The University of Toronto is not known as a particularly progressive institution. Like many universities, it has adopted neoliberal thinking and practice, becoming part of Academia, Inc. But two seemingly unrelated events during the 2014-2015 academic year showcased the increasing political activity of the school’s graduate student body.
On the hot afternoon of April 19, 2016, thousands of workers and unemployed took to the streets of the West Bank city of Ramallah in protest the labor policies of the Palestinian Authority (PA). As the sun beat down on their shoulders, the marchers remained defiant, shouting “Haramiyya! (Thieves!),” as they reached the rally point in front of the Council of Ministers and Ministry of Interior buildings. Organizers from independent workers’ movements, left political parties and women’s committees took turns addressing the crowd from a makeshift platform on the back of a truck. PA police and security forces were deployed, some in riot gear and armored vehicles, but they did not visibly interfere. The demonstration was the first public, collective manifestation of a campaign against Social Security Law 6, ratified by decree on March 9, 2016 by President Mahmoud ‘Abbas.
The colonization of Palestine began in the late nineteenth century with the First Aliyah, or Zionist immigration, and the establishment of plantations worked by Palestinians under the management of Jewish settler-owners. A generation later, the “socialist” or “labor settlement” wing of the Zionist movement began its ascendance to hegemony via the “conquest of labor,” with the demand that Jewish-owned farms employ the Jewish proletarians who were streaming into the country in the wake of World War I. The battle ended with a commitment of the central Zionist institutions to the financing of land purchases for communal and collective farms (kibbutzim and moshavim, respectively), which would provide a prestigious if not luxurious livelihood for these European worker-pioneers. The new communities prided themselves on their commitment to labor qualified as “Hebrew”—that is, exclusive of Palestinians—and “self-”—that is, rejecting of “exploitative” wage relations.
On November 4, 2012, there were two snapshots of a deeply unequal struggle between labor and capital in Iran—a struggle that had begun two years earlier with a strike of temporary workers at the Mahshahr Petrochemical Complex. In Mahshahr, at the head of the Persian Gulf, Faraveresh, one of the five public-sector companies at the Complex, reached an agreement with the strikers, committing to remove the private middleman who had hired the workers and to sign direct contracts with them as soon as possible.
Over the past 15 years, the United States has waged two major land wars in the greater Middle East with hundreds of thousands of ground troops. Shadowing these armies and rivaling them in size has been a labor force of private contractors. The security company once called Blackwater has played an outsize role in the wide-ranging debate about the privatization of war and attendant concerns of corruption, waste and human rights abuses. But this debate has also largely overlooked a crucial fact: While Blackwater was founded and largely staffed by retired US military personnel, the vast majority of the overseas contractor work force is not American.
Early each morning, dozens of workers from Jaba’ walk up a narrow set of stairs with trash strewn on either side to reach a bus stop on Highway 60, which bisects the West Bank on its way from Nazareth to Beersheva. As they climb the stairs, the workers pass a tunnel that once allowed villagers convenient access to the highway, but which has been blocked by limestone boulders, dirt and rubble since the intifada of the early 2000s. At this bend in the road, nine miles northwest of Jerusalem, much of the horizon is defined by the 20-foot high concrete separation wall.
The beheading of 21 Egyptian Copts working in Libya, as shown in video footage released by the Islamic State on February 12, 2015, made headlines across the world. The story was variously framed as one more vicious murder of Middle Eastern Christians by militant Islamists, one more index of chaos in post-Qaddafi Libya and one more opportunity for an Arab state, in this case Egypt, to enlist in the latest phase of the war on terror. What was left unaddressed was the deep and long-standing enmeshment of the Libyan and Egyptian economies, embodied in the tens of thousands of Egyptian workers who remain in Libya despite the civil war raging there.
In the summer of 2014, director Diego Luna released Cesar Chavez, a feature-length retelling of the story of the 1973 grape pickers’ strike in California that inspired an international grape boycott and made Cesar Chavez a household name. In the film, the first person killed on a farm worker picket line was a Mexican bracero named Juan de la Cruz. In fact, de la Cruz was the third of five “United Farm Worker martyrs” to die violent deaths struggling for social justice in the vast fields of American agribusiness. The first was Nan Freeman, a young Jewish student helping a sugarcane strike in Florida, and the second was a Yemeni migrant called Nagi Daifallah.
In 2013, Mohamed, a 22-year old Somali, was making a living washing cars in Saudi Arabia. Late that year, due to increasing government pressure on employers of undocumented workers, he was fired. In December, after several weeks without a job, Mohamed handed himself over to the police. He spent the next 57 days detained in appalling conditions. “In the first detention center in Riyadh, there was so little food, we fought over it,” he said. “So the strongest ate the most. Guards told us to face the wall and then beat our backs with metal rods. In the second place, there were two toilets for 1,200 people, including dozens of children.” Mohamed is now in Mogadishu, the Somali capital.
The independent labor movement that has flourished in Egypt since the ouster of former president Husni Mubarak enthusiastically supported the Tamarrud (Rebel) campaign for the huge June 30 demonstrations asserting a popular vote of no confidence in President Muhammad Mursi. The Center for Trade Union and Workers Services (CTUWS), Egypt’s most experienced (and during the 1990s only) labor-oriented NGO, claims to have gathered 200,000 signatures for the Tamarrud petition through its six regional offices.
When I traveled to the US military base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba in 2009 to visit a client imprisoned there, the daily routine was straightforward: Every morning, legal teams representing detainees would leave the Combined Bachelor Quarters that also housed civilian guests on the base and meet our military handlers. We would take a ferry to the bay’s windward side, where most of the facilities are located, and make a breakfast stop at McDonald’s (the only one in Cuba) before heading to the prison. One day, my supervisor pointed out a familiar face behind the counter: One of the Filipinos taking orders also worked nights at the front desk of our motel.
During the week of December 15-22, 2012, between the two rounds of the referendum on Egypt’s newly adopted constitution, workers struck at three large, strategic industrial enterprises. At two, the strikers quickly achieved their main demands.
In December 2007, employees from the Real Estate Tax Authority in Egypt staged the largest occupation of a downtown Cairo area prior to the uprising that unseated Husni Mubarak. Angry about their working conditions, 8,000 tax collectors slept in front of the Ministers’ Council building on Husayn Higazi Street, a short walk from Parliament, for 11 consecutive nights. Like their successors in Tahrir Square in 2011, the Authority employees pitched tents and brought in gas stoves to sustain them as they chanted anti-government slogans. They won an impressive 325 percent wage increase, and their efforts laid the groundwork for the creation of Egypt’s first independent trade union.
Although Jordan may appear little affected by the Arab uprisings, as early as January 2011 Jordanians were in the streets for the same reasons Tunisians and Egyptians were: protesting against economic conditions and privatization of state resources, demanding the resignation of the prime minister and his cabinet, and calling for political reform and an end to elite corruption. The protests persist, with marches nearly every week, and include traditional opposition groups like the Muslim Brothers and leftists, as well as self-proclaimed “popular reform movements” that are forming throughout the country. At least two umbrella organizations have emerged to bring these movements together.
On the first anniversary of the January 25 revolution in Egypt, it is right and meet to shine light upon a figure who is shadowy and obscure in mainstream retrospectives: the striking worker.
The Tunisian revolution of January 2011 drew upon the participation of nearly every social stratum. Organized labor threw its weight into the struggle early on, in an important sign of the breadth and depth of opposition to the rule of the dictator, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. In mid-March, the Sacramento Central Labor Council (AFL-CIO) hosted a delegation of leaders of Tunisia’s powerful labor federation, the Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail (UGTT), on a visit to the United States. The Council co-hosted the Tunisians with the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center. Abdellatif Hamrouni is secretary-general of the country’s federation of public works employees and a member of the UGTT general assembly.