from: N E W S F R O M W I T H I N , A P R I L 1 9 9 6
On February 2, the congress of the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU) was closed down by the Palestinian Authority (PA). There was no official explanation, but apparently Arafat had been told that the opposition backed by Palestinians from outside were poised to take over the Federation. The banning is a clear violation of the basic human right of workers to organize free and independent unions, and is also an indication of the kind of impediments towards the realization of workers' rights that the PA is likely to impose in the future. Building a Palestinian civil society will necessarily involve confrontations between the grassroots sector and the Palestinian authorities. Unfortunately, the PGFTU is not able or willing to meet this challenge, with Palestinian workers paying the price of this reluctance.
After a 10-year split in the trade union movement in the West Bank and Gaza, all of the different factions (Fatah, the Democratic Front (DF), the Popular Front (PF) and the People's Party (PP)) finally united in the PGFTU at the end of 1993. (The PF and PP had already joined the PGFTU in 1990, but unions belonging to the DF remained separate until 1993). What appeared to be the major obstacle in building a strong trade union movement - namely the existence of three parallel general federations: one affiliated with the DF; one with the Communists (later PP) and the PF; and the Fatah-affiliated PGFTU - ought to have been removed. However in practice, the unification has not produced a substantial change. The main difference between the periods preceding and following the unification is that all of the factions are now participating in Fatah's special system of patronage within the PGFTU.
There has not been a general election in the trade union movement for more than 10 years. Elections were held in a few local unions and workplaces, but these were exceptional cases. Actually, one could say that the unions did not really function as trade unions during this period. The class struggle was overshadowed by the national one, especially during the Intifada. Unions were not doing union work, they were front organizations for the different political parties. Moreover, trade union activists were anything but workers representing a skill or a workplace. They were party activists and bureaucrats appointed by their respective parties to take a position in a union. For periods, the parties would even often even pay their salaries, especially in the period after the Gulf War when the flow of money from the PLO had stopped.
Today, this is still the case, though it is no longer the parties who pay their appointees, but the PGFTU. It is not membership dues which finance the unions, for less than five percent of the workforce is organized (For some years there has not been registration of members. Consequently, it is impossible to obtain exact membership figures. This estimate is based on figures from the DWRC, Ramallah). There are a number of reasons why so few workers are organized. But one is the fact that the unions have not been able to do much for the workers. As a former woman trade unionist put it, "The union only shows up at workplaces, when things get so bad that both the workers and the employers call the union". The problem is that the trade unionists - both locally and centrally- are very far from the reality at the workplaces. Many of them are representing trades in which they never worked, while others have never been workers themselves. Moreover, they do not have regular contact with the workplaces, if at all. They are appointed bureaucrats and in many cases unable to advise the workers on concrete matters.
The system of party appointments is reflected in every aspect of the structure of the PGFTU. In the 16-member executive committee, the seats are divided between the factions: six for Fatah, three for DF, PF and PP and one for FIDA. If a member from one of the factions leaves his post, that faction will choose the replacement. In the 11 districts under the PGFTU, both the staff and the members of the so-called district councils are appointed by the factions rather than elected. The districts council members should theoretically be representatives from the local unions in the area, but this is often not even the case.
Though many of the unionists in the PGFTU, both from the opposition but also from Fatah, are critical of the factional system, they are apparently not able or willing to break the pattern. They are all part of the system. Whatever job needs to be done, the leadership of the PGFTU (mainly Fatah) will choose the person for the task according to his/her faction, in consultation with the different factions. Rarely is a person chosen on the basis of his/her experience or qualifications, because an equal distribution between the factions is what counts. If the distribution is more or less fair, it is accepted.
This way of working is not an unknown phenomenon, but it is a major problem, as union work is very difficult in Palestine for a number of reasons. The large majority of the workplaces in the territories have five or less workers. Much of the work is seasonal, casual and informal - and until a few years ago nearly half of the workforce was working in Israel, beyond the reach of the unions. Generally, there is a low awareness of trade unionism. Therefore, today's unions and workers need qualified, determined and serious trade union activists, not party appointed bureaucrats.
As it is now, the PGFTU is far from capable of defending the rights of the Palestinian workers. This is a disaster at a time when the PA is establishing itself and the "new Middle East" is emerging. Workers are facing grave challenges on all fronts. First of all, the general economic situation is bad, and steadily deteriorating. Almost all Palestinian workers have been expelled from their jobs in Israel and forced to join the even cheaper labor force in the planned industrial zones, which are to be built in the occupied territories according to the agreements between the PLO and Israel. Apart from these zones, it is not likely that there will be many jobs created in the occupied territories to replace those lost in Israel, since it is much too risky to invest there due to the continuous closures and potential instability. As a result, unemployment stands at around 70 percent in the Gaza Strip and 50 percent in the West Bank and is constantly rising. Thus, workers are obliged to accept low wages and poor working conditions.
At the same time, workers' basic rights are seriously threatened by the PA. The draft of a labor law which is now being negotiated is seen by many as worse than the existing Jordanian labor law from before 1967, which has been in force in the West Bank during the Israeli occupation. Employees within the public agricultural sectors are not covered by this law; civil servants are explicitly denied the right to form unions (article 3, chapter 2); employees who are family members (including distant relatives) working for a family business are also not covered by the law. Several of the articles seem to be remnants from the beginning of the century - for example, the right of employers to pay their workers in goods instead of money and the prohibition of women from working at night. In addition, nothing is mentioned about environment or safety.
The PGFTU is participating in the discussions concerning the proposed new labor law being conducted by the Ministry of Labor, but is constrained by a lack of expertise, i.e. qualified and experienced persons to represent its views. What is even more worrisome, however, is the fact that since the PGFTU does not have a base among the workers, it is of course quite easy to override their demands. The federation is simply not able to put any pressure on the authorities at all.
The chances that the final labor law will be better than the draft law are very slim. Although, this doesn't seem to worry the PGTFU as much as one might expect. What seems to worry them more is the rivalry with Haider Ibrahim, who was leading the Tunis-based general Palestinian trade union and came to Gaza with the authorities in 1994. He is now claiming to be the legitimate general secretary of the Palestinian trade union movement, challenging the leadership of Shaher Sa'ad from the PGFTU. Haider Ibrahim is supported by a few local unions, mainly in Gaza. The problem could easily be solved by a decree from Arafat, though this decision might not be an easy one for him, because of the (growing) tension between local Fatah and Tunis Fatah. But it also likely that Arafat is not particularly dissatisfied with the existing tensions. Arafat is clearly not interested in having a body which could eventually grow into a strong independent force in Palestinian society.
As it is now, there is little risk that this will happen. The two Fatah trade unions - the Tunis and the local - seem to be competing about who is the best and most loyal state union, and any means are acceptable. In late summer 1995, the PGFTU and the employers association, under the auspices of the PA, agreed that in order for workers to obtain a permit to work in Israel, they must become members of the PGFTU. Since Palestinian workers in Israel are already paying a part of their salary to the PGFTU through payments to the Histadrut (according to the Paris Protocol which provided that tax and welfare deductions from wages earned by Palestinian workers in Israel are to be given to the Palestinian trade union), this new agreement would in effect deduct double fees from them, while forcing membership upon them. For PGFTU this was an easy way to get members and money, thus securing its position. It would not seem that the interests of the workers are always first and foremost in ds of their current representatives. (It should be noted that due to pressure from the independent NGO Al-Haq and others, the union employers agreement is no longer in effect).
The banning of the PGFTU congress was a dirty trick on the part of Haider Ibrahim. Apparently he wrote a letter to Arafat warning him that oppositional groups and foreign forces were to take over the Palestinian trade unions. Security forces then showed up and banned the conference. It is most likely that the leadership of the PGFTU was not that dissatisfied with what happened. In the months preceding the conference, they had failed to lay the groundwork for this congress. Representatives in the unions were invited less that a week before, and the international organizations were invited only a couple of days before. On the night before the congress, when Shaher Sa'ad knew that the PA would ban the meeting, he phoned many of the delegates and told them not to come. In spite of this, the 70 delegates present met for a few hours in which some very important matters were decided upon. The PA police patiently waited outside.
First, the period for the executive committee was extended for another 18 months (according to the unification agreement from 1993, their mandate had already expired in February 1995). Second, the first constitution ever in the history of the PGFTU was adopted. This constitution outlines a whole new structure for the federation, where similar and related trades will be united within 12 large national sectorial unions. Today there are more than 170 unions and many of them cover the same areas and skills, this multiplicity being mainly due to the factional divisions.
The content of the new constitution and the structure seems to have met with widespread approval from activists dealing with workers' issues outside the framework of the PGFTU. But many fear that the way in which this process of uniting the unions will be implemented will doom the whole idea. The PGFTU leadership will most probably gather the bureaucrats or leaders from the trade unions and from the parties to negotiate a "fair" distribution of unions and seats between the different factions. The PP will "get" the national health union, PF the national metal workers union, etc. This process of negotiating and appointing the leaders of the 12 national unions could take ages. In the meantime, ordinary union work will have to take a backseat, and elections will be postponed again, especially those for the executive which has the unfortunate habit of reappointing itself. This they can easily do again under the pretext that they are awaiting the new structure.
One might well doubt whether the Palestinian trade union movement will ever get beyond the stage where unions are merely "playgrounds" for the factions and political parties, as is the case today. However, things could and should be different.
The Palestinian workers need unions, and if the trade union movement works directly and in a determined fashion at organizing in the workplace, a true union movement can be built from the bottom up. A grounded base is a necessity for the PGFTU.
Second, the principle of democratic elections is of paramount importance, and there is no valid excuse for not having democratic elections. If the members of a union are not allowed to choose their own representatives, the "unions" are but bureaucratic institutions without any legitimacy.
Third, a clear stand on relations with the Palestinian authorities is crucial. There can be no fudging of the question. The interests of the workers are clearly incompatible with the interests of the Palestinian authorities, and the union movement will have no legitimacy if it is not independent.
In conclusion, to become an independent, legitimate movement in a civil society the PGFTU requires a base, committees in the workplace and, first and foremost, must establish a fair system in which there are democratic elections.
Sos Nissen is a student of geography in Denmark who is volunteering at the AIC.
News From Within is a monthley publication by the Alternative Information Center.
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