West Bank Trade Unions
I am responding to Joost Hiltermann’s article on the role of trade unions and women’s committees during the intifada (MER 164-165). Buried toward the end of his article, Hiltermann briefly mentions the recent unification of the trade unions in the West Bank, which he attempts to dismiss as being illegitimate. Hiltermann states: “Following repeated UNLU calls and much bickering, the pro-Fatah Workers’ Youth Movement…and the pro-Communist Progressive Workers’ Bloc ’reunified‘ the General Federation of Trade Unions on March 1, 1990. They reserved only two seats on the 16-seat executive committee for one of the largest labor blocs, the pro-DFLP Workers’ Unity Bloc, which turned down the offer as insulting.“
It is unfortunate that Hiltermann apparently did not bother to speak to any representative of the new unified federation before he wrote his article, as he makes several serious errors in both fact and analysis.
First, let me set the record straight about how and why the unification came about. As Hiltermann correctly states, the labor movement in Palestine has been badly split for many years. Such wounds do not heal easily, and much work has gone over the years into bringing the different blocs together.
Since the beginning of the intifada, Palestinian workers have borne the brunt of the economic burden of maintaining the struggle. Workers employed in the West Bank have seen the decline of their buying power due to the fall of the value of the Jordanian dinar, a drop in the number of working days caused by general strikes and curfews, arbitrary taxes imposed by the military and other factors. Those workers employed in Israel have also been hard hit by the loss of many work days due to strikes and curfews in addition to the fact that many workers have been fired for honoring the general strikes or dismissed to make jobs available for Israeli workers or new immigrants.
The effort to unify the unions was not simply due to “repeated UNLU calls,” but primarily a result of conditions on the ground. The fact is that the union movement could no longer afford to be divided. Splits in the union movement have always hampered efforts to protect workers’ rights, and the worsening economic conditions made unity imperative.
While competition between unions can in some cases be healthy, this is true only in situations where there is an apparatus for resolving disputes. Before the unification, for example, there were cases where employers were faced with three different groups of workers asking them to sign three different collective agreements. The lack of unity was hurting the workers on the shop floor because the employers were able to pick one group to negotiate with, and obviously chose the group asking for the least. In many cities, and even in some villages, there are four unions representing workers employed in the same craft or industry, with little or no coordination in providing services, setting minimum standards or creating new jobs. Workers began to question this state of affairs. The real pressure for unification came from the workers themselves who demanded better protection of their rights.
Secondly, Hiltermann states that the reason that the Workers’ Unity Bloc (WUB) did not join in the unification process was their dissatisfaction with the number of seats they were offered. In its communiques and other public statements, the WUB has stated various reasons, including dissatisfaction with the process and alleging that the new federation is undemocratic. While internally they may say the number of seats is their real reason, never was the question of allocation of seats raised in public by the WUB.
The 16-seat executive committee, established on March 1, 1990, was and is not intended to be the final step in the unification process. The committee is composed of representatives of three of the four major blocs in the union movement (not only two as claimed by Hiltermann), as well as several smaller groupings. Two seats were reserved for the WUB, but they decided not to join. As the WUB knows, and as Hiltermann would have known had he inquired, the committee was established as a transitional one. The committee was given the task of drafting a new constitution, consolidating the approximately 120 unions in the West Bank into 25-30 unions, increasing the number of collective agreements and holding union elections on a West Bank-wide basis as soon as possible.
The newly reunified General Federation of Trade Unions in the West Bank (GFTU) is also drafting a basic collective agreement that all employers, regardless of the number of workers they employ, must abide by.
Although we have taken the first step by setting up the unified executive committee, we still have a lot of work ahead of us. The distribution of seats was a compromise between the different blocs — I doubt anyone feels they got the number of seats they deserved. Until democratic elections are held, any estimates of how much support each bloc has among the workers is pure speculation.
Finally, as Hiltermann correctly stated, when the blocs work together on the local level, concrete progress can be made. It is exactly for that reason that unity is so important. Unity does not mean giving up one’s own ideas and strategies, but merely agreeing to work together for a common purpose. We recognize that the WUB does good trade union work, and want to work with them, not against them. Discussions between the GFTU and the WUB are continuing, and we hope they will join with us to move the workers’ movement forward.
It is unfortunate that Hiltermann did not bother to check his facts. I expected better from Middle East Report, which in the past has avoided taking uninformed and clearly biased positions on disputes between popular organizations in Palestine. It is a shame that one of the most significant and positive events of the intifada was reduced to a snide and inaccurate aside in an otherwise excellent issue.
Deputy General Secretary and Director of International Relations, GFTU
Joost Hiltermann responds:
Despite George Hazboun’s insistence that I made “several serious errors in both fact and analysis” — all in two sentences — I couldn’t figure out from his letter what my factual bloopers were, so I’ll focus on the analytical ones. He accuses me of attempting to dismiss the recent “reunification” as illegitimate by reducing “one of the most significant and positive events of the intifada…to a snide and inaccurate aside.“ This must be because I placed quotation marks around the word “reunified.” Unfortunately, there is at present no unity in the labor movement since not all major labor federations are represented in the new General Federation and there is no guarantee that elections will be held, or that these will be fair. One cannot overcome a decade-old split simply by declaring unity and forging ahead, especially when the bloc with the most seats on the executive committee is not known for its crowning efforts in defense of workers’ rights. (Just ask the strike organizers at the Malhis shoe factory in Nablus who were fired from their jobs last April.) I would love to be convinced otherwise, but the haste in which this “reunification” was brought about and the make-up of the new executive committee smell of political engineering by an outside leadership that has wanted to take control of the union movement since the late 1970s (and precipitated the split in 1981). MERIP readers might be interested to hear from Hazboun what exactly he discussed, and with whom, on the subject of “reunification” in Cairo in January 1990, and what proposals he brought back.
Although I concur strongly that it is “the worsening economic conditions [that] made unity imperative,” I cannot accept Hazboun’s argument that “the real pressure for unification came from the workers themselves” who suddenly “began to question this state of affairs.” Being a veteran labor organizer, Hazboun should know — indeed, he told me in January 1989 — that workers never had an interest in the interminable political wrangling between union blocs. That’s why many stayed away from unions, and it also explains why spontaneously organized shop-floor workers’ committees have been so successful since the intifada. If workers were suddenly so eager for reunification, having waited in vain for so many years, I am convinced that they would have been happy to wait another few months or so — enough to ask an election committee to organize elections and bring about real unity, not the current job cobbled together by an outside leadership eager to mobilize trade unions for their own nationalist purposes, especially now that the PLO’s hegemony is being threatened by the Islamists.
As for the position of the Workers’ Unity Bloc on the number of seats, this is what they told me. Hazboun should check with them if that’s not good enough.
I share George Hazboun’s strong desire for unity in the Palestinian labor movement. On a personal note, I wish him luck.