In February and March 2016, nearly 35,000 Palestinian teachers initiated a series of strike actions across the West Bank. Classes were dismissed and students sent home as teachers marched through Ramallah’s streets and organized sit-ins in front of Ministry of Education field offices. Though short-lived, the strike had wide resonance as teachers utilized their waning social capital in ways they had not done since the second intifada, and encouraged members of other unions to organize industrial actions, particularly after the March 9, 2016 ratification of Social Security Law 6.
This was the largest teachers’ strike in Palestinian history, and yet it was not organized by their union, the General Union of Palestinian Teachers (GUPT). It was organized despite it. Wildcat strikes had been held before. In 2012, 400-500 teachers went on strike for 25 days against the wishes of union leadership. This was an extension of the two-day, largely symbolic strike that the GUPT periodically calls in order to release political frustration at stagnant wages and the financialization of teacher’s pensions. The 2012 strike ended when the Palestinian Authority (PA) conceded to a number of demands and, through the brokerage of the GUPT, signed an agreement (effective January 1, 2013) that promised concrete, incremental changes. Months passed as the government postponed implementation, yet the strikers remained in their classrooms–largely convinced that the PA would still come through.
One year after the initial agreement with the GUPT, the Palestinian Authority unilaterally implemented a stop-gap measure by adding a notation to teacher pay slips promising that all qualified teachers would receive a five percent increase in basic salary as soon as funds were available. For most teachers, this increase amounted to an additional 170-220 NIS (New Israeli Sheqel) per month. Teachers objected, both because the increase was lower than the agreement had stipulated, and because it was not backdated to the original 2013 agreement. This agreement has yet to be fulfilled, a note that payment will be made “when the money is available” still on their pay slips.
By September 2014, after constant delays and an increasingly uncooperative GUPT serving more as mediator for the PA than advocate for union members, the GUPT Conference Committee sent a letter to the secretariat of the union, and the Secretary-General, Ahmad Suhwail. The letter detailed the nearly two-year history of negotiations and agreements between the GUPT and the Palestinian Authority. The GUPT responded with assurances that the agreement would be implemented on January 1, 2015. Appeased, unsure about next steps for escalation, and mired in internal political fractures, the teachers held off any further action. By February 5, 2015, however, it became clear that the PA had no intention of paying the back wages. A letter was issued to all teachers indicating that the PA owed teachers an average of 5,000 NIS, which was well beyond their budget given the 42,000 teachers in the West Bank.
The GUPT negotiated a 600 NIS per month wage increase in order to meet some concrete demands. Although the PA agreed, each teacher only received an additional 20 NIS on their next pay slip. News of the paltry sum spread quickly through the West Bank. Pressure mounted on the GUPT to call for a strike. Teachers refused pleas from the union to hold off, so the GUPT announced a two-day general strike in mid-February. By the end of the first day, the GUPT called on teachers to go back to school as they had agreed with the PA that all back salaries would be paid by May 2016. Contradictory statements then emerged from the Ministry of Education, indicating that payments would be incremental and would begin in April. Still other statements issued by field offices noted different start dates.
150 teachers refused to go back to work on the first day of the wildcat strike. One of them was H., a teacher at a boy’s school in Bethlehem and a member of the GUPT Elections Committee.
We spoke to H. several times over two years, as the teachers’ strikes began in February 2016, as the strike was underway, and finally in January 2018.
How did the strike begin, and how did you organize yourselves?
The teachers’ movement started spontaneously. We used social media to discuss our collective demands and concrete steps to claim those demands. However, we did not take any steps on the ground until the number of teachers involved reached several thousand strikers. The spontaneity of the collective action ensured that the demands are not factionalized and that political parties are not at the forefront. We demand justice and equality. Our motto is “dignity for all teachers.” One of the manifestations of the broad popularity of our movement and our attempt to show, loud and clear, that we are only loyal to our collective demands and not to any political faction or party, is our mass resignation from the General Union of Palestinian Teachers. Some teachers did not adhere to this call of mass resignation; this is mostly due to their close political affiliation and other political interests that are tied to the ruling party.
As the numbers of teachers involved in the movement increased rapidly, we realized a coordination mechanism was needed to ensure transparent and equal representation. So we have established the coordination committees. The committees are structured as follows: two teachers are elected from each school in each governorate. Then fourteen teachers are elected to create the Core Demands Committee in each governorate (there are 18 governorates in the West Bank). Out of those fourteen, three teachers are elected as a sub group to meet regularly in Ramallah and offer feedback to the Core Demands Committees. One teacher has been selected to speak on behalf of the movement. The speaker does not have the authority to communicate with the government unless authorized by the Core Demands Committees. 
What are those demands?
We have six main demands: First, we demand that the government pay the teachers the backdated pay raise they have been promising since 2012. Second, we want an increase to our basic salary that corresponds to the increased cost of living. Third, we demand that the government allow teachers to be promoted. Teachers’ promotions were frozen for the past fifteen years. Fourth, we demand that teachers’ retirement salary equal the retirement salaries of other public-sector employees. Fifth, we want every person who works in education to be regarded as an educator, with no difference in respect accorded to a head teacher, a school counselor, a school bus driver or a janitor. Finally, we want a real union that cares about teachers. We want a restructuring of the GUPT; we want each and every teacher to be represented and have an opportunity to run in the union elections. We do not want a union that is monopolized by the ruling party…a union that takes the side of the PA and its government against the teachers, their interests and well-being.
While the teachers’ demands are relevant to teachers in the Gaza Strip and they are part of the GUPT, teachers in Gaza are not part of this movement. First, Hamas will not allow any teachers’ activism. Second, teachers in the West Bank would prefer that Gaza teachers not join to avoid accusations by the PA that West Bank teachers have “foreign agendas” or are affiliated with Hamas. However, our hope is to have a teachers’ union that is truly ours, not manipulated or monopolized by the PA; a union that is representative of all Palestinian teachers in Palestine and the diaspora. In sum, what we want is true and equal representation, accountability, transparency and dignity for all teachers. Unfortunately, as long as there is a division between the West Bank and Gaza, we will not be able to have a strong, coherent, sustainable movement. The PA knows the strength of the coordination committees, and so they use various mechanisms and oppressive techniques to suppress and infiltrate them.
How has the PA responded to the strike?
The suppression and crackdown on any independent teachers’ movement starts with the General Union of Palestinian Teachers. When there are heightened tensions, the GUPT and the government agree on a couple of days of strike to release some of the tension and avoid real change. Teachers who continue to strike outside the umbrella of the GUPT are punished either by having their salaries cut or with threats of being sacked or transferred. In many cases these threats have materialized.
When the teachers’ movement started in early 2016, we were around 10,000 teachers. We had a sit-in in front of the Council of Ministers in Ramallah. There wasn’t much of a response to the sit-in, by either the PA or the general public. The government quickly framed our action as politically motivated. But we have kept at it, and teachers organize sit-ins before Ministry of Education offices in different cities in the West Bank every day. Every Tuesday, we have a main sit-in coinciding with the Council of Ministers’ weekly meeting. The second week of the sit-ins, as we were heading to Ramallah we were faced with PA security apparatus, our IDs were confiscated, and we were held at a PA checkpoint for up to three hours. This attempt to thwart the sit-in just as it began to gain visibility didn’t work, and we continued to Ramallah only to find that the city had been turned into a military compound. We anticipated barriers to our movement but we did not expect this level of violence. We did not expect that we would be forced out of cars and taxis and kept on the streets for hours. We did not expect that PA police would issue tickets to cars taking teachers to Ramallah. They confiscated the licenses of taxi drivers who had teachers with them. It was a very sad moment for us teachers, as many of the police officers were our students.
Considering the level of violence we were met with by the PA and its forces, it was disheartening to see that, at least at the beginning, civil society did not react. However, in retrospect, it might have been better if no organizations publicly allied with us, as the PA was waiting for any excuse to frame us and accuse us of holding and following foreign agendas. They were waiting for any opportunity to lead a smear campaign against us.
What does the strike mean for mobilization in the West Bank, and in Palestine more generally?
With every passing day, as we expand our activities, we feel solidarity with us increase as well. Parents and students join our marches. They carry banners saying, “Our dignity comes from the dignity of our teachers.” At Birzeit and An-Najah Universities, students stand with their professors. We have also won support from civic and grassroots organizations, and a number of Palestinian Legislative Council members stood with us as well, including the MP Najat Abu-Baker (who was sanctioned by the PA for doing so.) Other trade unions have stood in solidarity with us as well, especially the Union of Public Employees who are now planning to strike.
This movement is strong. Over 35,000 teachers have now joined the strike. That is out of a total of about 42,000 teachers, and another 13,000 administrators. We’ve estimated that this is the largest show of force by any public sector in Palestine since the Land Day public sector strikes in March 1976. The numbers are unprecedented, as is our capacity to sustain the strike for as long as we have. I think we really shook the PA and forced them to at least recalibrate their relationship to the education sector and the public sector more generally.
What did it tell you about the Palestinian Authority?
This movement has taught us a number of things. At the level of political leadership, there is confusion. They were never ready to deal with any sustained social movement. The PA leadership responded aggressively, using all sorts of inappropriate language in the media. We were called naive, unpatriotic, collaborators. We were accused of incitement, of being Hamas, PFLP (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine), Syrian, Iranian stooges. All quite ridiculous.
The irony, of course, is that the majority of teachers are Fateh affiliated. Ever since the implementation of the “institutional security” policy, all public employees have been vetted by security. In real terms, this meant you were vetted for your Fateh affiliation. Some of the more prominent Fateh members amongst the strikers tried to reason with the PA and tell them this was a legitimate strike and industrial action, but to no avail.
We tried to be reasonable. We proposed a number of initiatives and concessions, but unfortunately Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah condescendingly said that he only deals with the GUPT, “I don’t talk to these other teachers.” In other words, he does not recognize the grievances and the presence of 35,000 teachers on the street. He only recognizes the 7,000 teachers who are members of that union who are not on strike. It doesn’t matter. We will continue our fight[beyond the strike.]At one point, Hamdallah told us that he would accept our call for a 60 NIS increase per month when he finds an oil field. He treats us with utter contempt.
But I have to say, we don’t want to be on strike constantly. We want to go back to our schools and classrooms. We miss our students when we’re on strike. We don’t want our students to miss classes and be on the streets. But at the end of the day, we want our dignity and rights. We refuse to be humiliated by these endless dismissals of our position.
With all these complications, how do you see your role in social and political change?
It’s a tough and distressing question. Look, it’s obvious that we will not make the PA move by ourselves. We will not make any change unless everyone goes out on the street. As you see, 35,000 is not enough. The equation is now clear. According to the PA, you are either with us or against us. The PA has been relentless in its attempts to maintain power. At this point, our only option is civil disobedience.
Is this not a possibility?
I don’t know. The West Bank is so geographically fragmented, the checkpoints, the invasions. The occupation opens and shuts lines of communication as it pleases, and the PA considers itself as a body protected by the occupation. While we were on strike, PA officers told us: we are here to protect the PA, not the people. The division between the West Bank and Gaza will be the end of us. We divide ourselves up according to political faction now, who is Hamas, who is Fateh, etc. It is so destructive. We need to rebuild the connections between us, so we can be citizens of this cause.
The strike ended in April 2016 with the PA promising once again to meet some of your initial demands by January 2018. Now that the deadline has passed, I wanted to check-in and see if there are any new developments? What are your next steps?
I’m afraid there is not much good news to report. The government promised to pay us a backdated salary increase in January 2018, but the last we heard is that they will postpone once again. This has been happening for the past eight years. It is part of why we went on strike. So we are not expecting anything to actually happen.
The Ministry of Interior refused to give a license to create a new teachers’ union and said that the existing union—GUPT–is part of the PLO and can’t be replaced. We said: fine, but make it representative. This is what scares them. They are worried that if there are free and fair elections, the opposition will win, either Islamists or those from the Left. This scares them because the union is the only truly functioning PLO institution and they control it.
The threats from the PA’s security apparatus were effective. They threatened to imprison anyone who was involved, and they were able to silence many people this way. Many of the main leaders of the strike action, such as the heads of the Core Demands Committees and others, have disappeared. Some were given positions in the PA. Teachers considered part of the movement have been reassigned to other areas in order to isolate them from their colleagues. Others had their workload increased. And others were fired. They targeted our livelihoods and, because the strike was not backed by our so-called union, we could not go on. Teachers are disillusioned and feel betrayed. We are exhausted.
That doesn’t mean we have given up. Some of us are still talking, gathering, and staying in touch online. We want to revive the coordination and Core Demands Committees. As this stage, we think this is better than calling for a new or reformed trade union. We need to stay decentralized and with a low profile, but we want to be ready for the right moment. We are watching what is happening among teachers around the world, such as the strikes in the US and Latin America, and we are encouraged.
A while ago, Salam Fayyad, the former Prime Minister, said that he would make us stand in line before ATMs … and here we are queuing before them for our salaries, leaving little room to think or engage in social and political change. That was his aim. And here we are.
1. These political structures were developed in this way because: a) they reflect longstanding experiences of Palestinian teachers in democratic and horizontal sector mobilization, particularly during the First Intifada; b) they purposefully distinguish their organizing mechanisms from the hierarchies of the PA-affiliated GUPT; c) they are better able to account for the multiple geographic arenas of Palestinian educators, in the West Bank, Gaza, in Israel and in the region and broader diaspora.