After the recent revival of mass resistance for Palestine, David McAllister interviews Louise Regan of the NEU and Palestine Solidarity Campaign about the crucial role of trade unions
Recent mobilisations have been notable for the banner ‘Trade Unionists for Palestine’ which was supported by 14 different unions. Why is it important that trade unions support Palestine?
Trade unions have been at the forefront of fighting for justice for the Palestinian people for many years. All the major trade unions in the UK are affiliated to the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and meet regularly to coordinate the work that they do. Many trade unions have also taken delegations of members to visit and witness first-hand the impact of the occupation on the lives of the Palestinians. As trade unionists we are committed to fighting for justice and equality. These values have no borders and that is why we should stand with all those who face oppression and discrimination – both here and globally.
Recent mobilisations have seen a huge increase in people standing in solidarity with the Palestinians. It has been good to see trade unionists building for and attending these rallies but it has also been fantastic to see a huge number of young people joining them.
What is the significance of Palestine for domestic politics here in the UK, particularly in relation to the trade union movement?
Over the past few years, we have seen a real attempt to silence those voices speaking out against the injustices faced by the Palestinians. Whilst at times our government has condemned the actions of Israel, no real pressure has been exerted by them and their outright opposition to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions call make any real hope of changing the situation limited. Last year, at TUC congress, a motion was passed referring to an 'apartheid Israeli state' and the recent Human Rights Watch and B'Tselem reports highlight clearly the evidence that this is the case.
The call for BDS came from civil society in Palestine and the trade union movement needs to ensure that it is not only supporting the call but also putting pressure on politicians to take this forward as a legitimate and just way to challenge the Israeli government’s actions. Without pressure being applied from governments globally by sanctions against them, the state of Israel will continue to act with impunity. The UK government is also complicit in Israel's violations of Palestinian human rights through the arms trade. Despite the illegality of Israel's occupation and apartheid system, the UK is one of the main arms exporters to Israel as well as a major purchaser of Israeli weapons and weapon technology. The trade union movement needs to put pressure on the government to halt these sales and to end all arms trades until they end their mistreatment of the Palestinians.
How does support for Palestine from your own union, the NEU, translate into what happens in schools?
The NEU, and historically the NUT, has been campaigning around this issue since the 1980s. Over the last few years, we have taken two delegations a year to visit and see first-hand the daily experience of the Palestinian people, including visiting many schools to hear from education workers and children about their experiences. During our visits, members see the harsh reality of the occupation - the massive military presence, the checkpoints that stop Palestinians getting to work, school, their land or accessing medical care. They hear the voices of the people who have lived under this occupation for all or most of their lives.
We meet families who face forced removal from their homes, hear the testimony of families whose children have been taken from their homes by the military at night, and we visit refugee camps and see the harsh, cramped conditions in which many families are living. Despite what they endure, we are always welcomed and greeted with love and joy. There is always delicious Palestinian food, coffee and sweet treats wherever we go.
Members are always shocked by what they see but they return determined to speak out. Most members will tell you that it is a life changing experience and are clear that once you have seen you cannot remain silent.
Many members use their experience to educate within their schools - through assemblies, global learning and history. During the recent mobilisations, members were able to use their experience to talk sensitively and knowledgably with students about the situation.
What does this support mean for Palestine in terms of the experiences of children and educators under occupation?
The work done specifically by the NEU is extremely important to educators and students in Palestine. We work extremely closely with our sister trade union the General Union of Palestinian Teachers (GUPT) who organise our school visits during our delegation visits. We have also worked with them on a number of projects supporting educators to deal with trauma and engaging women in the trade union movement. Our visits to schools in Palestine allow members to see the reality of life for educators and students living under occupation, and reflect on this in the work that they do back in their own settings. We also know that our Palestinian partners appreciate the work that we do amplifying their voices when we return.
What is the significance of the recent general strike in Palestine?
The recent general strike in Palestine was extremely significant. It was a true show of unity across the Palestinian population against the impact of the occupation, the recent attacks in Gaza, the attacks in the Al Aqsa mosque and the Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah who are being forcibly removed from their homes. The need for unity is absolutely essential – now is really the time to push forward in support for the Palestinian people. Unity amongst Palestinians fighting back is also essential.
What can we do within our unions to build the Palestine solidarity movement?
Trade unions should be at the forefront of fighting for Palestinian rights. We should ensure that our unions are affiliated nationally but also at branch level. We should invite speakers from the Palestine Solidarity Campaign to our meetings to update members about the current situation and we should also encourage members to join PSC as individuals.
We can also make sure that we are promoting events and campaigns, also putting motions to our union conferences and to TUC congress in support of the Palestinian cause.
Finally, we should be pushing for our union to organise regular delegations to Palestine as these are so empowering for our members in understanding the need for solidarity and the need to continue to speak out.
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