The case for joining a trades union and getting involved

To understand why I gave this speech, a little background is necessary.  Delegates to the National Union of Journalists Annual Delegate Meeting (ADM) in April 2007 voted to adopt a loosely-worded composite motion instructing the union’s national executive to call on the TUC, to call for a campaign for a boycott of Israeli goods.

It would be usual for the National Executive to take a position on all motions put to the ADM.  However, the meetings at which our position should have been discussed were badly managed and so this motion was never considered.  Had it been, I would have made the following argument.

‘Many NUJ members report on the Middle East, in which capacity, they are subjected to intense scrutiny in respct any bias that they might display.  For their union to take a position such of this would make their lives as reporters significantly more difficult.  Moreover, no matter how critical the NUJ might be of Israel’s actions and no matter how deplorably the Palestinians have been treated,  there will be no shortage of bodies in British civic society that will be robust in their condemnations of Israel.  The NUJ, however, is a trades union, whose first duty is to represent its members in their working lives.  Calling for a boycott of Israeli goods would inevitably alienate some of our members, without actually doing anything to improve the situation in the middle east.  Indeed, the likely damage to the NUJ would significantly outweigh any good that might come of adopting such a position.’

Poor management of the NEC meant that I could not make this argument to that body, and because the NEC did not have a position, I was not allowed to make this case to the ADM.

On balance, I believe that then general secretary Jeremy Dear was initially quite happy with this situation.  Watching the policy being passed without any real debate allowed him to avoid a battle with the left, an amorphous group that he successfully appeased or supported during his decade in office.

Predictably, once the policy had passed, the union was hit by a firestorm.  Some criticism was quite genuine; a significant number of members in the BBC signed a petition calling for the position to be abandoned, for example.  Some was pure hot air – angry letters arrived from the United States and one or two people who had long since left the union were quoted as saying that they had ‘torn up their union cards’ in protest.

The general secretary was, however, rattled, and quickly sought an exit strategy.  Happily, the wording of the original composite motion (which itself turned out to be a confection only loosely connected to the original motions from which it was crafted) provided the necessary wiggle room.

I suspect that the audience to which I am speaking in the above clip would have been unlikely to have supported anything but the mildest criticism of Israel.  I gave the speech though because it was an opportunity to bang the drum for trades unions and to encourage more of their members to become involved in their running.

Only when I got there did I discover that it was also an opportunity to share a platform with such luminaries as Howard Jacobson and Maureen Lipman, who, if she is reading this I would like to proffer my apologies.  She managed to retain an admirable degree of composure, despite my gesticulations several times coming perilously close to delivering a painful blow to her head.