Simon Taggart’s little book Workers in Struggle: Palestinian Trade Unions in the occupied West Bank (Editpride, London, 1985) deserves notice as perhaps the first book dealing with the trade-union movement in the West Bank. Despite its small size (a mere 79 pages), Workers in Struggle manages to cover its subject in some detail.
The author begins with a brief historical outline, starting from the period of British colonial rule in Palestine (1917-48), then – after devoting a few words to the period 1948-67 – he gets to his main subject: the trade-union struggle under the Israeli occupation since 1967.
Repression began at once, with a ban on all trade unions imposed by Israel’s military rule. It is worth pointing out here that the Israeli military apparatus ruling the West Bank, although theoretically subject to Israeli parliamentary control, has in practice virtually a free hand in ordering the life of the Palestinian population under its rule. Later, some unions were allowed to re-open, but many remain permanently banned.
The author refers to Section 83 in the Jordanian trade-union law, which prohibited the election of convicted felons to a union’s executive committee. Israel’s military rule has amended this law to include those convicted of political ‘crimes’. All political strikes are forbidden, trade-union activists are often arrested and the leaders are deported; some have even been shot and killed. Union offices are raided, and landlords who lease their premises to unions are subjected to heavy pressure by the military government. Jewish workers are incited to attack Palestinian migrant workers.
The author describes the harsh conditions to which Palestinian workers employed in Israel are subjected. ‘Many earn as little as one third of that of comparable Jewish workers’. Although taxes and social security payments are deducted from their wages, these migrant Palestinian workers receive none of the fringe benefits enjoyed by their Israeli counterparts.
As for unemployment, official Israeli sources estimate it at 1.5 per cent in the West Bank, but Palestinian trade-unionists put the figure at around 20 per cent. The author notes that unemployment is very noticeable in the streets. He also describes the labour markets where Palestinian workers gather early in the morning, waiting for the Israeli employer or the local broker who come to choose the fittest young workers to do a day’s labouring without any contract and for low wages. In many cases these workers are beaten and kicked and sent home at the day’s end without being paid at all.
In addition to its first major theme – the trade unions’ struggle against the occupation’s repression and discrimination, on both national and class level – the book also discusses a second theme: the internal political and ideological disputes within the movement.
In discussing the political rivalry among West-Bank unions, the author distinguishes two political currents: the nationalists and the socialists. Competition between them led to a split of the trade-union movement into two groupings. The nationalist grouping preaches a position of national unity and discourages internal Palestinian class conflict. This is used as justification for neglecting the struggle against Palestinian employers, for better wages inside the West Bank. The general secretary of this grouping is also quoted as saying that ‘workers are less interested in politics than in which union helps them feed their families’ (p 68).
The socialist current points out that workers and their dependents constitute 65 per cent of the Palestinian inhabitants of the occupied territories. ‘Who are the Palestinians? The working class is the Palestinian people’ (p 25). For this reason, the socialist unions regard the struggle for improving local wages as a patriotic duty. They criticize the Joint Palestinian-Jordanian Committee for the way in which it distributes its financial assistance to the occupied territories: the funds are used to line the pockets of the bourgeoisie instead of being channelled to the working class and the various popular voluntary working committees.
The author predicts that the differences between the two currents will narrow in the coming period. ‘Israeli bosses already employ more Palestinians from the occupied territories than do the Palestinian agricultural and industrial sectors combined. As Israel increasingly undermines, manipulates and dominates the economy of the occupied territories, so the socialist and nationalist characteristics of the trade-union movement will merge as class and racial oppression become synonymous’ (p 26).
I would like to comment here on a few points raised in Simon Taggart’s book, which require some clarification.
- Although the author’s historical outline goes back to the very beginnings of the Palestinian working class, the peasant origin of this class is not sufficiently stressed. This peasant origin is of course by no means unique to the Palestinian proletariat. What is unique, however, is the continual expropriation of the peasants’ land for the sake of Jewish colonization. Thus the growth of the Palestinian working class was not mainly a result of a gradual organic internal capitalist development.
- The author does not clarify the attitude of the West-Bank working class towards the PLO. In fact, this class has given its undivided support to the PLO – in contrast with the bourgeoisie, whose loyalties are divided between the PLO, the Jordanian regime and the Israeli occupation.
- The reasons for the split in the trade-union movement require some clarification. In fact, the split was created by Chairman ‘Arafat’s loyal supporters. The PLO’s chairman believed – and apparently still believes – in the imminent likelihood of his gaining a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. With this in mind, he wishes to dominate all Palestinian institutions in these territories. However, the trade unions were dominated by the Communist Party, and for that reason he decided to split them.
- As for the demand, raised by one of the leaders of the socialist current, that the Joint Committee’s funds should be channelled to the trade unions, I believe that he missed the main point here. The Committee itself is bourgeois in its class nature and composition, and its finances are supplied by the Arab ruling classes. The idea that such a body could use its funds in any other way is therefore quite illusory. Rather, the socialist leader quoted by the author should have criticized the very principle of the creation of this kind of committee, which has used its bribes to create a parasitic and corrupt political elite in the occupied territories.
- It should be pointed out that the harshest repressions are directed against the socialist trade unions, precisely because that part of the movement was created by the Communist Party and serves as its broadest base. From the occupiers’ point of view, the purely nationalist wing of the Palestinian movement can be destroyed by smashing the military organizations; but in order to destroy the CP, its trade-union base must be smashed directly. By this two-pronged approach, the occupiers believe that they can destroy the whole Palestinian national movement.
Despite its shortcomings, and its necessarily limited scope, this book should be welcomed as a useful contribution to the study of the Palestinian working class.