Israel and the Palestinian territories is a difficult place to be a trade unionist. WAC-MAAN brings Jews and Arabs together for social justice.
Israel and the Palestinian territories is a difficult place to be a trade unionist. The State of Israel occupies much of the West Bank, while the rest of it is under the nominal control of the Palestinian Authority. Gaza is controlled by Hamas.
How do you organise workers in this environment?
The official trade union movement in Israel is the Histradut. In the West Bank, it is the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU). Both are affiliated to the international trade union movement via the ITUC. The PGFTU organises in Gaza too, but it is seen as a Fatah-aligned organisation, and is in conflict with Hamas. There have been splits in the Palestinian trade union movement recently.
The Histadrut has traditionally been very powerful in Israel – and tied to the Zionist project. Originally formed as an organisation of Jewish workers, it has historically been close to the state, and a large employer in its own right. It has been criticised for failing to adequately represent Arab and migrant workers, and for stealing deductions from Palestinians working in Israel.
Its power has collapsed in recent years, and union density has fallen dramatically in Israel, largely as a result of privatisation and a change in the way social security is delivered.
Histadrut’s support for Israel’s attacks on Gaza, and the growing campaign of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel, has lead to attempts to expel the Histradut from the international trade union movement. (For more information, see this Palestine Solidarity Campaign briefing on Histadrut. PDF)
So where does this leave workers?
Divided by official and unofficial borders, and by clashing nationalisms, it is easy for neoliberal capitalism to dominate, exploit divisions and legal loopholes. Workers compete in a race to the bottom, with industrial zones in the Occupied Territories turned into rights-free areas. WAC-Maan (Ma’an means “together” in Arabic) was formed in the 1990s to bring people together as workers to overcome these barriers.
We were fortunate enough to meet WAC-Maan director Assaf Adiv at the recently Global Labour Institute International Summer School – you can watch his presentation here. Assaf lead discussions about the wider political situation in the Middle East and North Africa region, the war in Syria and the implications of the growing authoritarian response to the Arab Spring. We also learned a lot about the work of his union, and where is stands in this complex region.
WAC-Maan is political: it stands firmly for the right of the Palestinian people for self determination and participates actively in the struggle to end the occupation of Palestine and to achieve a total Israeli withdrawal from the Occupied Territories.
However, its focus is on workers’ rights: equality and representation for Palestinian workers in the job market, and bringing Jewish and Arab workers together with equal respect and dignity. The focus is on building strong unions based on the democratic principle that a worker is a worker regardless of his or her nationality.
Israel occupies the West Bank, and has set up industrial zones there, where Palestinian workers are employed. They are employed by Israelis in Israeli-occupied territory. This area is a kind of “no-man’s land”, in which there is no enforcement of workers’ rights or basic health and safety measures. Palestinian unions are prevented from representing them in Israeli courts or in negotiations with Israeli employers, and Histradut affiliates don’t organise there.
WAC-Maan has been active representing workers there, most recently in the case of Hatem Abu Ziadeh, fired from Tzafarti Garage in the settlement of Mishor Adumim after 17 years for “security concerns” – he was accused of being a spy for the Palestinian security services.
You can watch a short video about the case here:
But WAC-Maan also organises in Israel, in industries like trucking where Jewish Israelis, Russian immigrants and Palestinians are played off against each other.
The union has focused on some of the most marginalised workers in Israel and the Palestinian territories, those at the sharp end of the conflict, who fall through legal cracks and don’t get adequate representation, such as the workers in settlements mentioned above, or Arab women in agriculture. Employers exploit legal loopholes that allow them to employ workers in the Occupied Territories, and WAC-Maan has challenged this in the Israeli labour court.
Surprisingly, the union has also managed to organise and win recognition agreements among relatively well-paid and mostly Jewish art and music teachers in private colleges. All members of the union are treated equally, and this is appealing to workers crying out for decent representation.
The union has organised by focusing on workers’ dignity and equality of rights, and been explicit about the fact that unless Jewish and Arab workers can organise in solidarity, the bosses will win.
In a region rife with conflict and division, this message has resonance: there has been a cost of living rise in Israel and a social crisis that culminated in large scale social justice protests – much like Occupy in other countries – in 2011.
With the Arab Spring coming into conflict with authoritarian regimes in the region, the Israeli state is using the security threat as a means of social control.
Organisations like WAC-Maan help to transcend divisions and bring people together.
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