Morocco is unusual in the Middle East for its extensive civil society — social institutions which are relatively independent of control by the state apparatus. A complex relationship exists between the absolute and repressive monarchy of King Hassan II on the one hand and the powerful opposition institutions on the other. Among these institutions are the press and the political parties, but over the years the most impressive and most notable have been Morocco’s trade unions.

As recently as 1981, the unions stood against the royal regime, calling massive protest strikes which came close to insurrection. But in 1983, when the government imposed austerity measures, these same unions were on the margins of the events that followed. They were too weak and too closely aligned with the monarchy to lead their rank and file in a forceful manner. To understand how this happened, we must consider the development of the workers’ movement in Morocco from its colonial origins, and trace in particular the nationalist sentiments which have always suffused the movement and limited its aspirations and its field of action.

The Moroccan trade union movement began in the 1930s, when the country was firmly under colonial rule. By that time, tens of thousands of Moroccans had been forced off the land, and many thousands were working for wages in the colonial economy. European workers in Morocco were then at least as numerous as Moroccans. Highly privileged by contrast to the indigenous Moroccans, the Europeans were often contemptuous and unprepared to act in solidarity. Worker organizations were illegal, and the authorities were quick to repress organizing efforts. In spite of these barriers, though, workers began to form clandestine organizations in several workplaces, especially in the more highly-developed French zone.

June 1936 proved to be a watershed in Moroccan workers’ history. A strike wave began in the Moroccan Sugar Company in Casablanca, spreading to other factories in the city, as well as to the phosphate mining centers of Louis Gentil (now Yousouffia) and Khouribga. Altogether some 4,000 workers went on strike, of whom about half were Moroccans. The strikers forced employers, including the state phosphate company, to make major concessions in wages and working conditions, including a 48-hour week and a wage level giving Moroccan workers enough to meet their minimum physical needs. In October and November, the growing anti-colonial movement staged major demonstrations. In December, the colonial authorities ceded the right of trade unions to organize — but for French workers only!

There were further strikes again in January 1937 in Fez, Khouribga and Casablanca; again concessions were won. Moroccan workers began to join clandestine unions in even greater numbers, especially in Meknes, a major agricultural center, and in Khouribga. Organizers included both Moroccans and Europeans, often those with ties to the parties of the left. The sectors most affected were mining, railroads, postal service and construction, where many Moroccans were employed. By May 1938, some 20,000 workers were organized in Morocco, of whom about a quarter were Moroccans.

The employers soon took the offensive, firing many of the key organizers, and the colonial courts backed their right to do so. Worried colonial officials also carried out an inquiry into growing Moroccan involvement in the unions. In June 1938, a new law established harsh penalties for those who did not respect the French-only right to organize. Attacks on the unions increased; many more workers were fired. Under increasing pressure and subject to intense racist propaganda, many European workers cut their ties with the Moroccans.

The workers’ organizations were dealt an even more serious blow in 1940. When France fell to Hitler, the impact of the new Vichy government was soon felt in the colonies. In Morocco, the authorities outlawed trade unions, replacing them with fascist “corporations.” Hundreds of key organizers and partisans of the left were fired, harassed and jailed.

The allied landings in Morocco in November 1942 eliminated the fascist colonial administration, and for the first time Moroccans were officially permitted to organize. Both European and Moroccan workers began to rebuild the unions, mostly under the sponsorship of the Communist- led French General Federation of Labor (CGT). Among Moroccans, nationalist sentiment had grown. Though the French union leadership wanted to form united sections, the Moroccan leadership wanted separation on a national basis. The Moroccans were adamant and their view finally prevailed.

For the next few years, the colonial economy grew very rapidly and the number of Moroccan workers grew rapidly as well. The colonial authorities, hoping to head off the Moroccan working class movement, tried to channel the organizing into tribal and ethnic forms through new repressive laws, but their efforts were ultimately unsuccessful. They often resorted to repression, but this only reinforced the nationalist consciousness of Moroccan workers. In 1948, a major strike broke out when the authorities imprisoned all Moroccan officers of the miners’ federation.

The growing strength of the Moroccan workers movement and its close ties to the nationalist struggle were continually in evidence. Moroccan workers staged large demonstrations on May Day of 1951 and a large strike in December 1952 to protest the assassination by the French of Tunisian trade union leader Farhat Hached. By this time, Moroccans had assumed positions of leadership in many of the unions and in the confederation leadership as well. Taib Bouazza, an early organizer from the iron mines at Jerada, had been elected the first Moroccan secretary- general in 1951. The major nationalist party, the Istiqlal, had also begun to form worker cells. The Moroccan union leaders, who were party members, began to grow in influence in party circles. The colonial authorities responded with further repression. After the December 1952 protests, when thousands of nationalist leaders were jailed, several key Moroccan unionists were imprisoned, including Bouazza and railworker leader Mahjoub Ben Seddiq.

The American Connection

As the French sought to hold onto power in Morocco by repression or by tribalizing the working class, the United States appeared on the scene with a very different strategy. Irving Brown, key representative in Europe of the American Federation of Labor and also an operative of the CIA, offered support to the Moroccan nationalist trade unionists in an effort to undercut the influence of the French Communist CGT. After their release from prison in late 1954, several Moroccan trade union leaders were invited to participate in training sessions in Europe held by the anti-communist International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) under Brown’s direction. This was the beginning of a long, close association between Brown and Ben Seddiq. Though the CIA probably provided financing as well as training, its influence was undoubtedly not the determining factor in Moroccan trade union politics. Given the preponderance of the anti-colonial struggle in the country, a national trade unionism was already a very likely outcome.

In January 1955, just a few months after they were released from prison, Bouazza and Ben Seddiq set up the founding committee of a clandestine Moroccan nationalist trade union, called the Organizing Committee for the Development of Free Trade Unionism. In March, they founded the Moroccan Confederation of Labor (UMT). Though Bouazza was more popular among the ranks, Ben Seddiq had the support of the Istiqlal Party leadership, and after an initial wrangle he became the UMT secretary- general. Since negotiations for independence were already well under way, the colonial authorities did not move against the new organization, and a few months later they gave it official authorization.

The UMT grew swiftly, incorporating virtually all the Moroccan membership of the CGT unions. As independence approached, most of the European workers left. The independence movement was the focus of much of the organizing at that time. The nationalist UMT, with close ties to the Istiqlal, greatly benefited from this. By late 1955, it claimed to have over 200,000 members; by independence in mid-1956 it claimed 600,000, two-thirds of whom were supposedly unionized peasants and agricultural workers. These membership claims are certainly exaggerated. A more realistic figure for late 1956 would be 200,000, with a peak of 300,000 in 1959. But there is no doubt about the success of the UMT organizing drives and the power the organization represented in newly-independent Morocco. Even the king paid his respects in his speeches, and early governments felt obliged to listen carefully to the UMT’s demands.

The UMT leadership, who were dedicated to the nationalist cause, favored the goals of national unity and were not prepared to launch a major class-based conflict. Among the rank and file, however, there was intense pressure to carry the national struggle into the social arena. In 1956 alone, there were 542 strikes, mostly wildcats, combining political issues with those immediately on the shop floor.

The UMT leadership, by contrast, preferred to deal directly with the government, where there were a number of sympathetic Istiqlal ministers. During this period, the UMT knitted a close relationship with the state apparatus, gaining a number of immediate organizational benefits but establishing ties that were dangerously cozy. The state gave the UMT a large high-rise building in downtown Casablanca to serve as its headquarters rent-free, and also provided it with free utilities. The same advantages were provided for union offices throughout the country. The state also paid state employees who acted as full-time UMT leaders or organizers — effectively paying the salaries of most of the central and local leadership.

So powerful was the union at this time that successive governments made major concessions to its demands. Favorable new laws covered occupational safety and health, health insurance, minimum wages, and cost-of-living indexing, as well as job-creating programs. At the local level, there were about 150 new contracts signed during 1956, including pay raises and other benefits for many workers throughout the economy. Unionization in the extremely exploitative agricultural sector was perhaps the most radical and explosive feature of this period.

Strikes declined to 104 in 1957 as employer concessions and the euphoria of independence absorbed the most immediate worker pressures. Then strikes resumed in 1958, rising to 610 as conflicts developed within the nationalist movement over the place of workers’ demands in national policy. In spite of their connections with Brown and the ICFTU, Ben Seddiq, Bouazza and the other top union leadership were hardly business unionists of the George Meany type. Within the Istiqlal, they fought for more radical policies and they continued to exert pressure at the national level for similar goals. A key issue at this time was the independence of the government from conservative royal interference. The UMT leadership backed up its pressures with selective strikes in June 1958 and again in the fall. With national politics still in flux, the king made temporary concessions, forming a new government in December 1958 headed by Abdullah Ibrahim, a person very close to the UMT.

The Ibrahim government, which lasted just a year and a half, is viewed by many on the Moroccan left as a high point which has never since been equalled. But this is more a measure of subsequent setbacks than of the great achieve?## ments of the Ibrahim era. For the monarchy maintained close control over the government, especially the police and armed forces, and the Ibrahim cabinet was not itself homogeneously built of UMT supporters. Though it offered plans and promises, it did not deliver much.

A Workers’ Party

In January 1959, encouraged by their place in the government, the UMT chiefs and other leaders of the Istiqlal left tried to take control of the party and of the nationalist movement, which they felt was being betrayed by the conservative, old guard leadership. The result was a split, with the left eventually forming a new party named, significantly, the National Union of Popular Forces (UNFP). This move created a distinct political instrument for the workers’ movement, but the new party contained from the outset two critical contradictions. Its ideological basis was still split between nationalist unity and class politics. Its leadership was also divided between the pragmatic trade unionists with their large organization to protect and the more radical, socialist, ideologically- oriented party people.

As long as a UMT representative remained prime minister, the union felt obliged to restrain strikes and to act “responsibly.” This set up tensions with the rank and file that the monarchy was glad to exploit. In early 1959, the Istiqlal began to organize a new confederation and applied for official authorization. Much to the fury of the UMT, which wanted to maintain its own semiofficial monopoly, the Istiqlal got its permission. In March it founded the General Moroccan Federation of Labor (UGTM), taking with it several important UMT locals among the teachers, dockers and miners. The UMT called a general strike of protest, but the monarchy was unmoved. Finally, in May 1960, shortly before the first local elections, the king dismissed the Ibrahim government and assumed the prime ministership himself. Though the UNFP won an impressive share of the votes in the elections, especially in the big cities, its moment of power had passed.

The new government encouraged the formation of two further confederations, apparently in an effort to further split the workers. These confederations, formed by royalist politicians with no real base, never amounted to anything, but the UGTM eventually got over ten percent of the unionized workforce. The government also launched a direct attack on the unions by abrogating the cost-of-living indexing of wages and eliminating other benefits. When local strikes broke out, the authorities came down with force. Already in 1959, two workers had died during clashes with police in Larache. In Kenitra, in 1960, the regime used the army to replace workers and break a strike. In the mines at Khouribga, in 1961, strikers were drafted into the army and then ordered to stay on the job. The UMT was not able to check this offensive.

Some militants felt that the UMT was not doing enough to combat the attacks of the government and the employers. This was particularly true among elements closest to the UNFP, who increasingly saw the period as one of revoutionary struggle to topple the conservative monarchy. The main stronghold of these UMT dissidents was among the educated government workers. Their cause was strengthened by the fact that civil service pay rates had remained frozen since independence, in spite of considerable inflation. In early 1961 they decided to launch a strike, in hopes of touching off a wider working class offensive. The Federation of Civil Service Workers called for a general strike in June. When the government offered a compromise, the strike was called off. But the government gesture proved insincere — apparently an effort to buy time while it pressured the UMT to abandon support for the UNFP radicals. It seems that the royal palace took a tough line, threatening the UMT with withdrawal of its privileges — especially its free quarters and its paid cadre.

Eventually the postal workers (PTT) decided to force the hand of the reluctant UMT. They struck in December, joined by radio-TV workers and by workers in the foreign affairs ministry. The government cracked down hard, firing hundreds of strikers and arresting many militants. The UMT took its distance from the strike, giving only the most token support. In the end, the strike was broken. Thereafter, the UMT steadily withdrew from its political connection to the UNFP. Arguments between the two over which organization had primacy widened the split. At its third congress, in January 1963, the UMT declared that it was politically independent and would work only for the welfare of the workers. In practice, this never was to mean simple business unionism. In spite of its syndicalist inclinations, the UMT never abandoned an interest in party politics. Later in 1963, the UMT even put up its own candidates for municipal elections, in competition with the UNFP. But generally the UMT treated electoralism with contempt and claimed to see the answer to Morocco’s problems in direct trade union action.

Though its rhetoric was fiery, official UMT policy remained cautious. But local cadres were not always prepared to go along with this. Many were political activists from the UNFP, the Communist Party, and other left factions. Backed by the rank and file, these political cadres kept up the pressure on the top leadership. The >monarchy struck against many of these cadres in July 1963 when several hundred leftists were arrested for allegedly plotting against the king.

One of the most militant of these cadres was Omar Benjelloun, a member of the Administrative Commission of the UNFP and a leader of the PTT union. During the time of the strikes, the UMT leadership decided that Benjelloun was a dangerous troublemaker; Benjelloun, for his part, came to see the UMT leadership as hopelessly compromised. Before the 1963 UMT general congress, union goons kidnapped him and beat him up. The UMT then suspended the PTT federation and tried to set up a competing one. Benjelloun was shortly arrested in the plot case and sentenced to death. He spent several years in jail and was finally pardoned. Later he was arrested again, tortured, imprisoned for several years without trial, pardoned again, and eventually assassinated in 1975 under circumstances which suggested the hand of the state.

Declining Circumstances

Many locals declined in the early 1960s, and even whole federations collapsed. UMT membership probably fell by a third or more from 1961 to 1965 — from about 300,000 to 200,000 or less. The number of shops holding union delegate elections declined from 1359 to 596 in the same period. Conditions for organizing were made still worse by the bad economic situation in the country. Increasing numbers of workers left to find jobs in Europe. The labor reserve army in the shantytowns grew year after year. There were very few strikes — almost none in 1962, 1964 and 1965.

The government continued its repression. Militant cadres were often arrested. Meanwhile, social benefits were further eroded. The government agency on wages and prices held its last meeting in 1963. The law on medical insurance was weakened. Remaining laws favorable to workers went unenforced. Employers could do as they liked and there was little the UMT was able or willing to do about it.

By March of 1965, conditions among the masses in the cities had reached the breaking point. In protest against austerity measures imposed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), people went into the streets, first in Casablanca, then in many other cities. School teachers were among the first to join in. The UMT belatedly called a general strike, but its actual involvement was very minor. The riots were eventually crushed by armed force. Four hundred or more died, and the royal government imposed a state of emergency, severely restricting political and union activity for several years.

For most of the remainder of the 1960s, the trade unions remained weak, divided and subjected to continual pressure by the authorities. In 1966 this was already evident, as the secondary teachers’ union split from the UMT to form an independent federation under the influence of the UNFP. The confederation’s brief general strike of protest against the state of emergency in mid-November was only half-hearted and underscored its caution. In 1966 the UMT even made gestures of accommodation towards the Istiqlal. It also had an arrangement of sorts with the communists, though Marxism in the ranks was strictly forbidden.

A supreme humiliation of the UMT came in July 1967. Ben Seddiq was arrested for a public statement on the Arab-Israeli war which implied criticism of the monarchy. The government jailed him for over a year and a half. Police quickly broke a UMT protest strike. With its leader in jail and its weakness embarrassingly evident, the UMT entered into negotiations with the UNFP for renewed relations in 1967. For a time it seemed that this might succeed, but the breach was too wide.

From 1969 to 1973, there was a general political opening in the country. The opposition united around the issue of “Moroccanization” — seeking to eliminate the vestiges of colonialism represented by foreigners in key positions and by foreign-owned farms and businesses. For a time, a kind of nationalist unity was reestablished. In 1970, the Istiqlal and the UNFP joined in a National Bloc. There was even talk of reunifying the trade union movement. When the monarchy was forced to end the state of emergency in July 1970, there was an upsurge of strikes and worker combativeness. The number of strikes rose from an average of 90 per year in the late 1960s to 260 in 1971 and 479 in 1972. Most of the strikes were defensive, however, as workers sought to protect their standard of living against inflation and their jobs against layoffs. Eventually the monarchy conceded on many of the issues of “Moroccanization.” When the Bloc split in 1972 due to increasing ideological differences, the possibilities of reuniting the trade unions evaporated.

In spite of the economic crisis, employment in Morocco continued to grow steadily, though not nearly as fast as the numbers of those available for wage work. This growing mass of the unemployed kept heavy pressure on those employed to restrain their wage claims. Nevertheless, organizing continued. The UMT grew from about 200,000 members in 1970 to about 250,000 three years later — about 20 percent of the total wage workers, including those in the state administration. Despite this growth, the UMT never did rekindle its earlier fire. Organizationally and politically it remained frozen. There was no change in its top leadership ranks; Ben Seddiq and former mine workers leader Mohamed Abderrazak were still in charge. Only five out of a top leadership of about 20 had changed between 1958 and 1975. The youth branch had lost its role as a training ground and became a mere social club. The union’s methods became more bureaucratic and top-down than ever. Any opposition was met with either expulsion of the local or dissolution of its leadership by confederation fiat. This interference even occurred at the federation level, as with the Federation of Rail workers in 1973. Internal corruption was embarrassingly frequent. It seemed that union officials were less concerned about organizing than they were about running the large mutuelles. the medical and retirement insurance funds. Given its cozy relations with royal ministers and advisors, some accused the UMT of being nothing more than an extension of the royal government.

After 1972, by a twist of irony, the UMT even got its own political party. In the wake of the breakup of the National Bloc, relations between the UMT and the UNFP deteriorated. In the end, the UNFP split and the majority formed the new Socialist Union of Popular Forces (USFP). The remainder, close to the UMT, kept the old UNFP name with its clear nationalist reverberations. This party, under the leadership of Abdullah Ibrahim, was subordinate to the union and relatively inactive on the political scene.

The Nationalist Card

The mid- to late-1970s was a period of relative quiescence. Ushered in by a long and unsuccessful strike at the Khouribga mines in 1974, the period was mainly affected by the revived nationalism over the annexation of the Western Sahara. Virtually every union and party supported this annexation. Conversely, no organization could remain legal that opposed it. Beginning in 1975, the country was sunk in a state of hysteria and war. At a time when strikers were condemned as traitors, neither workers nor unions could risk a militant stance.

In spite of this nationalist fever, the Moroccan workers’ movement did not remain entirely static. One of the most important developments was the foundation by the USFP of a new union confederation — the Democratic Federation of Labor (CDT) — in November 1978. This was the logical outcome of the old UNFP-UMT split of 1963. In abandoning the UNFP, the UMT had taken much vital organizational structure from the party. The USFP had now reorganized and regained some of its strength while the union had stagnated. It now wanted to consolidate its position within the working class.

The new confederation presented itself as more militant than the UMT, at a time when inflation had been very bad and workers’ pay had lagged far behind. It offered the possibility of greater union independence from the government, a less top-down structure and locally-controlled strikes, rather than constant intervention from the confederation. This was very appealing to the rank and file, and enabled the CDT to win immediate success in taking some of the UMT unions as well as attracting others that were independent. The new CDT strongholds were among the PTT, phosphate miners, sugar and tea companies, health services, and teachers. Because of its ties to the UNFP, the new confederation was more directly political in its approach, but it too was caught in the inevitable conflict between political and trade union action. The position of the UNFP in support of the Sahara War blunted the union’s criticism of the government and moved it squarely within the old nationalist consensus.

Each of the three Moroccan confederations faced a crisis at the end of the 1970s. The UGTM had not been able to grow beyond its initial 10 percent. The UMT had similarly lost its dynamic, and it was losing substantial numbers to the CDT. The CDT, though dynamic and growing, was caught in the contradictions of national consensus politics.

Under these circumstances, there was mounting rank and file pressure for action — some movement to overcome the crises of inflation, housing and other aspects of everyday survival felt by the workers. Social tensions were building in the cities and the unions had to act. In the first part of 1980, there were many wildcat strikes, answered by repression and lockouts. The unions had to go ahead and call official strikes as well. There were strikes in textiles, on the railroads, in gas and petroleum sectors, in aluminum. Most impressive was a long and bitter 86-day strike among the phosphate workers.

The UMT celebrated its 25th anniversary with a major event on May Day 1980, but under the circumstances there was little to celebrate. The situation was aggravated by a terrible drought that hit the country in 1980 and 1981, ruining nearly half of the crops and driving tens of thousands of half-starved peasants off the land into the cities. The expenses of the war further dragged the economy down. In early 1981, the government agreed to severe IMF austerity measures as a condition for further loans. At the end of May, the government announced price increases of as much as 80 percent for a number of basic necessities.

There were immediate spontaneous protests and riots in Oujda and Berkane. Rank-and-file pressure for action by the union confederations was intense. The leaders demanded that the prices be rescinded, but the government held firm. The UMT then called a general strike in Casablanca for June 18, and the CDT itself called for a nation-wide general strike on the 20th. The UMT strike was largely successful. The other unions joined and Casablanca was virtually shut down. Two days later, the CDT strike assumed a more militant form; the police tried to repress demonstrations, thousands poured into the streets, and rioting spread from the working class neighborhoods to the center of the city. Eventually the army was brought in to restore order. Four or five hundred persons died: thousands were wounded or arrested. The entire National Bureau of the CDT was arrested, including its secretary-general Moubir Amaoui, and CDT offices throughout the country were searched and shut down by the police.

In these events, the unions had assumed a major role, even if somewhat belatedly. Some had thought they saw the potential of full-scale insurrection. But the trade unions had neither the strength nor the organized capacity to seize power. The moment passed, leaving the government only shaken. The unions and particularly the CDT were thrown onto the defensive.

In the period that followed, the monarchy sought to incorporate the unions and the parties more completely into a system of consensus. So when the IMF insisted on further austerity measures, the king brought opposition politicians into his government. USFP leader Aberrahim Bouabid joined the in November 1983, as did Istiqlal leader M’hamed Boucetta. The UNFP refused to participate, but its independence was also compromised by the general spirit of national unity behind the Sahara war. All of the unions agreed to the new round of austerity measures. When youth, workers and the unemployed took to the streets in January 1984, the unions were marginal. Since then, despite the repression, the unions have maintained their pact with the government in hopes of promoting fair parliamentary elections.

Since its beginnings, the Moroccan trade union movement has waged many impressive struggles and maintained overall an unusual measure of independence. Subject to very harsh repression and at the same time lured by material rewards and the ideology of national unity, it has at times worked closely with the state. But the state has never been able to capture it completely or to crush it, as has been the case in so many other Middle Eastern countries. Even today, with the suffocating nationalism of the Sahara war, the unions maintain their capacity for independent action and influence. Though tamed for the time being, they face many contradictory pressures which could well push them to adopt a more militant and oppositionist stance. Under such circumstances, they may once again play an important and radical role in determining Morocco’s future.

How to cite this article:

Jean-François Clement, James Paul "Trade Unions and Moroccan Politics," Middle East Report 127 (September/October 1984).

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