In well-furbished offices overlooking downtown Nablus, Shahir Sa’d, General Secretary of the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU) sells his vision of the post-Oslo labor movement. “With the return of the Palestinian Authority (PA) we could concentrate on workers’ issues, rather than struggling with national ones and we could merge the unions under one banner, and we have done that, consolidating 187 unions into 12.”

During the intifada, factional divisions in unions became so intense that industry-based organization fell apart. As a Palestinian human rights group pointed out, “If a taxi driver was laid off, he might turn to the farm workers’ union instead of the taxi drivers’ union, if the farm workers were dominated by a party to which the taxi driver felt affiliated.” [1] In 1990, several duplicate “General Federations of Trade Unions in the West Bank “vied for power, as well as four women’s unions.

Today, little indicates that the union mergers broke the political parties’ hold over workers. Like many of the top brass at the PGTFU, Sa’d is a proud Fatah member. Marwan Barghouti, General Secretary of Fatah in the West Bank, wields considerable influence over the union, even mediating its most pressing issue — leadership. Today, two men run the PGFTU. One, Hasan Ibrahim, General Secretary of the General Union of Palestinian Workers was appointed by Yasser Arafat and spent the occupation in exile with the PLO. Technically speaking, he leads all Palestinian trade unions from Lebanon to Tunisia and is Sa’d’s boss. Shahir Sa’d led Fatah unions in the West Bank throughout the intifada. The conflict between them is material — control of the federation’s members, money and status in Palestinian society — and symbolic. Who owns the national struggle — the intifada generation or the PLO officials who returned to Gaza in 1994?

Little Internal Democracy

On closer inspection, Ibrahim and Sa’d have more in common than not — both represent Fatah and neither was elected by the workers. [2] Ibrahim has become the Deputy Minister of Labor in the PA, clearly a conflict of interest for a union leader. Although Sa’d denies any financial association with the PA, his Range Rover sports red government license plates and PGFTU headquarters display six-foot high posters of Arafat.

In the absence of a democratically elected union leadership, a 30-member executive committee appointed by the various political parties in Amman in 1992 runs the unions. Fatah, with 12 seats out of 30, dominates the committee. Although some members actively call for decentralization, they have done little to push for elections or improve union education or representation in the factories. Distant from the workers — all save one, an electrician, are on salary at the PGFTU — they don’t feel accountable because election prospects are remote.

Sixteen regional offices (ten in the West Bank and six in Gaza) administer union affairs. Each branch is staffed by an appointed council of between 15 and 25 members, with representatives from major PGFTU departments, including legal affairs, education and the women’s department. Like the executive committee, these administrators are salaried employees of the PGFTU, and report only to the executive committee and Shahir Sa’d. As one PGFTU member put it, “The branches report unrest or serious infractions to the executive committee. They don’t really organize the workers; they monitor them.”

Stifled beneath layers of national and branch leadership, the workers’ voices are barely heard, and never as a group. Union representation in the factories is minimal, with many factories lacking any PGFTU office at all. A few unions have elected leaders — the communications union stands out — but the majority of unions communicate with their workers through “education units.” These units dispense information on union-building and worker safety, though most workers interviewed aver that the information is mostly “common sense” and is not widely disseminated in a given factory. The legal unit, which prosecutes employers for failure to pay wages and unsafe working conditions, is by far the most effective department. But it only functions on a case-by-case basis, without a long-term strategy for protecting workers’ collective rights. The PGFTU’s administrative setup, diffident leadership and meager popular support make it nearly impossible to nationalize the union agenda, even if anyone wanted to.

‘Atif Sa’d, editor of Sawt al-Amal (Voice of Hope), the newspaper of the PGFTU, and a mild voice of dissent within the union, agrees that the PGTFU offers small benefits to distract uneducated workers from their working conditions. Workers joining the PGFTU get a 50 percent reduction in health care premiums and little else.”People don’t know what it means to be in a union, since the unions haven’t sued for their rights effectively,” ‘Atif points out. “We need to fight for a social contract with the PA, minimum wage or wages tied to a cost of living index, a fixed working week, the passage of a labor law, even a flawed one, the right to strike.” [3]

Breaking the Teachers’ Strike

In the absence of strong national leadership, many unionists simply ignore the PGFTU. In 1997 a small group of teachers, sponsored neither by the PGFTU nor by any political faction, went on strike. The incident shows the PA and the PGFTU working together to quell a grassroots workers’ movement and send a signal that the Palestinian government would not tolerate dissent any more than Israel had.

In March 1997, teachers from the Teachers Coordinating Committee (TCC), an elected representative committee of 25 non-affiliated teachers, met to demand a 200 percent increase in their monthly pay of $300-400. After discussions, the Ministry of Education offered a ten percent increase, prompting the teachers to strike. In response, the Minister of Education suspended 19 members of the TCC, without salary. On April 19, Arafat met with 23 members of the TCC and tried to convince them to give up the strike. When they refused, he jailed 15 members of the strike committee in Jericho, accusing them of organizing a political strike on orders from Syria. After six days of detention and interrogation, the teachers were released on the promise they would go back to work. They returned without having won any concessions. [4]

Basim Makhoul, an economics professor at al-Najah University, notes, “The teachers were doomed to fail. They were unaffiliated. If they had been in Fatah, they would have been  protected. But then if they had been in Fatah,they wouldn’t have gone on strike.” Makhoul believes that this strike set a precedent in the territories. “It’s clear, isn’t it? If you go on strike  they will arrest you. And there isn’t a law to protect you.”

Sa’d says that “the teachers didn’t want help from the PGFTU,” but he counseled them to give up the strike anyway, claiming that lack of experience made them hold out for more than was reasonable. “They made ten demands, and they should have taken seven.” Sa’d admits trying to dissuade the teachers from striking, and he supported the PA’s move to crush the TCC. “It is illegal under Jordanian law for public sector employees to strike. I don’t necessarily support this law, but it is the law.”

Few other strikes in recent memory have been successful. In March 1999, doctors from across Palestine went on strike, but the movement did not seriously affect hospitals or clinics. After a month the doctors went back to work, citing “national considerations” in a press release. Health care workers at Augustus Victoria and Maqassad hospitals in Jerusalem successfully struck for several months of back pay. Although the hospital union was a member of PGFTU, hospital workers did not even contact the union to resolve the dispute.

Clearly, union leaders lack the political will to push for labor standards higher than those offered by the PA or employers. Sa’d claims that the PGFTU is trying to increase membership (he boasts that union membership has risen tenfold since 1994) and to resolve the leadership dispute. Once these “household chores” are taken care of, the unions can see to the business of helping workers. But in an economy with unemployment conservatively estimated at 20 percent, Palestinian workers cannot hope for a minimum wage or safety standards unless they act collectively. While recent strikes indicate renewed life in the workers’ movement, their achievements are local and easily reversible. Only a national union with elected leaders can hope to negotiate acceptable contracts with the PA and employers. As it stands, the PGFTU leadership is content to take orders from the PA, while the workers, swamped by calls for national unity in perpetual times of crisis, can do little.


[1] Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group, Workers Report (July 1999).
[2] Sa’d canceled elections in 1998 and 1999.
[3] A draft labor law before the Palestinian Legislative Council has yet to be ratified. The draft law does not explicitly allow the right to strike, nor does it create labor courts. There are no health and safety provisions, and the law holds employers ultimately responsible for worker safety rather than the Ministry of Labor. Interview with labor activist Mahmoud Ziyada. See also the Democracy and Workers’ Rights Center, Critical Observations of the Palestinian Draft Labor Law (1998).
[4] From testimony provided by the Palestinian Center for Human Rights and LAW (The Palestinian Society for Protection of Human Rights and the Environment).

How to cite this article:

Nina Sovich "Stifling Democracy Within Palestinian Unions," Middle East Report 215 (Summer 2000).

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