What happened at the Community union conference: An eyewitness account

by Eric Lee

Yesterday, I was in Southport attending the conference of the Community trade union.

Community is one the smaller unions in Britain and is merger of two unions that represented declining manufacturing sectors - textiles and steel.  But even though the union only represents some 70,000 workers, it punches above its weight in the labour movement.  Its general secretary, Michael Leahy, is the president this year of the Trades Union Congress.

Leahy opened the conference with a speech that included a positive reference to TULIP as one of the things that Community does as part of its international work.  He also spoke about the organisation’s involvement in Justice for Colombia and other international activities conducted through the International Metalworkers Federation (IMF) in which Leahy plays a prominent role.

This was followed by a session on international solidarity, opened by the general secretary of the IMF, Jyrki Raina.

The union’s National Executive Council had proposed a resolution laying out a moderate and balanced view of the Israel/Palestine conflict and this was the first resolution to be debated.  (See below for the full text of the resolution.)

The union is proud to be seen as a voice of moderation and reason; it is affiliated to both Trade Union Friends of Israel (TUFI) and the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC).  Its leading officials have visited Israel and Palestine as part of British trade union delegations.

That’s why I found myself sitting opposite PSC chairman Hugh Lanning yesterday morning in front of more than two hundred Community delegates.

We were each given ten minutes to make our cases, there were then some questions from the floor, and afterwards we returned to our seats.
A debate then ensued and a vote was taken on the motion.

I used my time to both commend the union for what I thought was an excellent resolution, but also to criticize the PSC, which I think represents extremist views (such as support for one-state solution).  Lanning claimed that the PSC was actually supportive of Israel’s right to exist, backed a two-state solution, and was against terrorism.

When challenged that the PSC website has none of this, Lanning claimed ignorance.  When it was pointed out that TUFI delegations meet with both Palestinian and Israeli trade unionists, but PSC delegations have nothing to do with the Histadrut, Lanning said, well, we’re different kinds of organisations and PSC is a “solidarity campaign”.

Of the handful of questions from the floor, two were quite forceful and memorable.  One came from a young man of Yemeni descent who argued that the union knows nothing about these issues and shouldn’t be discussing any international issues at all, instead focussing only on the problems facing British workers.  This was applauded.

Another young delegate argued that TULIP was a fraud, as it claimed to build links with the Palestine General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU) but was actually being boycotted by them.

I answered that this was not the case, and that TUFI delegations routinely met with the PGFTU in their Ramallah offices; indeed, the PGFTU and Histadrut also maintain routine contacts.

The resolution was then moved by an NEC member and discussion took place.  The same young members who asked questions when Lanning and I were on stage then went up to the podium to make their cases — more forcefully and at greater length.

The main theme of the opposition to the NEC’s resolution was that the union didn’t understand the issues well enough to take a stand, or that it should stay focussed on domestic issues.

But one of the speakers launched into a blistering, personal attack on Michael Leahy, claiming that he used TUFI and TULIP to justify “first class flights” to Israel and stays in “five star” hotels.

He argued that the NEC resolution had been drafted to retroactively justify the creation of TULIP and Leahy’s support for it.  And he claimed that the resolution was not being proposed by union members (which was absurd, as the NEC consists entirely of lay members).

Both this speaker and the one who suggested that the union should have no position at all on international issues were widely applauded.

The NEC’s response was, I thought, a weak one.  Leahy and other senior leaders did not speak.

The vote, by a show of hands, revealed that a majority did not want the resolution proposed by the NEC.  Nothing else was adopted in its place.

In observing this debate, my sense was the delegates had not been properly briefed and did fully understand the NEC’s position.  Nor did they understand how well-informed the union leaders themselves were.

I wondered how much effort the union leadership had made to inform rank-and-file members of the issues.

The Morning Star, the daily newspaper of the British Communist Party, was of course delighted by the results.  Their article was, not unexpectedly, somewhat inaccurate — starting with the headline: “Keep boycotting Israel say delegates“.

Of course they said nothing of the sort.  There was no debate about boycotting.  What delegates were saying was that they didn’t like the NEC resolution, and it appears that many of them simply thought the issues were too complex, or too far removed from the union’s real tasks of defending British workers here at home.

The Morning Star piece goes on to say that what was rejected was  “a resolution aimed at undermining the TUC policy of boycotting Israeli goods produced in illegal settlements.”  This is not the case at all; in fact, there was no debate at all about this boycott or any other.

“Members at the union’s biennial conference in Southport accused the leadership of using it to obtain a ‘retrospective mandate’ from members to support Trade Unions Linking Israel and Palestine (Tulip), which they labelled ‘an apologist’ for Israeli war crimes,” writes the Morning Star — but actually there’s a small typo in that sentence.  It wasn’t “members” who said this.  It was one member, who they later name as Simon Brears.

There’s no point in trying diminish the size of this defeat.  Community is probably the best union in the UK on the issues of Israel and Palestine.  Its leadership was united in presenting a thoughtful and reasonable resolution.  But because it had not done the  work on the ground, delegates were easily swayed by strident arguments — and by the case made that these were difficult-to-understand issues and should not be a priority for the union.

That having been said, the Morning Star’s gloating over this as some sort of embrace of their own pro-Hamas views is absurd.

What happened yesterday in Southport was not a victory for the pro-Hamas forces nor for those arguing for compromise and peace.  It was a decision to back off and take no position.

The bottom line is that we have a lot of work to do, in this union and in others.

Full text of the resolution:
Recognising the recent political revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East, Conference believes that securing a peace settlement in the Middle East continues to be of the utmost importance, and that the continuing failure to secure that settlement is severely damaging relations between the Arab World and the West.
Conference, whilst recognising the extreme complexity of the political situation, calls for an end to violence on all sides and believes that an enduring peace can only come about through non-violent means and must be based on a viable two-state solution.  For a two-state solution to be viable it cannot be imposed against the wishes of either party. A two-state solution must be accepted and endorsed by both Israelis and Palestinians as part of a negotiated settlement.
Conference rejects all attempts to blame or scapegoat either Israelis or Palestinians. Blame leads to anger, hate, and resentment: factors which contribute to making the conflict in the Middle East among the most intractable in the world.  There must be a rejection of violence by both sides and there must be full engagement with both sides.
Conference believes that trade unions have an important role to play in encouraging dialogue, cooperation, and mutual understanding between workers and their representatives in Israel and Palestine and the wider international community and endorses the union’s support for organisations and campaigns that work across communities and with both the Histadrut and the Palestinian GFTU.