“We actually don’t have any other way to exercise international pressure except calling our friends and supporters in the trade unions around the globe to call for this Boycott and Divestment.” stated Manawel Issa Abdellal, member of the Executive Committee of the 250 thousand member Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU) in a recent speech to union activists and labor movement supporters in San Francisco.
“Factories actually exist inside the settlements and their products are going to the markets in Europe and in the United States. The whole world is saying these settlements are actually illegal settlements. So why would it be wrong to boycott them?”,
“My message to you as labor activists is to follow the lead of unions in Canada and Britain.”
The Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE)in Ontario passed Resolution 50 in May of 2006.”
Adopted unanimously by 900 delegates, the resolution expressed support for the global campaign against Israeli apartheid. CUPE Ontario is the largest public sector union in Ontario representing over 200,000 workers.
The same month, the British National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (NATFHE) declared its active support of boycotts against Israeli academics and academic institutions that do not publicly take an explicit stand against Israeli apartheid and Israel’s discriminatory educational system. NATFHE is the largest union of university teachers in Britain (70,000 members).
In a wide-ranging talk, Manawel spoke about the PGFTU’s efforts in defense of Arab workers struggling under the Israeli iron heel in occupied Palestine. He gave numerous examples of the policies employed by Histadrut and the State of Israel attempting insure the Arab majority of historic Palestine remains isolated and powerless.
Manawel described how Histadrut (the Israeli Labor Union) has used its privileged position in the Jewish State to take advantage of Palestinian workers for Histadrut’s own ends. “Histadrut has failed to represent any Palestinian workers inside Israel.”, he said, “and the PGFTU is forbidden from defending Arab workers in such areas. It is very painful. We can see, witness, and hear of Israeli brutal exploitation of Arab workers, but we cannot do anything…It can only remind us of the Cantons of the Apartheid State of South Africa.”
In one example, there are Palestinian workers who have worked in the same East Jerusalem hospital continuously for over 30 years. The State of Israel does not allow them to leave Jerusalem to visit their families. If they were to leave Jerusalem, they would lose their jobs because they would not be allowed to return. Just over a year ago, a worker from Gaza working at the Makassed Hospital left to visit his family in Gaza. Although he had a permit to work at the Hospital, he wasn’t allowed back in and lost his job. He was the sole breadwinner for his entire family.
In response to a direct question of whether Histadrut has shown any solidarity with Palestinian workers, Manawel answered, “Until now I have not seen any sort of solidarity. Even when Arab workers are hurt, which should be the ABC of solidarity with workers, I have never seen the Histadrut say that they condemn such an act or do something about it.”
He described instances of Histadrut’s withholding and diversion of funds belonging to the Palestinian workers. “An American Communication Union wanted to donate something to the Palestinian Unions and the Palestinian Labor Movement. Histadrut somehow obtained these funds, built a building for themselves in East Jerusalem, then leased it to the private sector, ironically, a Palestinian private sector. The contribution was meant to benefit Palestinian workers, not a private sector, Palestinian or otherwise. When confronted, Histadrut responded, “Well, we didn’t sell the place”.
Histadrut has been automatically deducting 1% of the salaries of Palestinian workers since 1970 as “trade union fees”. The PGFTU estimates between 1970 and 1994, the Histadrut pocketed NIS (New Israel Shekel) 400 million (=US$94.27 million) “for little more than permission to enter Histadrut collective agreements along with Israeli workers”.
In 1996, right after Oslo, an agreement was signed between the PGFTU and Histadrut stipulating that from 1995 on, of the 1% Histadrut was collecting, one-half was to go to the PGFTU. Histadrut has not honored the agreement they signed. Since 1996, they have kept all the funds they have collected from Palestinian workers.
Yet Histadrut has a strong presence in the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), having been among the leadership for many years, even before it changed its name to the ICFTU. Instead of bringing pressure on Histadrut to implement the terms of the agreement they signed with PGFTU, the ICFTU is exerting pressure on the PGFTU to abrogate the agreement and make changes more favorable to Histadrut.
Manawel compared Israel’s disproportionate influence among international labor organizations to the political power that Israel is able to exert among western nations, regardless of legitimacy of their claims under international law. Now that the possibilities of US federal sanctions have receded even further, with the largest number of congress members having dual-Israeli citizenship (43 – 13 Senators, 30 Representatives), it is ever more imperative that rank-and-file labor rise to the task of divestment, boycott, and state and local sanctions.
One rank-and-filer in the audience related that in 1987 Histadrut had an office in San Francisco at the Service Employees Financial Union Headquarters on Golden Gate. Every year the Labor Council would give a dinner honoring Histadrut. The Labor Committee on the Middle East in San Francisco organized a picket line which received a lot of publicity. August, 1987 was the last dinner that was given for Histadrut. They closed their office soon afterward and left San Francisco.
The Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU)
The PGFTU’s roots go back to the founding of the Arab Worker’s Association (AWA) in Haifa in 1920 and its struggle against the discriminatory labor and immigration policies of the foreign-imposed British Mandate. Increased wages, improved working conditions, and the 8-hour day were early union successes. But many later labor campaigns, including one of the longest general strikes in history (1936 – 6 months), were sabotaged through collaboration between the British, the Jewish Histadrut, and Arab collaborators and bought agents. Still, in 1948 the AWA was recognized by the International Trade Unions Federation as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian workers.
The 1948 catastrophe of the Jewish State and ethnic cleansing of Israel (al-Nakba) split the Palestinian Labor Movement asunder. The West Bank, operating under Jordanian law (with some British labor law), was initially allowed independence of action. Union activity was even made a part of the labor code in 1953. The next year, the West Bank-dominated General Federation of Unions, containing twenty Jordanian Unions, moved from Amman to Nablus. But by 1957, the Communist Party was banned and the unions rigidly controlled. Thirty-nine unions in 1957, became twenty-nine by 1959, and, after merging with the Jordanian trade unions in 1960, became sixteen by 1961.
Gaza, however, found Egyptian labor law more flexible, especially under Nasser, who encouraged the development of a Palestinian labor law. By 1964, the Palestinian Trade Union Federation (PTUF) in Gaza, with six industrial unions, began organizing Palestinian workers abroad and eventually established 13 exile branches in Europe and the Middle East. The PTUF was the first mass-based organization to recognize the PLO as the sole representative of the Palestinian people and became a part of it in 1969.
With the 1967 June War and Occupation, Israel attempted to totally suppress the Palestinian union movement. Gaza union offices were closed, union leaders were imprisoned or expelled, and all union activities were banned for twelve years. The notorious Military Order 101 of August 27, 1967[see below] was employed to insure the goal of silencing the voices of the Palestinian people. The unions went underground, but continued to grow. As the burden of occupation grew heavier on their institutions and economy, Palestinian workers increasingly sought work in Israel and urban centers. They began to view themselves with a united working class perspective for the first time.
[Military Order 101: “It is forbidden to conduct a protest march or meeting (grouping of ten or more where the subject concerns or relates to politics) without permission from the Military Commander. It is also forbidden to raise the flag or other symbols, to distribute or publish political articles and pictures with political connotations. No attempt should be made to influence public opinion in a way which would be detrimental to public order/security. Censorship regulations are in accordance with the Defence Regulations (Emergency) 1945. The punishment for non-compliance is a prison sentence of up to 10 years and/or a fine of 2,000 Israeli lira; soldiers may use force to apply this law.”]
The First Intifada had a profound effect on worker’s solidarity and class consciousness. Factional political struggles by The Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), and, finally, Fatah resulted in an overt politicization of the unions at the expense of their class unity.
Paralleling that of the Communist Party, later called the Palestine People’s Party (PPP), all three organizations formed popular movements under trade union banners. From 1984, all four effectively shattered the labor movement with competing trade unions that eventually resulted in 161 “political” unions on the West Bank and Gaza, involving no more than 6,000 mostly politically affiliated workers.
It wasn’t until 1991 in Amman, as the intifada cooled, that the PPP, PFLP, and Fatah combined into the Fatah-governed PGFTU , with twenty industry-based unions. The exiled PTUF, being the official PLO trade union, was still viewed as the parent organization of them all.
The PTUF occupied 15 seats in the Palestinian National Congress (PNC), the governing body of the PLO, but they were essentially appointed by Arafat and had no direct significance to workers’ struggles under occupation. When the Palestinian Authority (PA) was first formed in 1994, the leader of the PTUF in-exile was appointed Deputy Minister of Labor. He tried to assert control over the PGFTU, by combining it with the PTUF, but only allocated two seats (representing West Bank and Gaza) on the 19-seat executive board.
The Palestinian unions in the trenches under occupation refused to combine and severed ties with the Tunis-based PTUF. The International Labor Organization (ILO) recognized the PGFTU as the Palestinian workers’ representative in the ILO, declaring that it would only recognize “elected representatives from the territories, not appointees from Tunis”.
The Palestinian labor movement has been hampered, not only outside from the occupation, but inside as well from the discord between Arafat-appointees returning from exile and entrenched union organizers who held their unions together all through the First Intifada. While the rank-and-file sided with the PGFTU, during the early years, neither side had been directly elected. The PGFTU constitution was finally approved by ballot in 2004. By 2005, it had implemented direct elections and its Secretary General could declare, “The PGFTU is the first institution working independently and democratically inside the Palestinian Territories.”
The reaction of hegemonic nations to the Palestinian elections and the Hamas victory, a year and a half ago, was a disaster for all Palestinians, but especially for workers and their families. The failure of hegemony leads to coercion. A catastrophic political and economic blockade was deliberately inflicted to starve them into submission. In Palestine this means no job opportunities and those with jobs have no salaries. Four or five families depend on one worker feeding them all. Unemployment rose almost overnight from 41% to 75% of the workforce (400,000 workers). 80% live below the poverty line.
With the government still nascent and divided, the PGFTU had to provide much more then workplace representation and union issue negotiations. The union had to create an economic and social infrastructure for workers and their families. Manawel described graphically what unemployment really meant for them. There is no unemployment system yet. No work means no milk and no bread for the family. The union had to intervene between the government agencies and private sector employers to provide workers with jobs and salaries.
Prior to the last election, payments were still being received by workers who were unemployed because of the Intifada. The PGFTU made agreements with some of the Ministries to distribute these funds, supplemented them with grants and other resources, and redistributed them to those who were in the most need. Food supplies were likewise distributed by the PGFTU. As an independent organization, they insured a non-partisan distribution.
They also negotiate with private employers to get them to increase their workforce. They have also negotiated with government agencies like the Ministry of Labor to provide specific programs to provide jobs for the unemployed. They succeeded in establishing a program in which the government paid wages to unemployed workers who volunteered in non-private organizations for three months a year on a rotation basis.
Manawel was asked about the use of the ultimate weapon of class struggle,the strike, under their extreme situation. He responded, “Even if we are under occupation, there are human…workers rights that we are obligated to defend…There are workers’ rights that we should be entitled to exercise in every place and every time. So while I resist the occupation from one side, I must also resist injustice in my workplace so we workers retain our rights.”
The PGFTU, Hamas, and Fatah
The specter of the Hamas-Fatah conflict loomed heavy over Manawel’s remarks. At a San Francisco labor union breakfast he was asked about the internecine bloodletting in Gaza and whether it was truly a confrontation between Hamas and Fatah or, in reality, involved just one faction in Fatah which was pursuing its own agenda. He diplomatically answered, “The latter”. I heard the name of Dahlan, the Gaza Fatah warlord, mumbled in the audience.
Later, he spoke about the Hamas Unions and PGFTU’s relationship with them. He explained,
“Hamas started very recently in trade union work, but they call themselves the Islamic Unions…I refuse to transform the unions into ethnic or religious groups or institutions. If you want to work in the unions, you don’t work under a Code Islamic Union. They realize that in a union there is power and they want this. We are not going to cooperate with the kind of union that has only one ethnic and one religious identity. Hamas is very selective. They are willing to work with secular unions only if they can gain more power for their workers. We refuse to work conditionally with them as long as sectarianism is involved.”
He was truly saddened by the situation between Hamas and Fatah.
“It was the outcome of the accumulation of several incidents and circumstances. I just want to remind you, before the elections, the US Administration, the European Union, the Arab Countries, and Israel, all pressured Abbas to bring Hamas to the election. When the election took place, they refused the outcome. You ask for democracy, so why do you reject the outcome? That was the beginning of it.”
“And the dialogue and the different conflicts since that election day until the Mecca Agreement last February…the issue of taking different Ministries, one would take one and one would take another…it was so weak and so shallow that it has caused this type of explosive event. And each of them has a specific agenda so that they must win and implement it. Right now with technology and the information revolutions, everybody knows a lot of the facts. One of which is the taking by Fatah of support from the US and the European Countries. Others say that Hamas takes their resources from other countries that have a religious trend in the area.”
“Unfortunately, instead of directing these funds and resources into rebuilding the social infrastructure, they use them to try to destroy one another. In my point of view, the only solution right now is the dismantlement of both governments, and a continued engaging in a national dialogue to come out of this crisis we are going through. In this small, tiny land we are talking about, we were asking for one state, now we have three states – Gaza, the West Bank, and Israel.”
By D Leland Castleberry
D Leland Castleberry is retired California Attorney. He is currently a labor organizer for the I.W.W. His law partner for over twenty-five years was born in Jaffa, Palestine and fled to the United States during al-Nakba 1948.