Ellis Jay Goldberg, ed., The Social History of Labor in the Middle East (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1996).

The advent of structural adjustment programs since the 1980s has rekindled interest in workers and labor organizations, perhaps the greatest “losers” in recent reform processes. This edited volume includes chapters on Turkey, Egypt, Syria, the Maghreb, Israel and Iran. Its chronological range extends from the Ottoman era to the contemporary period.

The authors acknowledge their modest theoretical ambitions at the outset, and admit to a shared disenchantment with the abstract tenor of existing literature on working classes. Several contributors note that the prevailing literature often degenerates into sterile discussions of tensions between Communism and nationalism or fruitless efforts to explain why industrial work forces failed to develop socialist projects in the Middle East. Instead, this volume presents broad historical overviews of the economic and political factors that shaped the development of wage-earning populations throughout the region.

The authors note that “modern” modes of production did not erode “traditional” ones as quickly or as completely as commonly believed. Rural populations often hesitated to join the urban work force even after government policies degraded the quality of life in the countryside. Even today, workers in service or manufacturing sectors continue to derive supplemental income from the agricultural or informal sectors. Authors identify common themes that characterize working-class development across the region, emphasizing the role of colonialism and European manufactured goods in disrupting artisanal sectors and creating wage laborers. This population grew with the expansion of manufacturing technology and state-led industrialization strategies. Although public sector employees generally enjoyed better pay and benefits, including the right to join trade unions, governments have used unions to coopt and control workers rather than allowing them to represent their own interests.

This overview of common patterns and characteristics makes a useful contribution to a sparse literature. Yet because the cases, with the exception of Israel, share so many basic historical, political and economic commonalities, we should not be surprised to find so many similarities in patterns of state-labor interaction. The volume would have been more useful had it tried to explain some of the interesting differences that developed in spite of such strikingly similar conditions and trends. Also, given their lamentation about labor’s general political ineffectiveness, the authors have neglected opportunities to explore some compelling instances when workers did develop collective strategies that made a difference. These instances receive passing comment in several authors’ narratives, but not the attention they deserve.

How to cite this article:

Christopher Alexander "The Social History of Labor in the Middle East," Middle East Report 210 (Spring 1999).

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