‘Abdallah Hanna, al-Haraka al-‘Ummaliyya fi Suriya wa Lubnan, 1900-1945 [The Labor Movement in Syria and Lebanon, 1900-1945] (Damascus: Dar Dimashq, 1973).

The history of the Syrian labor movement is still little known, even in Syria itself. [1] There is no serious and complete study that recounts the formation of this working class and the development of workers’ organizations. Some Syrian scholars who have studied in Moscow have tried to fill that gap, but unfortunately their works are not very accessible. [2] Even in Arabic, very few articles have been published. These are generally confined to short newspaper interviews with veteran trade unionists who add very little new information to that which is known.

‘Abdallah Hanna’s book is therefore important because it is a first attempt to analyze the main stages of development of Syria’s working class and labor movement through 1945. Hanna begins by discussing the situation of craftsmen and workers before World War I, and analyzes ideological trends among the emerging bourgeoisie of that era. He also takes into account the influence of international factors on the labor movement in Syria and Lebanon. He then summarizes the economic policies and institutions of the Mandate, and describes the creation of the first modern industrial plants in this period.

The core of this book is chapter six, where Hanna details the earliest concentrations of the workers and the first attempts to organize. He recounts the first strikes. The watersheds of Syrian labor history occur in 1930-1932 and 1936-1937. Hanna describes the difficulties of creating unions independent of the petit bourgeoisie and the craftmasters, and the efforts of the French authorities to prevent just such a development. We can begin to speak of a working class in Syria with the development of autonomous workers’ struggles for their own demands. This reflects a process of social differentiation leading to the formation of a working class “in itself” as well as “for itself.” This process did not take place in Syria before the Mandate period, with the creation of the first Syrian-owned modern plants.

The process of social differentiation and the polarization of labor relations began slowly during the Mandate and then accelerated during World War II and after independence. Even today, small-scale production still plays an important role in the Syrian economy. An important feature of social struggle during the Mandate was the common front between workers and the emergent bourgeoisie against French economic policy, especially the dominant position of French goods in local markets. This was a direct challenge to local production. It affected not only small producers but also workers, whose wages were kept all the lower. This dynamic prevented the dominance of contradictory interests between workers and employers, especially among the prevailing small enterprises and shops, with their minimal class differentiation. The main contradiction was between the majority of the Syrian people and the foreign power.

The first conflicts between workers and employers developed around the question of wages. These took place in 1926 in Aleppo and Horns, and in 1927 in Damascus. This was a period of extensive troubles in Syria. The Druze revolt (1925-27) threatened the occupation, and was followed by risings in the region of Damascus. Those first labor conflicts were more or less spontaneous and limited, and did not lead to a real organization of workers. (The one exception may have been among the hosiery workers, but there is reason to think that this union too did not exist before 1930.) In Syria in this period, there was nothing comparable to the formation of the tobacco workers’ union in Lebanon.

The second important moment in Syrian labor history arises in the context of the global depression after 1930. Living conditions deteriorated dramatically, especially in the towns. Wages declined sharply and unemployment spread throughout the country. In 1931, 77,000 workers were officially unemployed in Syria and Lebanon, out of a total population of little more than 3 million. Hanna argues that the unemployed were actually twice as numerous. These circumstances led to labor disputes and strikes unprecedented in size and duration, especially in the textile sector in Aleppo, Horns and Damascus.

Confronted with these developments, the authorities finally decided in 1935 to replace the anachronistic Ottoman legislation of 1912 which forbade wage workers to organize and allowed only independent craftsmens’ associations. The new law established a list of crafts and trades in which unions would be permitted. Except for a few cases, though — printing, electricity, hosiery, engineering and shirt-making — the law placed employers and workers together in the same union, and left state authorities with strict control over all activities. Several hundred unions were created in a few years, but workers soon experienced the narrow limits of the law. They started to demand complete freedom of organization, and separation of employers and workers.

After the victory of the Popular Front in France in 1936, a large mass movement developed in Syria in which workers played an important part. This led to the formation of a nationalist government in Damascus, following negotiations with the French. The labor movement gained maturity with this experience. Actions took new forms. The years before World War II were a period of establishing national structures. In 1936, the first union combining all workers’ organizations in Damascus was created, led by Subhi al-Khatib, former president of the hosiery union. At the end of 1938, the three unions representing the working classes of Damascus, Aleppo and Horns set up a general Federation of Trade Unions encompassing the whole country. (According to Sanadiki, whose thesis, Le mouvement syndical en Syrie, was completed in 1949, the Aleppo and Horns unions had been established earlier that same year. Hanna does not mention their existence.)

Unions fought for an eight-hour day, for better working conditions and for higher wages. They demanded repeal of the 1935 law, and prohibition of layoffs without prior notice. They called for the promulgation of a new labor code. They dispatched delegations and petitions to the parliament, asking that workers’ problems be discussed and reforms implemented. Hanna shows that the composition of the parliament precluded any helpful attention to workers’ problems. Only after a general strike in May 1938 did the government entrust one member of Parliament, Edmond Rabbath, to elaborate and propose a labor code, which was then not discussed until 1946! Some reforms were made after a second general strike, in January 1939, but freedom to organize trade unions and a labor code were not promulgated until 1948. ‘Abdallah Hanna’s book is the only one which presents this story in any detail. As a student in the German Democratic Republic, he was able to use the archives of the Communist International and the Red International of Labor Unions. Syrian newspapers, especially after 1928, were full of information on workers’ movements, as each political group tried to exploit popular grievances against the other. Finally, Hanna used the Official Gazette for parliamentary debates after 1936 and for the claims and petitions presented by workers to the parliament. Unfortunately, Hanna had no access to French sources. The unpublished study of Sanadiki, Le mouvement syndical en Syrie, offers information on the organization efforts of the early 1930s, and discusses published and unpublished French government reports.

More surprisingly, Hanna has not interviewed veteran trade unionists to complement or check his sources. This is most regrettable, as these survivors decline in number with every passing year. It is an urgent task to collect their memoirs before it is too late. On the whole, Hanna’s work lacks a certain balance and integration. He is too prone to generalities, and to explicating the political context. Only about one half of this long book is directly concerned with the details of the workers’ movements. It is all well and good to remind us of the positions of the Third International, for instance, and to analyze Syrian political parties from a Marxist perspective. But such points could have been integrated more systematically, thus showing more clearly the articulation of different levels of social reality. Another shortcoming is the absence of an annotated bibliography, and an index of quoted names.

We must hope that Syrian as well as other students will devote their efforts to the study of this aspect of Syrian history, especially for the period after independence. Nothing has yet been published on this. [3] In the period immediately preceding the union with Egypt in 1958, socialist forces won considerable influence when a coalition of communists and Baathists was elected to the leadership of the General Confederation of Trade Unions. After 1958, and especially after 1963, a totally new situation arose with the creation of a public industrial sector and the political domination of the ruling party over the trade unions.


[1] Three articles come to mind in this regard: Aziz Allouni, “The Labor Movement in Syria,” Middle East Journal (1959); Jean Gaulmier, “Notes sur le mouvement syndicaliste a Hama,” Revue des Etudes Islamiques (1932); and Elisabeth Longuenesse, “La classe ouvriere en Syrie,” La Pensee 197 (1978).
[2] Muhammad Amin, Situation and Struggles of the Working Class in Syria (Moscow, 1968); Khadr Zakariya, Class Struggles in Syria (Moscow, 1972).
[3] I have summarized the available information on this period in my thesis, La classe ouvriere en Syrie, une classe en formation, for the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (Paris, 1977). This will be published in Arabic by Dar al-Farabi (Beirut).

How to cite this article:

Elisabeth Longuenesse "The Syrian Labor Movement," Middle East Report 110 (November/December 1982).

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