Eric Lee examines the power of the Internet over the reversal of a union policy on Israel

A decade ago, maybe even five years ago, the story I’m about to tell could never have happened.

A few weeks ago, the Association of University Teachers here in Britain decided to launch an academic boycott of two Israeli universities. An internal debate ensued and the policy was reversed.
Unions often pass resolutions on international affairs, expressing their solidarity with this or that cause. This is nothing new and it goes back to the very earliest days of the British trade union movement. What it utterly new is the fact that such decisions now travel at the speed of light through the Internet — and the debate around them is instantly globalized.
The AUT decision was, of course, a controversial one. And just before its meeting to reconsider the boycott, the AUT learned of a resolution passed by the largest union of college and university faculty in the United States, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). The AFT, which represents some 150,000 college and university faculty, called on its sister union “to reverse their vote” on the boycott. The AFT’s Executive Council stated in its resolution that “boycotting universities and their faculty is anathema to academic freedom”.
Now, I can’t remember the last time that something like this happened.
And regardless of what one thinks of the AUT’s original decision, or the AFT’s intervention, it is indeed an extraordinary development that a union in one country would call upon a sister union in another country not to boycott a third country. And I think this intervention is a direct result of the new communications technology.
The Internet has been absolutely full of information on this debate. The AUT website has had information of course, and those supporting or opposing the boycott have set up sites of their own, most notably Engage.
The moment the debate was publicized on the Internet, it was globalized. The anti-boycott statement on the Engage website, for example, was signed by teachers and others not only from Britain, but from the USA, Canada, France, Israel, and Australia. Palestinian academics and others have come down on both sides of the debate.
It used to be the case that an internal debate by a national trade union remained that — internal and national. No longer. The new communications technologies have erased old boundaries, and the intervention of a union in the United States in an internal union debate here in Britain now seems entirely natural and normal.