Realities of the Palestinian Labor Movement
By Lina Assi
The Palestinian national liberation movement has consisted of collective action in effort to mobilize the masses through institutions such as unions and political factions as well as broad-based popular movements.
Labor unions in Palestine, like other labor unions, defend worker rights and contribute to the development of civil society. Nevertheless, the reality of the Palestinian labor unions is far from ideal as it has become increasingly fragmented.
In the pre-to-first intifada era, trade unions played a significant role in the Palestinian liberation struggle by providing a community of shared identities, structures and allowed for the mobilization of the Palestinian working class. The collective effort of Palestinian labor organizers has been to make a connection between people’s daily experiences (including the military occupation) while providing services to their members as well as upholding Palestinian nationalist and international socialist ambitions on the other. However, in a post-Oslo era, factionalism amongst party lines and the neoliberal restructuring of the Palestinian economy has led to the fragmentation of the labor movement.
Reality of Labour Organizing Pre-to-First Intifada
The 1970s marked an era in which the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) began the effort of mobilizing the masses in popular organizations. The intensive mobilization of the population included workers, students and professionals in the name of nationalism to resist Zionist occupation. Palestinians began establishing trade unions in the hope that they would act as militant institutional infrastructures that would fight for fundamental rights such as health insurance, workers’ compensation and the right to organize. Trade unions were included in the organized mass mobilization movement and acted as an agency to organize Palestinian workers, although facing intimidation and suppression tactics by the Israeli state.
After renewed labor activity in the late 70s/early 80s, Israel halted all licensing processes for new unions, leaving most unions in the West Bank unlicensed. By 1987, there were over 130 unions in the West Bank, organized by trade and geographical location, mostly comprising of construction workers’ union, textile workers’ union and carpentry workers’ union. Repression tactics conducted by the Israeli state to suppress Palestinian organizing is not a foreign concept to Palestinians, especially to labor organizers. Israeli military authorities have taken extensive measures to stifle union activity. The objective of the Israeli state is to suppress all forms of organizing, including de-legitimizing activists, denying the registration of unions, and intimidating workers from joining unions through harassment and intimidation. This is not foreign to labor organizers in the West that face similar suppression tactics by neoliberals to weaken the labor movement.
The byproduct of military occupation results in the use of repression tactics to instill fear and to subjugate the Palestinian population. These tactics permeate into the labor movement where common practices include the harassment of union members and organizers.
On October 28th, 1985, Israeli military personnel stood outside of the entrance of the Construction and General Institutions Workers’ Union in Ramallah, prohibiting union members from entering the building without being photographed. Once the photograph of the worker was obtained, union members could be called by the Israeli state and questioned by Israeli security agencies. Other intimidation tactics included military forces questioning union members regarding union activity. Israeli occupational forces do not need a search warrant to enter union buildings and thus break into the premise.
There have been various instances in which the military have confiscated union materials and have put union organizers on trial for “possession of prohibited publications”. According to Military Order 101 of 1967, the “Order Regarding Prohibition of Acts of Incitement and Hostile Propaganda” dictates that no publications can be brought in, sold or printed or kept in someone’s possession in the Occupied Territories unless they have obtained a permit. Otherwise, the possession of these materials is considered to be illegal and the membership of an illegal organization allows for the maximum sentence of 10 years in prison. Also, various Palestinian unionists have been convicted of “membership in an illegal organization.”
According to Joost Hiltermann, Israeli military court orders of 1983 show that Palestinians have been accused of membership in “illegal” organizations” and received harsher sentences if they were involved in the labor movement. Ali, an accountant who is also a member of the PGFTU, says that, “Israel has been successful in implementing fear into the minds of Palestinians to avoid them from joining unions by punishing those who engage in union activity.” This highlights the fact that trade unions are a militant agency that challenges Israeli occupation by providing rights to a people that are economically exploited and politically disenfranchised. Thus, unions are met with an iron fist.
Israel has also prevented Palestinian unionists from speaking out against Israeli occupation and fostering international solidarity relationships at public forums. In 1986, the Secretary General of the General Federation of Trade Unions Workers Youth Movement (PGTFU-WYM), Shaher Sa’ad was denied a travel document that would allow him to leave the country to attend a labor conference in Britain. Despite these intimidation and harassment tactics, young Palestinian workers view trade unions as agencies that provide a platform for discussing their experiences of exploitation in Israeli workplaces and their oppression under military occupation. Union member Ali states that “the union has benefited me that he knows what the role of unions are, and how to defend his rights in any workplace he is employed in. Also, how to educate other workers on what their rights are and how to protect them.”
According to the International Labor Organization (ILO) standard, unemployment increased from 25.9% in 2015 to 26.9% in 2016, said the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics. It said that in 2016, a total of 360,500 Palestinians were unemployed, including 206,800 in Gaza Strip and 153,700 in the West Bank. According to the PCBS, 69.5% of employed individuals were wage employees (65.6% in the West Bank and 78.7% in Gaza Strip) and about 5.6% of wage employees in the private sector received less than the minimum wage of 1,450 shekels ($390 USD) in Palestine. The average monthly wage in West Bank was 1,068 shekels ($288 USD). Despite these unemployment rates, 54.7% of employed men in Gaza and 12.2% of employed men in the West Bank compared to 55.4% of employed women in Gaza and 22.4% of employed women in the West Bank were members of unions.
While the issue is not necessarily union membership, there is a dire need for a resurgence in a militant union organizing in Palestine that could advocate for higher wages and benefits and democracy within unions. There are, however, structural issues at play when discussing the state of the Palestinian labor movement. Particularly relating to political factions interfering in trade union work and the attempt to assert their control on trade union leaderships, as well as the implementation of neoliberal economic policies.
Factionalism and Neoliberalism
Today, the once militant and thriving labor movement that existed in the pre to first intifada era, has been decimated due to years of factionalism, neoliberalism and the intensification of Israeli occupation. Since the 1970s, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the Palestinian Communists Party (PCP) dominated in organizing mass movements through trade unions. However, Fatah began to articulate nationalist positions and joined mass organizing efforts in trade unions to maintain its constituency. Factions struggled for power within unions which resulted into different factions creating parallel unions, contributing to a divisive labor movement.
The Palestinian Authority (PA) has cracked down on union leadership and other grassroots movements. The PGFTU has not successfully lobbied the executive of legislature in regards to workers rights about the health and safety of their workers. Also, since the implementation of the Oslo Accords, the PGFTU has failed to enact progressive labor law in the Palestinian Legislative Council and the protection of Palestinian workers in Israel through an agreement with the Histradrut.
Factionalism continued to intensify in the 1990s, to the point where there were two PGFTUs which led the industry-based organization to fall apart. Union organizing during the first intifada was marked by small-scale organizing and short-term objectives which has led to the weakening of today’s labor movement.
The Palestinian trade unions have had the opportunity to build a meaningful joint-action movement with the support of all factions, however, the power struggle for domination in the national liberation movement has led to crippling factionalism amongst Palestinian leadership. Not only this but the intensification of Israeli occupation and implementation of neoliberal principles quelled the Palestinian labor movement by neutralizing the Palestinian political civil society and paving the way of bureaucratic and reformist action.
The implementation of the Oslo Accords led to the creation of the PA and a new vision that included neoliberal principles in hope of accelerating the development Palestinian civil society. The post-Oslo era marked the transformation of many broad-based mobilizing efforts into bureaucratic, politically independent NGOs. An example of this would be the Palestinian Women’s General Federation (PWGF), which was the result of the co-option of all the women’s committees belonging to the different political organizations. Other women’s organizations have been converted into NGOs, in conformity with programs decided by foreign financiers. The neoliberal restructuring of union committees into NGOs is a prime example of the pacification of the labor movement and the neutralization of a political civil society.
Under the Palestinian Authority in 2014, the Investment Promotion Law of 1998 was tailored to create a friendly environment for businesses to invest in and thus provided tax relief to large private interests. The PA’s Council of Ministers and big business reached an agreement on further reductions to corporate and individual tax rates. Independent unions, who were not invited to take part in these discussions, note that the tax law is unfavorable to the poor and working classes. The ramifications of these neoliberal policies has lead to the neutralization of Palestine’s highly active political civil society. Palestinian NGOs increasingly internalized the culture of global aid’s political line of professionalization and political neutrality rather than militant organizing.
According to Bassam Zakarneh, General Secretary of the Union of Public Employees, said, “there are more than 483 unions working is Palestine over the years, but the government shuts down any active union, while other ineffective unions that have no activity still exist.” The pacification of the militant labor movement has been facilitated by the Palestinian Authority. In 2014, the Palestinian Council of Ministers issued a decision to illegalize the Public Servants’ Trade Union. The union was shut down by the police, with unionists arrested and dismissed from their work. Aside from economic policies, there are also legal battles that envelop union leaders. Any attempt to organize on a mass level is met with corruption charges and entrenchment in legal cases for that could take years to resolve. Workers’ committees organizing against neoliberal and normalization policies in NGOs are arbitrarily dismissed from their work and blacklisted. A prime example of the PA’s use of the iron fist can be seen with the 2016 teacher’s strike where security forces threatened teachers; confiscated identity cards; arrested organizers and erected checkpoints across the West Bank to prevent mass mobilization efforts.
The impact of Israeli occupation in the form of both economic, legal policies and military rule has contributed to the suppression of Palestinian union organizing by various methods of intimidation and harassment tactics in order to instill fear into the consciousness of Palestinian workers. While labor unions in Palestine seek to make concessions for workers and act as an agency that confronts Israeli occupation, there is a larger battle that poses a challenge for effective union organizing. Palestinian union leadership and workers must struggle against Israeli occupation, factionalism and the neoliberal attack on labor legislation and unions in order to restore militancy within the labor movement and to gain a resurgence in a meaningful mass mobilization movement.
Lina Assi is a Palestinian Marxist-Leninist activist.
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