Love, Labor, Loss?

As I begin to segue into some international issues over the coming weeks, where better to start than with the international labor movement?

I’ve already pointed out the challenges BDS advocates have with regard to getting American unions to support their cause, given that (after Jews and Evangelical Christians), American labor is the most pro-Zionist community in the country. While BDSers may luck out with a fringe union here, or a local stunt there, the notion that the AFL-CIO is going to remove the bronze statue of Golda Meir in the lobby of their US headquarters (which reflects US labor’s appreciation of the role of American and Israeli Jews in the global union movement) is pretty fanciful.

Overseas (particularly in the UK) the story is quite different. There, boycott advocates have been steadily increasing their penetration of British labor, beginning with some small skirmishes in places like the education (UCU) and journalist’s (NUJ) unions, which eventually percolated up to the national umbrella group, the Trade Unions Council (TUC). While actual UCU and NUJ boycotts never got off the ground (thanks largely to their unpopularity with rank-and-file union members vs. more radicalized leaders who push anti-Israel boycotts within their organizations), it’s safe to say that the big question regarding labor and BDS boils down to whether American unions will begin to look more like their European counterparts in the coming years, or vice versa.

Which gets me to an extraordinary speech given by Paul Howes, National Secretary of the Australian Worker’s Union, in which he outlines the reasons behind labor support for the Jewish state and the contribution his union, and unions in general, are making to bridge the divide between Jews and Arabs in the region by appealing to worker solidarity that transcends borders.

In normal times, such an appeal to the brotherhood of the working class in the name of peace and reconciliation would seem very ordinary, even commendable. But remember that it is this very type of cooperation that BDS seeks to undermine.

In this historic moment when labor’s role in international affairs (not to mention the very identity of labor vis-à-vis many issues domestic and international) is up for grabs, Howes’ speech (which should be read in its entirety) seems like a beacon of sanity shining through the thick fog separating the US labor movement and its counterparts abroad.

The TUC Boycott or Oy Britainia!

About two lifetimes ago, when I was a journalist covering Margaret Thatcher’s third election victory in Great Britain, I remember tuning into the annual conference of the Trade Union Council (or TUC), the umbrella group which encompasses most of the British union movement (an even bigger tent than America’s AFL-CIO).

A vote was cast and the speaker announced the results: 6,453,211 for and 3,290,150 against (or something thereabouts). “That must be one big conference hall!” I said to someone, before they corrected their Yank, rube colleague by pointing out that it’s the union leaders who attend the conference and their votes are tallied as the vote of the entire union they represent. In theory, these leaders will only do what the membership wants, but in practice there is little to prevent a decision made on the floor of the TUC as being “voted on” by millions of workers who have never even been presented with the issue.

Thoughts of this structure came flooding back to me when I heard that the BDS crowd in the UK had finally, after several years of failed attempts, gotten the British Trade Union Council to pass some type of resolution supportive of a boycott of Israeli goods.

The vote was highly qualified, and only achieved after a huge amount of rancor and back-room politics, but it would be unfair to call this one a hoax, like the Hampshire College or TIAA-CREF frauds that have characterized most BDS “successes” this year. As I’ve mentioned before, Europe is different than the US with regard to support for divest-from-Israel projects (and attitudes towards the Arab-Israeli conflict in general). In fact, I’ve often wondered why calls for “even-handedness” in this conflict are always directed at countries (like the US) that are generally supportive of Israel, rather than nations or organizations (such as the UN) whose un-even-handed support for just one side of the conflict (and not the Israeli one) are never asked to budge in their beliefs.

Back to the TUC vote, this will no doubt be used by divestment activists around the world in the coming months as “proof” that British labor stands against Israel (with the corollary that other unions and similar institutions should do the same and boycott the Jewish state). And while those battling boycotts abroad can point to the qualified and non-binding nature of the TUC’s boycott call, we cannot make the case that BDS has not worked its way into TUC policy (at least between now and when the group meets again in twelve months).

In this respect, the TUC is not like Hampshire College (which BDS activists claimed was a supporter when it actually wasn’t). Rather, they resemble the Presbyterian Church in the US (PCUSA) which found itself making the same mistake just made by the TUC last week (Britain tending to follow American fashion trends about five years late).

Like the PCUSA, the TUC had divestment forced onto their agenda by a small, militant group (in this case the Fireman’s union of all people) with a partisan agenda, but no actual stake in the Middle East conflict. And like the PCUSA, they felt that a measure that included mild boycott recommendations represented a compromise between opposing request of the membership. Like PCUSA, they will soon be surprised that their efforts at compromise with single-issue radicals will be portrayed around the world as “the TUC agrees that Israel is an Apartheid state.” And like the PCUSA, they will have to deal with the anger of “comrades” (such as Britain’s Labor Party leadership and fellow unionists in Israel, the US and even Europe) over what they’ve done not to Israel, but to the labor movement.

It’s interesting that declining organization (such as the shrinking and aging Mainline Protestant churches or the struggling union movement in the UK) seem to be the ones that grasp at the Middle East conflict as a way to make themselves seem internationally relevant. For the truth is that these attempts to portray partisan hostility towards Israel as an example of solidarity (with fellow Christians or fellow union members) – while ignoring the plight of those same comrades in places like Egypt, Iran and Saudi Arabia (not to mention Gaza) – simply points out the hypocrisy and irrelevance of those who, like the TUC, managed to be tricked into thinking their deeply immoral position is an example of virtue.