A Northern Ireland Trade Unionist, Margaret Gregg, recently visited Israel as part of a delegation from Trade Union Friends of Israel. Here Margaret reflects on her visit to the region.
In November 2012, I was given the opportunity by my trade union, the GMB, to visit Israel with a group consisting of 8 delegates from the UK and 10 from Australia. The delegation co-coordinators were Trade Union Friends of Israel (www.tufi.org.uk).
The delegation first visited the Old City of Jerusalem with our guide who was an expert in the history of the city, and brought to life for us the many nations and religions that had been a part of the 3000 years of Jerusalem.
Later in the day we met a representative of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs who brought us up to date on the electoral system to the Israeli parliament, the Knesset.
The next visit was to the office of the Quartet Representative, this position is currently held by Tony Blair. We met the teams focusing on improving economic growth and job creation on the West Bank. They explained problems of logistics and transport in the region. Their efforts were taking longer due to on-going political differences, hold ups and withdrawals because of the violence, and the stance of some trade unions was not helpful. In respect of the last point, the Quartet representatives said they were pleased that our delegation had come to Israel to see facts on the ground.
Arrangements had been made during the trip to meet trade union groups and that obviously held a particular interest to me. We went to a dinner hosted by the Union of Government employees, based in Jerusalem, who told us about their successful negotiations and taking part in the General Strike in February 2012, which obtained direct employment status for thousands of contract workers in the public and private sectors after nine months of employment (similar to the Manpower Companies Law in the UK). Also equalisation of work conditions and wages between contract workers not absorbed into direct employment and workers employed directly in the business.
The 2nd day we met with the Jerusalem Municipality employees committee. This is a very powerful group representing all employees within the Council. The members come from all the communities, Arabs, Muslim and Christian, Jews and Secular. They were also able to share with us stories of successful campaigns for better pay and working conditions.
The visit to the Yad Vashem Museum, the Holocaust Memorial Centre, brought home to me why the Jews are passionate for self determination within the state of Israel. I found looking at the photographs and documents, about the systematic extermination of the Jews, a very moving experience.
Later that day we met with the employees committee from a supermarket chain called Mega. After a working lunch at a kosher restaurant, sampling many of the foods supplied by ‘Mega,’ we were given a tour of their enormous distribution centre. The company owns stores, which supplies goods, groceries, vegetables, fruit, to urban and rural areas throughout Israel.
Later that evening we had the privilege of meeting Labour MK Isaac Herzog, the former Welfare Minister, who has close ties with Belfast through his grandfather and father. He is the son of the late Israeli President Chaim Herzog, born in Belfast, and grandson of Rabbi Isaac Herzog who was spiritual leader of the Jews in Belfast for some years; I was pleased to present him with a souvenir from Belfast!
3rd Day, we travelled to the “green line” which divides Israel from the West Bank, to meet with an Officer of the IDF. He explained that since the security barrier had been erected the numbers of suicide bombing and other violent attacks had been greatly reduced.
Our next visit was to the Cava Halva factory in the West Bank, where Palestinians and Israelis worked together. We met with Palestinian workers who lived in villages nearby. They said that relations were good within the company. They told us that they aspired to a Palestinian state. The pay and conditions in the factory were better than in Palestinian towns, where wages are low and there was a lack of employment. The workers we met did not want a boycott of goods from the West Bank factories.
The next stop was Nablus, a Palestinian town in the West Bank; we met with sector leaders of the PGFTU (Palestine General Federation of Trade Unions, 290,000 members). Nasser Younis, Head of the Transportation Workers section chaired the meeting. They explained the difficulties they faced in the region because of lack of jobs and the differential in pay between their workers and Israeli workers. The PGFTU were willing to meet and had worked on a transport project with the Histadrut (Israeli Federation of Trade Unions). They were wary of outside political influence particularly in Hamas governed Gaza; they had strength in membership and support in the West Bank. The situation was difficult. They appreciated the support from the Trade Unions internationally but admitted they could not supply the jobs required to meet the needs of their people. They wanted companies to set up in the West Bank,
The final day we had a tour of the Old town of Jaffa. We then met with Ofer Eini, the Chairman of the Histadrut (which represents 700,000 workers in Israel, of all religions, race and gender). Ofer Eini spoke of the union’s relationship with the Government, the successes they had achieved, the successful general strike and also supported the mass street protests for social justice. They had a working relationship with the PGFTU and an agreement was signed between them in 2008, but as stated by the PGFTU as well, this is a sensitive relationship. The leaders have to meet at a neutral venue.
This delegation was a unique opportunity for me. Israel is a beautiful country and the people we met were very friendly. As with Northern Ireland there are two different traditions and many different narratives. I was pleased to be able to hear a range of opinions. Passion runs high and especially as our visit was during a particular harrowing time when missiles fired from Gaza had reached Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and the lives of millions of people had been disrupted. There is, however, a willingness to secure peace.
When I heard the Israeli Ambassador to the UK speak in Belfast recently, at a meeting of the Northern Ireland Friends of Israel, I had an understanding of the content and context of his talk , which I would not have had if I had not visited Israel. A very rewarding visit and my thanks once again to my union and TUFI (particularly Steve Scott and Doreen Gerson) who gave me the opportunity to have this experience.
Margaret Gregg. (Central Executive Member GMB.)