Community leader Michael Leahy speaks at TUFI fringe meeting at the TUC

Introduction

Community – the Union for Life, is proud to have a long association with unions in the middle east – while there is little steel production in Israel, the west bank or Gaza our predecessor union, ISTC, has long been an agent for peace, two states and co-operation.  My predecessors and I have experienced first hand the situation for both Israel and Palestine. Long may these links continue

Peace First

My union’s policy is “Peace First” – no taking of sides; never more extreme in the UK than trade unionists in both Israel and Palestine; and focused on co-operation, dialogue and resolution.

I have been to Ramallah, I met Yasser Arafat in his bunker, I have seen the Wall and fence that splits people’s land and I have seen the poverty that persists in the West bank because of the policies of the Israel Government.

I too have been to Sderot, I have heard from Israeli men and women about the security provided by the fence and wall and I have looked into the eyes of Israelis to see the fear of suicide bombers sent by fundamentalists that could attack at any time.

These problems cannot continue – the status quo is not an option. What the young people in One Voice are doing should set an example to the rest of us, should inspire my generation and help us look to a better future. They are bringing together the people of both Israel and Palestine, united in their hope for change and focused not on hating each other but on changing the actions of their own leaders – asking for real solutions, real progress and real peace. The failed leadership on both sides is the biggest travesty of the whole conflict.

Trade Union Co-operation

What the TUC has before it is a motion that seeks to cause division. That division will be for all to see on conference floor. But our debate is not simply within the confines of this room or this great conference centre, the wrong decision tomorrow will echo around the world and set peace yet further from the people of both Israel and Palestine.

For the TUC to support boycotts will be a damning insight into our movement, it will set the left and trade unionists further apart from the mainstream, from the Jewish Community and from taking a real role in helping create the peace everyone says they believe in. While my colleagues and I want the key message that comes out of this conference is the need to prioritise action on Jobs, Justice and the Climate, the motion tomorrow without the GMB’s helpful amendment will be the only headline heard by most out there. It will be front page of the Jerusalem Post and will only reinforce the recessives in both places. Israelis will feel themselves under siege and this fear will be exploited by the Israeli right and only Hamas in Gaza will cheer at a motion on boycotts. This is surely not the outcome any socialist wants to see.

More annoyingly is there is another option, rather than division and hate, we should foster peace and co-operation. Together we can build a new Jerusalem – a shared capital for both the Israelis and the Palestinians – this is surely the Socialist way.

Tomorrow the TUC should pledge solidarity – not with governments in the region, but with the peoples. If we can get ordinary men and women, trade unionist men and women from across the green line together in a room talking about the future, what safety and economic security can bring both sides and the kind of society each wish to see in countries side-by-side, living as neighbours in peace then we are doing our job.

Trade unions are at our very core negotiators – our skills can be put to use by breaking down barriers not entrenching our positions behind walls.

TULIP – Trade Unions Linking Israel and Palestine – is a newly formed organisation that seeks to put the trade union values at the core of peace efforts in the Middle east. With comrades in the Australian Workers Unions, the German TUC and our American brothers and sisters we are trying to find ways of linking unions in the region to talk about practical solutions, hope and the future.

In the last three years we have seen three major agreements between trade unions on both sides – with the Histadrut and the PGFTU themselves, between the two transport unions and the construction workers. These agreements have transferred $1million to the PGFTU, have helped Palestinians cross check points with more ease and made a practical difference to builders, electricians and carpenters on both sides.

If the FBU motion goes through un-amended then the TUC will have a position where we cannot help our PGFTU colleagues because they might also be working in partnership with the very Israel trade unions we boycott. How will this help anyone?!

Hamas are no friends of the Left

In a speech about what is happening in the Middle East, two points cannot go unmade – firstly the Gaza conflict seemed to most as a futile military campaign that kills too many innocents and displayed a brutal show of strength. Secondly, that the role of Hamas in the region is getting stronger, they used the Gaza conflict to their own ends.

Hamas are not a liberation movement, Hamas are not freedom fighters, Hama are no friend of the left – and the left should be no friend of Hamas. This religious fundamentalist organisation, that has racism and anti-Semitism in its charter and terrorism at its core, should be a pariah not a partner. Our solidarity should be with those in Gaza working towards peace and statehood, it should be with progressive men and women in trade unions and those who wish to walk around without headscarves and live in a state without religious dogma as the law of the land.

While Israel is not perfect and its government too right wing for most, it remains the only country in the middle east where journalists and academics have free speech, where gay people can celebrate pride and people of all religions live side by side.

Change we can believe in

We have no better opportunity for peace at the moment:

  • Barack Obama has tackled the issue head on, called for an end to settlement building in the West Bank and not left it to the end of the second term presidency,
  • Senator Mitchell is out there spreading the magic that worked so well in Northern Ireland and
  • Tony Blair is working to build a Palestinian economy ready for statehood.

This team gives us hope – the last thing the trade union movement should do is take a step back, hide in trenches and reinforce regressives.

Hope in a region often so bleak

In a region often so depressing, where hatred and violence is so often in the news, we can help bring optimism to a situation otherwise so bleak. We all know what the solution will look like so let’s get on with making it happen.

I hope that we can say with One Voice, there is One Solution – Two states for Two peoples. Peace and Co-operation our method, Peace and Co-operation our solution.