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How to make friends and influence people in Palestine

13 May 2014

Paul Holleran

When setting off to deliver a series of trade union training workshops to journalists in Ramallah I really did not expect it to morph into a minor diplomatic event in the Middle East peace process. Organised by the IFJ for the Palestinian Journalists' Syndicate (PJS), the trip was an introduction to trade union activists on how to improve negotiating skills and develop a better understanding of collective bargaining.

Quite a bit of progress had been made, but it was still a shock when by the third day we were hurriedly driven to the president’s palace to meet Mahmoud Abbas and other senior figures within the Palestinian Authority.

Over Easter weekend, a lively time in the Jerusalem area, there were 30 or so delegates taking part in the training, around 20 mainly new reps and eight or nine members of the PJS executive. They were made up of a mixture of newspaper, online and broadcast journalists but mainly the latter. To cover all bases I had taken three house agreements between NUJ Scotland, Johnston Press, Daily Record and Sunday Mail and STV. My aim was to show the diversity and range of approaches that they could take in pursuit of what would be their first ever agreement between the union and employers. 

Very quickly PJS executive members identified the attraction of taking elements out of each agreement, particularly the STV document. A group of us including IFJ president Jim Boumelha and Monir Zaarour also of the IFJ sat up into the early hours of Easter Sunday with Palestinian beer and sandwiches for succour, to hammer out the required changes from a Scottish version of the agreement to one more relevant to our Arab hosts.

Some hours later we put the new draft now in Arabic to the union rep groups for their input. The feedback was impressive as they added detail to the various headings within the draft agreement.

Health and safety is an essential issue for journalists and camera operators in the area with a number of serious injuries in recent months and I suspect a larger working group will be set up to put more meat on the bones of that part of the agreement. Other issues included equal opportunities, pay and transparency around recruitment were raised by a number of reps over the weekend; censorship and freedom of speech for journalists was another burning topic; use of short term contracts and exploitation of freelancers; redundancy terms; maternity and paternity leave; probation periods; clothing allowances and pension were all added to the shopping list for inclusion in the first negotiation.

We spent some time discussing how to tackle the problem of having no recognised pay structures but it was accepted by the PJS that this was another course for a future date.

There was tangible excitement among the PJS delegates as they watched a new agreement unfolding before them. This was the first ever agreement which they hoped would be a real step towards a functioning industrial relations set up within the Palestinian media and recognition by the Palestinian Authority of their rights as part of a free press.

The importance of the draft agreement became sharply real when senior members of the PJS executive ushered Jim Boumelha and I into a four wheel drive and sped spectacularly across Ramallah to the president's palace. Once through security we met the head of the Palestinian Broadcasting Corporation (PBC) and were told the President would join us shortly.

I had been reading in the English language versions of the Israeli and Arab newspapers about how the so called peace negotiations were grinding to a halt. With some sympathy they suggested president Abbas was between a rock and three or four hard places. Conjecture was that he might walk away and tell the Israelis to run the show themselves.

He was smaller in stature than I imagined having seen him only on TV, but had a presence of someone who was used to meeting everyone and anyone from the US president to other heads of state in the search for peace in the Middle East. He thanked us for our efforts and said we should not underestimate their gratitude for what he believed was an important step for Palestine.

Jim assured him of the widespread interest and support among journalist trade unions in their struggle and the PJS president proceeded to tell him that my daughter Suzy had worked as a teacher in the West Bank a few years earlier. Needless to say we also touched on the issue of the Scottish independence referendum and president Abbas suggested it was exciting times in Scotland.

When he left the president's Charge d'Affaires approached us and introduced himself explaining he had studied at Glasgow University and had many fond memories of his time there. He ended the conversation by explaining briefly how important it was to put in place an agreement between the authority and PJS saying: "it is not possible to have a healthy democracy without a healthy press and we want to be seen as healthy democracy".

The next day Mahmoud Abbas and his team met with Hamas leaders in Gaza and formed the beginnings of a unified Palestinian front to strengthen their position for a democratic state. Of course time will tell if the Israelis and USA governments respond positively in the long term.

For me  it was a remarkable experience being there when they put one of the pieces of the jigsaw together as part of their campaign for a better society and normal life for their hard pressed people. I am very grateful to NUJ general secretary Michelle Stanistreet and IFJ president Jim Boumelha for making it happen and look forward to returning someday to see the deal in place.

Paul Holleran is the NUJ Scotland organiser

Tags: , palestine, collective bargaining, collective agreement, solidarity, international relations, trade union training, palestinian journalists' syndicate