In defence of the Histadrut: a response to Gary Spedding

Every last thing about Gary Spedding’s argument in favour of boycotting Histadrut, Israel’s free and democratic Israeli trade union movement, is wrong. Speeding does not so much put a left foot forward as trip over his own feet.

Prof. Alan Johnson is the editor of Fathom: for a deeper understanding of Israel and the region, and is the author of The New Histadrut: Peace, Social Justice and the Israeli Trade Unions

“Quite simply, Histadrut is not a progressive force inside Israel today. Through boycotting, the international community sends a critical message [about] Histadrut’s unwillingness to challenge right-wing anti-Palestinian policies held by Israel’s government.”  – Gary Spedding, Left Foot Forward, 3 July 2013

Every last thing about Gary Spedding’s argument in favour of boycotting Histadrut, Israel’s free and democratic Israeli trade union movement, is wrong.  Speeding does not so much put a left foot forward as trip over his own feet.

It is wrong to claim the Histadrut is not a progressive force in Israel today

It is the Israeli TUC. It leads the fight for workers’ rights and job security in Israel. It unites over 700,000 union members in one organisation regardless of religion, race or gender and has organised Arab workers with full membership since 1959 and the super-exploited migrant workers since 2009.

It supported Israel’s 2011 mass street protests for social justice and in 2012 organised a successful four-day General Strike in solidarity with Israel’s most vulnerable contract workers.

It is wrong to say the Histadrut does not challenge the Israeli government

It  supports a negotiated two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Histadrut has called on the Israeli government ‘to make concessions and take courageous and concrete steps towards attaining peace.

More importantly, it is engaged in making a reality of two-states. It signed a landmark agreement with the Palestinian national trade union centre, the Palestine General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU) in 2008 under the auspices of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). That agreement was hailed by the TUC and the International Labour Organisation.

When Unison sent a delegation to Israel and the Territories in 2010 it reported that

“The PGFTU in particular said that UNISON should maintain links with the Histadrut so that we could specifically put pressure on them to take a more vocal public stance against the occupation and the settlements. [The other independent Israeli pro-labour organisations] Kav laOved, Koach laOvdim and WAC/Ma’an all felt that international trade union influence on the Histadrut was essential.” [Yes, the Unison leadership was unable to carry its own report at conference, but that does not alter one jot what the Israeli and Palestinian trade unionists told the delegation.]

However, even if the Histadrut didn’t challenge the government, it would still be wrong to think this a good reason to boycott the Histadrut

Free and democratic trade unions do not boycott other free and democratic trade unions because they are not left-wing enough. That way madness lies; it is not how we do things in the international labour movement.

We do not punish trade unions for the policies of their governments. Even if unions support reactionary government policies – as most American trade unions did during the Vietnam war – we do not boycott them!

As Michael Leahy, general secretary of Community Union, wrote in the preface to the pamphlet ‘The New Histadrut: Peace, Social Justice and the Israeli Trade Unions’ (2012):

“Breaking links with the Israeli trade union movement would be a radical departure from the best internationalist traditions of our movement, in favour of a new kind of gesture politics. Progressive voices in the British trade union movement have traditionally refused to boycott other free trade unions because of what their governments do.

We have not gone in for gesture politics. We have preferred engagement, worker-to-worker links, practical solidarity and, yes, a critical dialogue. Those traditions have served us well. We should stick to them.”

Oh, and when Spedding says “the Histadrut fails to represent [Palestinian Arabs], especially in the occupied Territories” he trips over his own feet one more time. In fact, The Histadrut does not organise Palestinian workers in the West Bank by agreement between the two federations.

Nonetheless, in October 2007 the Histadrut’s campaign to apply Israeli labor laws to Palestinian workers who work in the settlements was successful. As a direct result of the Histadrut petition to the Courts, Israeli employers in West Bank settlements must now provide improved work benefits according to (much better) Israeli, rather than Jordanian law.

Former TUC general secretary Brendan Barber has praised the two federations for “carving a path that political leaders could now follow”.

Spedding’s boycott delusion would make that impossible. Guy Ryder, the ITUC general secretary said Israeli-Palestinian trade union co-operation has an important “contribution to make in promoting peace and mutual understanding in the Middle East.”

Spedding’s boycott would send all that into reverse.  That’s why not one Global Federation or national centre supports breaking links with the Histadrut. Not one. And nor does the ITUC.

The alternative to Spedding’s boycott is critical engagement

We can restart the trilateral delegations of unionists from Israel, Palestine and the UK, build concrete links with both the Histadrut and the PGFTU (exchanges, branch twinning, awareness-raising and financial support to trade unions in Israel and Palestine is the real way forward.

We can learn from the model of the FBU-Histadrut-PGFTU cooperation. We can support all steps, however small, to unite Israeli and Palestinian workers.

And we can support a just settlement based on mutual respect and acknowledgement of national rights. To that end, we should review the TUC’s relationship with the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) and consider supporting progressive organisations such as One Voice.

Why? Because the TUC supports the two-state solution: two states for two peoples, a secure Israel living in peace alongside a viable Palestine. The PSC does not. One Voice does.

The internationalist traditions of the British trade union movement have traditionally been all about engagement, building bridges, forging worker-to-worker links, delivering practical solidarity, and comradely criticism when it is due.

To break links with the Histadrut would be a giant step towards a different kind of ‘internationalism’  – alien to the British trade unions, demonising one party, glamorising the other, stoking divisions on the ground, and isolating the TUC from the constructive work of its global partners and the ITUC.

The TUC and ITUC have worked for over forty years to build bridges between the Histadrut and the PGFTU. Those efforts bore fruit in 2008, with a landmark agreement between the two federations. We should not let sectarians and political activists in the West ruin all that work.

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15 Responses to “In defence of the Histadrut: a response to Gary Spedding”

  1. Lee Butcher

    Leaving aside the issue of whether or not boycotting is the right strategy to take, Professor Johnson fails to mention that the Histadrut is a government agency and as such is ultimately accountable to the Israeli state and the politicians that run it. This makes the organisation structurally very different from the British TUC, who are accountable to trade unions who are free from government control.

    Comparing the two as like for like is therefore quite flawed.

    The Histadrut has always been an influential part of the Israeli state; historically between the 1920s and 1940s it was the principle organising body of the Jewish Agency (the authority that would become the independent Israeli state). While some of that influence has lessened it would be inaccurate to say that the Histadrut and the Israeli state operate in separate spheres and that the misbehaviour of the Israeli state has no bearing on the Histadrut.

    Any effort to encourage better behaviour will focus on the agencies of the state, whether the executive, the Knesset or operational branches like the IDF and the Histadrut. This I believe would be a more accurate context within which to see the role of the Histadrut.

    Whether engagement or boycott is the best strategy is a different question, but that debate should take place with an accurate understanding of the structural relationships of the various actors.

  2. alex_bjarnason

    Lee, the Histadrut are not a government agency- simply not true, they are independent. And not true that they answer to the state’s political leaders. What are you basing that on?

    I wouldn’t deny the Histadrut has had a major role in the development of the State, but that’s completely difference to being the state and being under the control of the state.

    The comparison to the IDF is bizarre.

  3. Lee Butcher

    Formally that may be the case, but as someone who has worked directly with the Israeli authorities it was the Histradrut that represented the Israeli state and worked as the main intermediary with other agencies, including the IDF. The decline of Israeli Labor has muddied the waters, but in most areas of policy the two work so closely together that the Histadrut functions much as the government agencies do. Formally you are correct, but in practice the situation is much more complicated than you suggest.

    The relationship between the Israeli government and the Histradrut is very different from that of the British Government and the TUC. There are virtually no situations where the TUC would operate as a representative of the British state. The same cannot be said for the Histadrut.

    The IDF comparison is entirely fair. As an organisation they work to implement the policies of the Israeli state (except where disagreements occur, but those are largely domestic Israeli concerns, and do not relate to the occupation). As a result of their activities and proximity to the Israeli state they are open to the same criticisms as the likes of the IDF (and other government agencies).

  4. Roy


    At first you claimed that the Histadrut “is a government agency”, and now you claim that while not a givernment agency “formally”, it is in “practice”.

    As an Israeli citizen who is somewhat familiar with the Histadrut actual “practice”, I’m not aware of any example in the last, say, 2 decades of the Histadrut acting as a government agent.

    Can you provide a real life example of your claim, or will this remain all in the realm of “trust me, I know”?

    In practice, the Histadrut is, time and again, one of the fiercest opponents of the government regarding labor issues, so I fail to see how can it also be the government agent…

  5. Lee Butcher

    My won experience, whole working on behalf of a British trade union trying to get aid into the

  6. Roy

    It is not that I think you are dishonest, but my skepticism is due to the fact that I believe I have ample amount of knowledge on the Histadrut and I’m unfamiliar with even 1 instance where the Histadrut had represented the government.. so I search Google, in Hebrew and English, still couldn’t find an example of the Histadrut representing the government.

    I would even say further, that the Histadrut has no power to decide on anything on behalf of the state, so your claim is pretty explosive because what you claim would actually be illegal under Israeli law. So, if you have proof of your claim, I;m sure that the State Comptroller and Attorney General would be happy to hear about it and take proper action.

    It is more reasonable that your own experience was about the Histadrut acting as a mediator (something you have said yourself) which is very very different from acting as a representative of the state (by definition a mediator is not a representative of the sides being mediated) and especially different from acting as a state agency.

    The Histadrut using it’s familiarity and connections with Israeli bureaucracies, ministers and officials to bring about a common goal is something you should be congratulating and not denouncing and it is completely unrelated to it being a representative of the state.

  7. Roy

    And I want to add that, first, of course the Histadrut is not free from criticism, just like any other organization, but criticism is very different from boycott.

    Secondly, to say that “As far as the policies toward the occupation the two speak from much the same script” is completlly false. I refer you to the Histadrut itself regardin Gaza.

  8. Lee Butcher

    I think first hand experience is much more compelling evidence than a Google search, and everyone involved in the process were under no illusions that the Histadrut were not acting as a representative for the Israeli state. At no point did we see evidence of COGAT being challenged by Histadrut, and the two were working very much hand in hand.

    A free trade union movement, like the TUC, would never act in that function for the British military. That I think is a vitally important difference, and given that the Histadrut were once an important element of the state (which has only recently diminished) it is fair to conclude that connections remain strong.

    That is very much the point, the Histadrut’s connections with the Israeli state open them up to criticism. That common goal they are seeking is the continued occupation of Palestine and the misbehaviour that accompanies that. When we sought to support Palestinians in the West Bank we had to go via the Histadrut. As a result they were acting to support the Israeli state in that matter, which saw numerous delays and problems in achieving a relatively simple aim.

  9. Roy

    Lets just make some things clear:

    – Again, what you describe is not the Histadrut being a representative of the state. What you are complaining about is the Histadrut not being critical enough of the government regarding the occupation, something that was addressed by the author of this piece.

    – Your assumptions that the Histadrut never challenged COGAT, is just an assumption. you don’t really know if the Histadrut challenged COGAT in their negotiations, nor what the Histadrut did or didn’t do to change COGAT policies.

    – The fact that British unions and the UK government cooperation is low, isn’t necessarily a good thing as there are many examples where workers rights got hurt by this lack of cooperation.

    – the Histadrut was an importent elemnt of the Labor party, not the government. your confusion comes from the fact that the Labor was in power for the first 3 decades of Israel existance. and yes I agree that it wasnt a good thing, but today, and for several decades now, it’s roll is very different.

  10. Lee Butcher

    As I have said everyone involved in the process, including the FCO, were of the impression that Histadrut were operating as a representative of the Israeli state. Whether that is the case formally is a different matter, but they were anything but an independent organisation. They were acting as much on behalf of the Israeli state as COGAT. No one came away with the impression that Histadrut held differing views from COGAT. They were working alongside COGAT, not separate from them. Some of the barriers we faced were indeed put up by the Histadrut; they were more than a mediating party but an active participant.

    Theoritically they may be separate bodies, but in practice, in this matter, they were representing the Israeli state. This was made very clear to us by the Israelis themselves. Their theoretical structural relationship is largely a moot point if in practice they operate in a different manner.

    When it is a matter of cooperating with illegal activities and military occupation than the Histadrut’s decision to work with the Israeli state (and, as I have repeated, in my experience have actively participate in their policies toward Palestine) they have opened themselves up to the same criticism as the Israeli state. If they opt to work so closely with them that differentiation is difficult to make than it is right and proper than efforts to end Israel’s poor behaviour involves them as well.

  11. Roy

    Well, Lee, I guess I’ll just have to take your word for it.

    Although, it should be mentioned, that everyone I know of here in Israel who worked with the Histadrut would find your impression (that the Histadrut acts as the representative of the state) very peculiar… maybe it’s different in the case of aid and the territories. maybe…

    What I would like to challenge is your assertion that the Histadrut is cooperating with the state on “illegal activities and military occupation”, and because of this it is “opened itself up to the same criticism as the Israeli state”.

    We probably differ on what is illegal and what is not regarding the occupation, but regardless I’m not aware of the Histadrut cooperating regarding demolishing homes, arresting Palestinians, conducting or supporting military operation of any kind, supporting the siege on Gaza etc.

    Actually, the only cooperation I know of, regarding the occupation, is enabling humanitarian aid into the territories (and this without mentioning the many many cases where the Histadrut went against the government to better Palestinian workers conditions, like extending the “labor law” in Israel to the settlements, which they succeeded in doing). Presenting the Histadrut efforts to bring aid to the territories as cooperating with “illegal activities and military occupation” is not only far fetched but also very twisted. you may believe that the Histadrut is not doing ALL that it can to expedite the delivery of aid, but to condemn them for taking interest on this issue is morally bankrupt.

    so in your view it would be better if they just keep their hands off the Palestinian issue, including fighting for palestinian workers rights and helping deliver aid?

  12. Lee Butcher

    In the case I am speaking of the opposite was in fact true. COGAT and Histadrut placed innumerable obstacles before us in our efforts to deliver aid into the West Bank. The impression we received from the FCO was that this was not an unusual situation. All that was required was for the authorities to allow one lorry from Haifa into the West Bank, but this took a number of months (after it arrived in Israel) to achieve and many varied difficulties were discovered by the Israelis in order to hinder that process. I would not categorise the Histadrut has an enabling force. Throughout it was clear that the Histadrut and COGAT were acting as one in the same in this matter, therefore I believe it is accurate to describe the Histadrut as a representative of the Israeli state during this process.

    It is clear we will have to agree to disagree, but since you have been presented evidence that suggests that the Histadrut’s actions run contrary to what ordinary Israelis expect from them perhaps you ought to be asking some critical questions of them. Especially when it comes to working with foreigners who, in my experience, are left with an unfortunately negative view of the Israeli state after having to deal with them in order to conduct entirely reasonable interactions with the Palestinians.

  13. Roy

    Let me start by stating what should be obvious but clearly is not in this case: someone (in this case – you) saying something is true isn’t considered “evidence”.
    If the bar for evidence was so low than we would also believe that Israel deliberately kills children for fun, that Israel harvests organs and uses chemical weapons and that aliens exist in our midst.

    My bewilderment at your claims is not due to the Histadrut not acting like I would expect. It is just that it doesn’t really make sense for the following reasons:

    The Histadrut has a proven history of fighting for Palestinian rights, like the extending of labor laws I mentioned earlier, fighting for social rights for Palestinians, training Palestinians and giving support the Palestinian unions, fighting for the easing of restrictions for Palestinian workers, giving benefits to employers who hire Palestinians and more. So, it doesn’t really makes sense that suddenly the Histadrut has made 180 degrees turn and now seeks to “place innumerable obstacles” (as you put it) regarding aid to Palestinians.

    Not only that, but the Histadrut doesn’t receive any money or benefits from coordinating the entrance of aid to the territories, it is not a sub-contractor of the government and in all respects it’s an independent organization. So it seems to me illogical that the Histadrut would decide out of its own accord to waste it’s time and resources just for the sake of making it harder for foreigners to deliver aid. It’s just senseless. What motive does it have in doing so, especially considering its positive record regarding the Palestinians?

    To believe that the Histadrut have decided to allocate resources just to make it harder for Palestinians to get aid (as opposed to the Histadrut committing itself to this issue to try to help ease the process) requires on to attribute the Histadrut an enormous amount of bad faith.

    And let’s just state another obvious fact, that UK unions don’t have shortage in antipathy to anything relating to Israel, regardless of their dealings with her. My own experience, for example, with British union members is an ample amount of animosity combined with embarrassing ignorance (for example, almost all UK union members I met or contacted online are sure that the Histadrut is Jewish only). And if you look at the enormous amount of resolutions in UK unions regarding Israel and what being said about Israel, there isn’t any shortage of stories which are half-truths or even turn out to be completely false.

    So forgive me for my skepticism. When criticism which doesn’t make any real sense (like I explained above) comes from UK union members, one is understandably suspicious.

    This brings me to the last (actually the first) issue. Evidence!

    You claimed that this is a standard behavior of the Histadrut. You also said that the FCO itself indicated that it is common. So, considering the fact that even the most miniscule issues are reported and researched regarding Israeli treatment of the Palestinians, and considering that the FCO itself isn’t known from holding back with criticism of Israel and considering the fact that what you accuse the Histadrut (putting hurdles on aid to Palestinians) is pretty explosive because it’s record of pro-Palestinian endeavors – I would expect that some record of what you claim (official reports of HR organizations, investigative journalism, even official statements of British unions) should be out there… but as I said, I couldn’t find any. And I am considered a pretty good google searcher.

    You may be right that personal experience may be stronger than google search, but with all due respect, the only one it would be more compelling to is you. For others, evidence should be a little more…. objective.

    So, if you can’t give any supporting evidence that is stronger than just you saying so… your claims are basically null.. especially when they don’t make very much sense. I’m sure glad that the laws of civilized countries don’t convict people only the testimony of agenda driven individuals.

  14. Funzarian

    A worrying self belief from Lee that the world should all believe him because ‘he says so’ – despite no actual evidence whatsoever, despite being contrary to actual facts….. yes….Lee knows much better and is more objective than any Israeli, google, the internet et al…

    In fact, maybe Lee, with his vast superior knowledge should start his search engine…”lee search or lee-knows-best” where you type in things about Jews/Israelis/Zionists and his “trust me i know” results supersede anything factual or with actual evidence.

    If you repeat a lie enough times…….

  15. Jock Haston

    “In Britain the TUC would never operate as an official representative of the British state, and certainly would not act as a conduit for the views of the military”
    The First World War? The Second World War? Korea? Suez? The Falklands? Afghanistan?
    I think the TUC may, possibly, have opposed the Iraq war.
    What the bloody hell are you on, Lee?
    You really should study the history of the British Labour movement.

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