union in support of the BDS campaign to be debated. Instead it passed a policy acceptable to Histadrut.]

The ITUC also reported specific abuses by Israeli employers of Palestinian workers in West Bank settlements. These included the sacking and suspension of Jahleen Bedouin workers at the Maaleh Adumim municipality after they went on strike demanding to be allowed to attend Friday prayers, and the illegally low pay, lack of medical benefits and threats of violence against mainly women workers in a textile factory at Barkan, near Ariel settlement. The report notes, "The situation of these workers is exacerbated by the fact that often Israeli authorities abandon the Palestinian workers to their employers by not inspecting their working conditions, especially in the West Bank settlements."

Although it engages with accusations of discrimination by settlement-based companies, the ITUC's report neglects to mention the steady increase in discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel. The sacking of several dozen Palestinian employees by Israel Railways in March 2009, for instance, comes well within the report's remit, but is ignored.

Israel Railways told Israeli newspaper Haaretz at the time of the sackings that "it would employ only army veterans in the positions these employees held." The sackings became a high-profile story in Israel after Israel Railways was forced by Tel Aviv Labor Court to postpone the sackings, and then changed its story to claim that mistakes by the employees had caused the changes in recruitment policy. This is part of a growing trend of excluding Arab workers because Palestinian citizens of Israel do not serve in the Israeli army, which anecdotal evidence suggests stretches from informal employment such as restaurant jobs to major national corporations.

While Palestinian workers, whether inside Israel or in Israeli settlements in the West bank, are not properly represented by the Histadrut, Palestinian trade unions are also barred from offering them practical help.

Wael Natheef, general secretary of the Jericho branch of the PGFTU and a member of the union's executive committee, told the Electronic Intifada: "As trade unionists we often cannot do anything. The settlements are forbidden to us and we cannot go to the Israeli courts."

Unions are also hampered by small budgets because of their low membership rates, which have been used as an argument against their grassroots legitimacy. As a result, legal cases brought by Palestinian settlement workers against Israeli factories, such as Royalife in Barkan and Soda Club in Mishor Adumim, have often been dependent on support from Israeli organisations such as Kav LaOved.

"We established this branch [of the PGFTU] in 1993 after the Oslo agreement", says Natheef. "We worked as unionists before then, but underground, because you had to get permission from the Israeli authorities at Beit El to hold a meeting or organise something. After Oslo we rented this building and continued, but it is still very difficult."

[Sarah Irving is a freelance writer. She worked with the International Solidarity Movement in the occupied West Bank in 2001-02 and with Olive Co-op, promoting fair trade Palestinian products and solidarity visits, in 2004-06. She now writes full time on a range of issues, including Palestine. Her first book, Gaza: Beneath the Bombs, co-authored with Sharyn Lock, was published in January 2010.]

 

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Letter from COSATU, CUT, KCTU to ITUC General Secretary

Letter from COSATU and other federations to newly elected General Secretary of ITUC

To comrade Sharan Burrow, General Secretary of ITUC

Dear comrade Sharan,

We would like to congratulate you once more on your election as the General Secretary of our International Trade Union Confederation – ITUC. We are sure that your election has made history in the international labour movement and also remarkable as you were the first woman to be elected as the General Secretary, definitely a victory for all of us!

The purpose of this letter is to share with you some reflections and thoughts about the 2nd World Congress of ITUC that recently took place in Vancouver, Canada.

Basically, we believe that our congress must be a space where all delegates share the vision of our movement and debate to understand different ideas among us and reach an agreement in order to strengthen our strategy. In this sense, the congress was very successful, but there are also areas that require changes.

On the 22nd of June, 2010, the debate held at the Plenary session of the Congress concerned us. Mr. Pascal Lamy, Director General of the World Trade Organization – WTO, Mr. Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Director of the International Monetary Fund – IMF and Mr. Rick Samans, Director of the World Economic Forum participated without having any critical or contesting views against the policies defended by these multilateral institutions, that as we all know, attack jobs, rights and conquests of the working class. All we could do was to listen them and to ask questions afterwards.

If we really need to invite them, at least, there should be a panelist from our side. We believe that such a format weakened the debate and did not allow us to explore the contradictions that these organizations are facing. In fact, it projected an image that gave a certain amount of credibility to their anti-worker views, as being legitimized by such an important gathering. This is exactly why they always refuse to engage in serious consultation, even in our own gatherings.

The construction process of the resolutions, which occurred before the Congress was very important and it is supposed to show the plurality that ITUC represents. We also recognize that the struggle for a consensus is supposed to be a victory, due to the diverse composition of ITUC. However, it should be common that during the Congresses some unexpectedly difficult and complex issues or amendments are raised, leading to heated debates, which should be welcome and not frowned upon as “against the traditions of the ITUC”.

That is why it is necessary to reconsider the format of the Plenary and resolutions processes, because we consider it still too controlled and restricted, particularly by some unions. It is essential to reflect continuously if the effort to reach a consensus is prioritizing the opinion of some countries against a sizeable number of countries, because we believe that the vision of ITUC can and should be universal and fully representative of the broad spectrum of workers affiliated to it.

We were also worried that a large part of the Plenary was empty during the different sessions, probably posing the question whether delegates felt what was being discussed matched their expectations of what the Congress should be about. We experience very similar format of discussions, that is, a long series of speeches, in the ILC plenary every year. However, if we want the Plenary to be an adequate space to decide our policies collectively, this format needs to be changed. It was very difficult for the participants to understand about which part of the report of the General Secretary the different speakers were talking about and to confirm that the main resolution finally reflected the discussions well. More dynamism is needed, even if this new format, leads, as a last option, to a voting session of a topic that could not reach a consensus. In our view, that is exactly what democracy is about anyway and not forced consensus, even on matters of serious complexity.

A concrete suggestion would be for the ITUC to ensure its regional organizations to organize preparatory meetings before the World Congress with the same agenda of the Congress, so that we can better prepare the delegates for the World Congress.

We would also like to mention that the national confederations have developed effective actions to face the financial and economic crisis. We believe that ITUC could have made an effort to organize these actions at an international level and the Congress could have been the platform to discuss, propose and evaluate these actions. In this way, ITUC could become an instrument of struggle and inspiration to workers and not just always prioritize formalities at summits, such as the G20 which have ignored everything we raise and more pressure is needed to change that situation.

Finally, we would like to request the inclusion of the 2nd World Congress evaluation in the agenda of our next meetings of the Executive Bureau and also of the General Council, which will take place in December 2010. It will be extremely positive for the future to evaluate and reflect about our last World Congress. Positive changes on a consensual basis will strengthen our discussions, its content and dynamics, as well as our policies which will consequently also strengthen and raise the tempo of our struggle for better working and living conditions for all workers. You will also appreciate that whilst the effects of the global economic crisis and the situation we find ourselves in at the moment affects all workers, but the depth and devastation in the global south do require special attention as evidence points and support from everyone on a solidarity and consensual basis would enhance our feeling of togetherness in the struggle.

We thank you for your attention and we are looking forward to your comments.

 In solidarity,

COSATU – South Africa

CUT – Brazil

KCTU – South Korea

Good News, Bad News or Just Pathetic News?

I find it difficult to decide how to take the Cosatu/CUT/KCTU letter to the new General Secretary of the ITUC. Is it to be welcomed as a first public sign of independent life from at least some national unions of the Global South? Or condemned for both its timidity of tone and the narrowness of its concerns?

I am inclined toward the second position. A longtime critic of the ITUC and its predecessors (as well as of the Communist WFTU I once worked for*), I was actually stunned by its June 2010 Vancouver Congress. This was because of the extent to which it reproduced, in form and content, the West-Eurocentric nature of a 20th century union internationalism, at a time of profound transformation and crisis of world capitalism, of the continuing displacement and destruction of jobs and unions.

The West-Eurocentric nature of the ITUC Congress was no more clearly demonstrated than by its pro-Israeli bias (see the above item by Sarah Irving), its prevention of open discussion on the Cosatu BDS resolution and its actual promotion of the leader of the pathetic Zionist Histadrut (itself in decline, less because of its historical racism, more because of the local effects of global capitalism).

The politely-worded letter of the Southern three does not even mention this slap in the face. And it concentrates on procedural matters that can hardly either agitate or mobilise their own members, never mind workers of the world or of the Global South in particular. It comes over like a plea by prisoners for better conditions within a prison rather than a condemnation of the prison - or judicial - system for its inbuilt class and ethnic bias.

Like the overwhelmingly majority of the world's population, the overwhelming majority of the world's working classes (unionised or not) are to be found outside the world's North-West. The ITUC and its Congress simply continues to assume that their model of collective-bargaining, social-partnership (partnership with capital and state) unionism should or will be spread worldwide - despite the fact that it is in profound crisis in its birthplace!

I have to mention the blindness of both the ITUC and the COSATU/CUT/KCTU toward what should surely be considered their real social partner - the 'global justice and solidarity movement' and its best-known expression, the World Social Forum.

The terrible truth, only indirectly touched upon by the three, is that the ITUC even invited the leaders of those institutions responsible for the destruction of work, workers and unions (the WB, IMF and WTO) to address the Congress at all!

If any transformation of the international trade union organisations is to occur, this surely has to take place 1) independently of such a fatally self-subordinated body as the ITUC and 2) in recognition of the 80% of un-unionised/un-unionisable workers in the world and 3)in the light of the broader and more-dynamic global justice and solidarity movement.
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*I left the Prague-based WFTU after it accepted the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, 1968. I was later involved with the 'shopfloor internationalism' of the 1980s, originated the concept of 'social movement unionism', and have been a major contributor to exchanges on the 'new labour internationalism' and 'alternative international communication by computer.

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