German trade union head backs Histadrut against anti-Israel boycotts

New labor-based group 'Trade Unions Linking Israel and Palestine' (TULIP) launched in April.

Eini 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Eini 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Confederation of German Trade Unions (DGB) President Michael Sommer announced his support Thursday for a new labor-based group, TULIP, that aims to stop trade union-sponsored efforts to boycott Israel. Speaking at a joint Histadrut and DGB event in Berlin entitled "A reliable partnership," Histadrut Labor Federation Chairman Ofer Eini said it "is a bad phenomenon" when labor unions declare a boycott against Israel because it "damages the workers organizations" among Palestinians and Israelis. He added that "TULIP is very important for us" and asked his counterpart Sommer for support at the event, which was sponsored by the German-Israeli friendship society of Berlin-Potsdam. TULIP (Trade Unions Linking Israel and Palestine) was launched in April and is led by union officials from three continents - Paul Howes, national secretary of the Australian Workers Union; Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (US/Canada); and Michael Leahy, general secretary of Community, a British trade union. Sommer, who is considered a staunch ally of Israel and its trade union movement, told The Jerusalem Post that he supports the TULIP initiative and will propose an affiliation with the group at next week's DGB executive board meeting. Ulrike Sommer, wife of DGB president Sommer, is an active member in the Berlin-Potsdam chapter of the German-Israeli friendship society. Jochen Feilcke, a former Christian Democratic Union party MP and president of the local Berlin-Potsdam DIG, moderated the panel with Eini and Sommer. Sommer's declaration to reject anti-Israel boycott resolutions comes as no surprise to trade unionists because he has a solid track record in combating international and domestic calls to isolate Israel. In 2007, Sommer took the lead in mobilizing support for a statement from the DGB's eight member unions to oppose trade union boycotts of Israel. Reacting to the hostile language of the anti-Israeli trade union resolutions, Sommer said at that time, "The slogans of the anti-Israeli boycott measures are an embarrassing reminder of the Nazi rallying cry, 'Don't buy at Jewish stores.'" Eini and Sommer expressed dismay over the leadership of British and South African trade unions who are advocating boycott measures against Israel. Sommer said that during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, there were renewed anti-Israel activities, particularly from the public service workers union UNISON in the United Kingdom, which is the largest trade union in the UK. UNISON had voted in 2007 to boycott Israeli products and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) urged the South African government to sever diplomatic relations with Israel. "That wouldn't happen with German unions," said Sommer to the mix of trade unionists and German-Israel friendship society members in the audience. It is "absurd" that trade unions are seeking to boycott Israel because the Histadrut is "building a bridge to Palestinian workers," said Eini. He cited a 2008 agreement between the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU) and the Histadrut in which the Israeli labor union transferred outstanding fee payments to the PFGTU. Guy Ryder, the head of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), of which both the Histadrut and PGFTU are members, praised the agreement last August. He said, "It means that the PGFTU will be able to ensure much more effective representation for Palestinian workers, while those working for Israeli employers will also benefit." Eini cited a recent agreement to include 30 Palestinian workers in a construction apprenticeship program which would entail permanent jobs following completion of the training course. The close working relationship - and friendship - between Eini and Sommer is an outgrowth of their period as public service employee union leaders. Sommer ran the postal worker's union which was absorbed by the service employees union Verdi in 2001. He took over the reins of the 6.5 million member DGB in 2002 and ushered in a sophisticated era of modern trade unionism. Eini, who succeeded ex-Defense Minister and former Histadrut president Amir Peretz in 2006 as the head of the union, is determined to organize low-wage workers and expand the Histadrut's membership base. Semadar Wuerthner, an Israeli living in Berlin, asked Sommer about German industry's support for trade with the Islamic Republic of Iran, as well as the non-profit organization NUMOV's efforts to bolster commerce with the Iranian regime at the expense of Israel's national security. Sommer, who had spoke in 2005 at a rally protesting the Iran-sponsored Al-Quds demonstration in Berlin, which calls each year for the destruction of Israel, said he sees the "danger in Iran." He said, however, that the "DGB cannot replace politics" in combatting the Iranian threat. In Germany, according to Sommer, "a societal atmosphere" has to be created to sensitize political parties concerning Iran. Sommer said he is a proponent of the German-Israel "special relationship" and rejects the calls for a "return to normal relations." "We have a latent form of anti-Semitism in this society." said Sommer, adding that the German union movement views itself as "fighter of anti-Semitism." He cited the oft-heard statement that, "We are not against the Jews, but Israel" as an area where the public needs to be sensitized in overcoming prejudice. Rising anti-Zionism and anti-Israel boycott measures among such trade union leaders within the Irish Congress of Trade Union, the University College Union (the largest academic union in England), and the Scottish Trades Union Congress helped fuel TULIP's founding statement of criticism which said: "A number of those unions have called for boycotts and sanctions directed against Israel, and only against Israel. They are attempting to demonize the Jewish state, to deny it legitimacy, and to whip up hatred against it. Sometimes that hatred even spills over into anti-Semitism. Those unions are wrong - terribly wrong.'"