Mike Treen is the National Director of Unite Union, representing fast food and hospitality workers across Aotearoa. Next month Mike will be participating in this year’s mission by the Freedom Flotilla Coalition to break the siege on Gaza. In this interview Nadia Abu-Shanab, of Wellington Palestine, interviews Mike on his part in the 2018 Freedom Flotilla mission and the links between unions in Aotearoa and the global movement for justice in Palestine.
Mike has a long history of activism. Playing a major role in movements that transformed not only Aotearoa, but also how our small Pacific nation related to the rest of the world. Notably, participating in the anti-Vietnam war campaign, the Bastion Point occupation and organising as part of anti-apartheid movement during the Springbok tours.
Please note that tonight, Thursday the 7th of June, Mike and other union activists will be meeting at Unite Union in Auckland to discuss how to deepen union support for Palestine and BDS: Unions for Palestine meeting, 7:00pm, Unite Union, 6a Western Springs Road, Kingsland, Auckland.
Nadia: Kia ora Mike, you’ve been invited to participate in an attempt to break the siege of Gaza. Can you please tell us a bit about the flotilla and why you’ve decided to go?
Mike: Israel imposed a land, sea and air blockade on Gaza in June 2007 to punish the people of Gaza for electing a political party that Israel did not approve of.
1.8 million Palestinian people are effectively prisoners on a tiny strip of land. They have no free access to other parts of Palestine or the outside world.
Very few supplies are able to be imported. The social infrastructure has been progressively destroyed. Israel also periodically invades or bombs the territory on various pretexts. No materials are allowed in to rebuild.
There is now a renewed urgency to break this blockade.
Since protests on the Gaza-Israel border began on March 30, Israeli troops have killed 115 Palestinians and wounded more than 13,000 people, including 3,600 by live ammunition, through to the end of May according to the International Red Cross. This horrific number includes 29 medics shot and two killed.
The blockade of Gaza must end now.
Nadia: How does the blockade on Gaza affect workers?
Mike: Normal economic life struggles to exist. Almost half the working population is unemployed. Poverty rates are through the roof: 80% of the population is now dependent on foreign aid to survive.
Palestinian Authority (PA) civil servants in the Gaza Strip have also suffered from repeated salary delays and cuts, as their importance for the besieged Palestinian territory’s economy is apparently used by the PA as a pressure point to target Hamas.
Workers turned the Friday May 4 into a “Friday of Workers” as part of the protests in Gaza and marched on the Israeli border fence.
The Middle East Eye reported some workers comments:
“I used to supervise 10 workers, and today I cannot find a job opportunity,” unemployed carpenter Amin Herzallah, 40, told Middle East Eye.
“The Palestinian workers never stop giving, they contribute in building society regardless of the Israeli occupation and wars,” Herzallah added. “However, we do not enjoy our full rights in Gaza due to the limited job opportunities, the collapsed economy, and the occupation that prevent many materials and equipment from entering Gaza, which hinder us from working and earning our income.”
“We see the Great Return March as our last hope,” 32-year-old Mansour al-Hattab told MEE. The construction worker has been out of a job for eight months, and has depended on humanitarian aid for the survival of his four children – income that has dried up in the past several months due to decreased funds.
“I see no hope in the Israeli occupation, as it kills us with no mercy, while we are unarmed and peacefully protesting. We call the international world to take actions towards the situation of the workers and Israel’s crimes against us.”
Nadia: You’ve talked about travelling on the flotilla wearing your hat as a New Zealand trade unionist. Can you explain why you think unions and their members should be concerned with things happening in other parts of the world?
Mike: We live in a world run by the 1% – a tiny class of super rich individuals and families who control most banking and goods production for the market. This class has been getting richer and more powerful over recent decades. Working people on the other hand have suffered setbacks to our rights and living standards. In this world, working people must fight for our basic rights to live in dignity.
If workers win fights in other countries, whether it is teachers in the US who are waging big struggles as we speak, or Railway workers in France resisting attacks on their rights over the last few months, then all workers are strengthened. We can see workers win victories, and get inspired to follow. Our common enemy is also weakened.
Defeats can also have a cumulative effect on workers. That, unfortunately, has been true in the last few decades when workers rights and living standards have been undermined in most of the advanced capitalist countries.
That is why unions also have international federations to support each other. Unite is part of the International Union of Food Workers and we have been actively supporting the worldwide campaign to unionise McDonald’s and other fast-food workers. Unite’s success in these areas has been inspirational to workers overseas and we have been invited to speak and help plan campaigns in the US and UK in recent years.
Workers, also have an interest in broader social progress and equality between people. The employing class uses differences between us, whether race, sex, language, religion to have us fighting among ourselves and preventing unity. If one section of the population can be kept down through discriminatory laws or social practices then they can be super exploited. This is obviously true for many migrant workers in New Zealand.
Workers are also vitally concerned with trying to prevent war between countries because we know it is working people who fight and die while big business seeks to expand their control over people and markets to profit from.
Apartheid is a social system which uses both legal discrimination and social exclusion of large parts of the population from being able to exercise their basic rights. Certain people are subject to appalling methods of social control and exploitation, backed up by legal discrimination enforced by the brute force of the police and military.
Apartheid existed in South Africa and has been installed in Palestine through the perpetual occupation and control of Palestinian land by Israel.
But the oppressed Black majority in South Africa never gave up their struggle against Apartheid until it was finally ended in 1990.
The combination of legal and social makes these states particularly abhorrent. That is why the world has responded to appeals from the oppressed people of South Africa under Apartheid and the Palestinians under Israeli rule for a boycott of these apartheid states until full equality has been achieved for all citizens.
Nadia: People often say we shouldn’t intervene in the so called “Israel-Palestine conflict” because the situation is complex. What is your response to that?
Mike: I do not believe the situation is that complex. In the area that was once historic Palestine there live two main groups of people – Israeli’s of Jewish ancestry and Palestinians. 6.5 million people are Jewish backgrounds and live in the State of Israel founded in 1948. 1.8m Palestinians also live in the State of Israel. Another 1.8 million Palestinians live in Gaza and 2.8 million live in the territories known as the West Bank which was occupied by Israel in 1967.
Only the people of Jewish heritage have full rights in the State of Israel. The millions of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank have lived under military blockade and occupation for over half a century. People can be detained without trial for years on end. Children can be arrested and detained. Land can be expropriated at will. Their land is being progressively taken from them and illegal Jewish only settlements established. Special Jewish only roads link these settlements to Israel. A wall has been built to try to exclude Palestinians from accessing land or connecting with each other. That is apartheid by any definition.
Nadia: Given this is a situation of apartheid, can you speak on unions and their part in overcoming this? Is there a role unions can and should be playing?
Mike: The unions in Palestine were part of the civil society coalition that asked the world to support a Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions campaign against Israel. This BDS campaign has got strong support around the world. Unions were also a key part of the campaign against the Apartheid state in South Africa. Workers in New Zealand and other countries took strike action in support of the struggle in South Africa. Dockworkers, in particular, took action to disrupt trade. The most memorable form of this boycott campaign in this country was successfully stopping official sporting contact between New Zealand and South Africa in the 1980s. A similar worldwide campaign is needed today. It is symbolically important that South African unions have taken the lead in supporting this worldwide boycott call.
Nadia: The NZ CTU (Council of Trade Unions) passed a motion to support Palestine some years ago. Can you tell us about this? How could this be built upon?
Mike: Unite Union adopted a resolution to support the BDS campaign in 2009 and forwarded this to the Council of Trade Unions for discussion. With a small amendment, it was adopted. It reads as follows. But the words need to be turned into action.
Resolution on Palestine as amended by NAC November 2009
Over 170 Palestinian political parties, unions and other organisations including the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions issued a call in July 2005 for a global campaign of boycotts and divestment against Israel.
The Council of Trade Unions will work to:
- Demand the Israeli Government immediately withdraw from the occupied territories and abide by UN resolution 242 which requires Israel to withdraw to 1967 borders.
- Support the international campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions on Israel until it meets its obligation to recognise the Palestinian people’s inalienable right to self-determination and fully complies with the precepts of international law including the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194.
- Call for the end of suicide bombings, military assaults and other acts of violence that take the lives of innocent people and demand that the Israeli West Bank barrier be immediately torn down.
- Develop an education campaign about the nature of the Israeli occupation to take this campaign to all New Zealand workers.
- Call on the New Zealand government to increase humanitarian aid to Palestinians that have been affected by the ongoing conflict.
The Council of Trade Unions is taking these steps because of the appeal to support Palestinian workers and because:
- No lasting peace can be created unless there is implementation of international law, United Nations resolutions and respect for the human rights of both Palestinians and Israeli citizens.
- 42 years ago, the United Nations Security Council unanimously called for Israel to withdraw from territories it invaded in 1967 (West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem) in resolution 242.
- Israel has refused to implement resolution 242 for 42 years and, moreover, has illegally established Jewish only settlements in these areas in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention.
- The Israeli West Bank has been condemned and determined illegal under international law. The West Bank severely restricts the movement of and work possibilities for Palestinians, violates international law, is partially built on land confiscated from Palestinians and is not a way to create lasting peace and security.
Nadia: You recently caught up with Palestinian journalist and author Ramzy Baroud on his tour here. He talked about how Israeli colonisation is not dissimilar to the colonisation of Aotearoa and stressed the importance of making links. What are your thoughts on this?
Mike: New Zealand, Australia, Canada and the United States are colonial settler states like Israel.
All five countries subjugated and dispossessed their indigenous populations. Forms of race discrimination and social exclusion continue to exist and should be opposed by working people and their organisations for reasons I have discussed earlier.
If Israel had remained within its 1948 borders then the similarities would have been stronger. However, since 1967 they have become a state that for over 50 years has subjugated millions more people with almost no legal rights.
The Israeli state since 1967 which de facto includes Gaza and the West Bank, has existed longer than the Israeli state from 1948 to 1967. That state, unlike New Zealand, is an Apartheid state.
But it is noticeable that indigenous peoples around the world, including Māori in New Zealand, have a strong sense of solidarity with the Palestinian people because they share the history of injustice that all colonised peoples share.
Nadia: What are your fears and hopes for the journey ahead?
Mike: The blockade of Gaza will end one day. I hope that we will be the ones to do it. It would be an enormous privilege to see the people of Gaza with my own eyes and hand over these boats to be used by their fishers. I fear that I won’t be so lucky and the Israeli military will stop these ships as they have done many times before. But if they do, we will use their piracy on international waters to expose the inhumanity of the blockade before the people of the world.
Nadia: We’re wishing you the best on the mission. How can we can follow and support your journey and the flotilla attempt?
Mike: There are already regular updates of the journey on the Kia Ora Gaza website and there is a new site dedicated to the freedom flotilla.
We also need financial support for the campaign.
You may recall Kia Ora Gaza sponsored two senior Maori TV journalists on the 2015 Freedom Flotilla, and in 2016 sent Green Party co-leader & MP Marama Davidson on the Women’s Boat to Gaza.
As well as myself the campaign is sending NZ/Palestinian yacht engineer Youssef Sammour will join as a crew member on the boats. Kia Ora Gaza is a member of the multinational Freedom Flotilla Coalition.
This time the flotilla, of four boats will have on board many eminent participants and crew from 20 countries around the world.
New Zealand’s share of the costs of this non-violent peace mission will include a contribution to the purchase of the four boats, refit, equipment, accommodation and airfares, totalling approximately $40,000.
If you are able to assist, here are our bank account details:
Kia Ora Gaza Trust, 03-0211-0447718-000, Westpac Bank, Onehunga branch.
Afterwards, please email email@example.com with your deposit details so our Board of Trustees can send you an e-receipt.
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