From the River to the Wall: Union Organizing in the West Bank
With a population just shy of 2.4 million and a labor force of 640,000, the West Bank exists in perpetual economic depression. This reality, according to a 2009 United Nations report on trade and development, is “rooted in the relentless Israeli internal and external closure policy, the attrition of the Palestinian productive base and the loss of Palestinian land and natural resources” that has occurred since 1967 under the Israeli occupation. In reality, these policies result in crippling unemployment and generations of unrealized economic potential.
I was part of a recent Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) delegation to the West Bank and witnessed first hand the economic conditions described in this and other UN reports. In Ramallah, the streets are full of unemployed workers, and in the countryside, farmers struggle to compete with Israel’s subsidized crops, finding it impossible to prevent the endless expansion of Israeli settlements covering over 40% of West Bank territory. There are few jobs for experienced professionals, who thus resort to sporadic, menial labor, the compensation for which barely covers basic needs.
The West Bank exists under a military occupation that stifles economic development and buoys the poverty rate over 46% (according to recent CIA statistics). The area is overseen by a military government instituted by the state of Israel following its takeover of the area in 1967. Pockmarked with checkpoints and settlements, the West Bank is also encroached upon by a 30-foot high wall snaking in and around the area that has annexed another 10% of Palestinian land, including one fifth of the area’s most fertile territory, to the state of Israel.
Our delegation traveled to the West Bank with the intention to learn about labor organizing in Palestine and to offer solidarity on behalf of the IWW. We met formally with labor unions organizing under the Independent Federation of Unions in Palestine (IFUP), the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU), and the General Workers Union (GWU).
The IFUP was established in 2007 with a commitment to politically independent, structurally democratic organizing. The organization has approximately 50,000 members, in contrast to PGFTU’s over 200,000, and organizes primarily in the financial, agricultural, pharmaceutical, and education sectors, as well as unemployed workers. The organization realizes its commitment to democracy by ensuring that its members annually elect each union’s executive committee members and that all leaders have worked in the industries they represent.
The PGFTU is the oldest union operating in Palestine, with activity that has ebbed and flowed since the 1920s. With close ties to Fatah, the PGFTU brings a top-down structure to organizing in such industries as healthcare, electricians, carpentry, and education. The PGFTU has been criticized for its lack of organizational democracy, a critique that prompted its former president, Muhammad Arouri to establish the IFUP. This criticism has also been taken to heart by a PGFTU branch called the Left-Labor Coalition, which is working to reform the PGFTU from within.
The third umbrella organization we met with as a delegation was the General Workers Union of Palestine (GWU), which organizes construction, public service, health, textile, print media, education, and agricultural workers. In contrast to both the PGFTU and IFUP, GWU has representation in East Jerusalem, an area currently being annexed by Israel but viewed by most Palestinians as the capital of any future Palestinian state. Like PGFTU and IFUP, GWU pioneers initiatives that seek to educate workers about their rights and train them for skilled professions. This is achieved in part by lobbying the Labor Ministry for vocational training services, as well as by providing programs of their own. Despite structural differences and varying political affiliations, each of these organizations expressed a common goal: to better the lives of Palestinian workers. All also expressed a commitment to direct action, a commitment we witnessed first-hand at a University Employees Union strike, organized under FIDUP.
The organized labor force in the West Bank spans an array of industries. As a delegation we met with farmers, pharmaceutical workers, and workers in the building trades, banking, education, and the service industry. In the West Bank, service industries, including education, healthcare, banking, trade, and foodservice, make up 35% of the economy. Agriculture makes up 13%, followed by manufacturing and mining at 12%, and construction at 8%. That construction industry figure does not take into account the 16% of the workforce employed by Israel, either within its official borders or within the West Bank in industrial zones and settlements. It’s a humiliating irony that many are economically compelled to build the very settlements and walls that confiscate their land. The remaining 16% of West Bank jobs exist in the public sphere, with salaries paid by the Palestinian Authority (PA). In fact, one of the largest single employers in the West Bank is the PA security force.
Repeated in several of our meetings with leaders of these organizations as well as individual members was an emphasis on the constraints imposed on union organizing by the occupation. The West Bank’s labor force as a whole is constrained by the depressed economy—and labor organizing, while allowed by the Palestinian Authority (PA), can be disrupted at any time at the discretion of the Israeli government. Today unions are legal under the Palestinian Authority (PA) but have never been under Israel’s occupying government—a tension that puts union organizers at risk of Israeli detention despite the PA’s de jure sovereignty. Nearly every organizer and political activist we met told us stories of arbitrary arrests and detentions, most occurring in the middle of the night in front of shocked family members. This commonly used practice, called administrative detention, allows Israel to lock Palestinians up indefinitely without a charge or a trial, and has caused several of our hosts to be imprisoned for periods of several years.
Under the occupation, each labor industry faces its own hurdles, yet all are subject to the travel and trade restrictions imposed by the occupation. Palestinian farmers, for example, must compete with subsidized Israeli crops and pay more money for water that, though from aquifers within the West Bank, is stolen and sold back to them by Israeli water companies. Our delegation met with the Independent Farmers Union (IFU), a year-and-a-half-old constituent union within the IFUP, comprised of small farmers who pool together their crops and sell them through a local distributor. Unionizing, according to one member, offers communal insurance. If one farmer’s land is stolen, for example, fellow members will give a share of their own crops. The Israeli “land grab” was one of the driving forces behind the union’s formation.
In addition to the challenges Palestinian farmers face, the delegation witnessed first hand the obstacles imposed on the West Bank’s manufacturing sector by restrictions on the transport of materials in and out of the West Bank. Despite the challenges, at least one pharmaceutical company has been able to attain a level of success. Birzeit Pharmaceuticals, a unionized factory we toured on our delegation, has been able to expand its market presence due to eased restrictions on their exports. The company, a generic-drug producer, recently expanded its clientele to include markets in Kuwait, Algeria, Kazakhstan, the United Arab Emirates, Belarus, and parts of Western Europe. Birzeit is unionized under the umbrella of IFUP, though its management, like in other shops the world over, works to suppress union activity—namely through the threat of job transfer for organizers.
Both women and men are part of the West Bank’s labor force, as we witnessed at job sites and in meeting rooms, though gender disparities persist on the job and in paychecks. Much like in the United States, women are underrepresented in union leadership, and male leadership dominated our meetings with union organizers. In the West Bank, most women are employed in the public sector (education, health and administration), in private services (education, health, business services) and in agriculture, largely as unpaid family laborers. Women comprise just one-fifth of the West Bank’s labor force, and are paid 75% of what their male counterparts earn, directly comparable to the gender wage disparity in the U.S. Interestingly, wages for women have dropped 5.5% in recent years while wages in the West Bank as a whole have increased slightly.
Some women, who are unable to find jobs in other sectors, turn to small-scale manufacturing. In the Jenin refugee camp, we met with the Union of Women Workers (UWW), a cooperative of local artisans who make olive oil soap, bags, pottery, wall art, and other goods. The UWW seeks to alleviate poverty for women by offering a means of employment as well as affordable daycare and other services. The UWW’s focus on handiwork has proven difficult due to a nearly non-existent market. Tourists comprise the majority of their customer base, but because of the occupation there are few tourists. In our meetings with a workers’ rights oriented NGO, the Democracy and Workers Rights Center (DWRC), organizers relayed their experiences of uniting workers in the informal sectors, many of whom are women earning a living by selling handicrafts and food. According to the DWRC the informal sector, which also includes street vendors and unpaid family farm laborers, is a difficult sector for union organizers to penetrate, owing in large part to the size of the shops and the disconnected nature of the industry.
The high level of unemployment in the West Bank has created many idle hands in search of sustainable employment. Under IFUP, the Unemployed Workers Federation (UWF) organizes approximately 11,000 of the more than 150,000 unemployed workers in the West Bank. UWF focuses on expanding the PA’s unemployment benefits and creating jobs. The organization works towards the former by pressuring the Palestinian government, which, while it does not have the resources to adequately compensate the unemployed, does have the means to increase benefits. The latter is attained in small doses, through project-development programs that encourage local initiatives and find funding for them (primarily from NGOs). Union members in Ra’fat, a small village outside Ramallah, spearheaded one such initiative. Here workers are planning to build a chicken farm that, pending funding, will provide five or six jobs for the village.
Our delegation traveled to Ra’fat to meet with some of the workers organizing under the UWF. One member that we met with, Waheeb Hamin a father of five, has been without steady work since the Second Intifada in 2000. Before the Second Intifada, when some West Bank and Gaza residents were still able to legally work inside Israel, Hamin was working as a maintenance man inside a Jerusalem hotel. Following the second Intifada, over 250,000 Palestinian workers within Israel (some with work permits, others working “illegally”) were fired and forbidden from working inside Israel proper. Hamin has since switched professions, now working as a house painter, though finds it nearly impossible to compete with young single men who are willing to work for less than a living wage. As a result, Hamin is left with little to provide for his family.
Organizations such as GWU and IFUP have developed programs that attempt to bridge the gap for people such as Hamin. The PA does not adequately address the needs of the West Bank’s unemployed population, and while it provides health coverage, it merely covers clinic visits, not life-saving surgeries or other complicated—and expensive— procedures. Most of the PA’s budget is allotted for government salaries and the implementation of security measures demanded by the Israeli government. In response to this, IFUP has set up a service that provides food, medicine, money, and free insurance to over 2,000 of its unemployed members, and GWU has initiated a program that is currently supplying medical care to over 300,000 people.
As previously stated, the depressed job market facing Hamin and others in the West Bank is caused by several contributing factors: checkpoints that inhibit workers from traveling freely; restrictions on imported and exported goods that stagnate economic growth; the resulting poverty and lack of fully developed infrastructure that make it hard for new businesses to get off the ground; the apartheid wall, the settlements, and artificially inflated water prices that make farming (which had once been the predominant industry) almost impossible to profit from. Waheeb Hamin’s family lost 19 acres of land to the Israeli separation wall and adjacent Israeli prison, both of which we could see from his window.
The economic realities of life in the West Bank contrast starkly with those of Israel, where the economy has reign to expand and develop. Specialized industries, innovative start-ups, as well as foreign corporations can all be found in Israel’s high-tech, investor-friendly marketplace. The most recent unemployment figures put Israel’s rate at 7.8%, a number far below the West Bank’s unemployment figures. The unemployment rate in the West Bank has risen significantly since the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993, an event that began the process of cutting off West Bank residents from legal employment in Israel. Once participating in Israel’s agricultural, construction, and tourism sectors, Palestinian workers found themselves jobless with few opportunities in the West Bank.
Today, migrant laborers from South East Asia—countries such as Thailand, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka—now occupy jobs in Israel that were once filled by Palestinian workers. These workers, who are essentially slaves, are denied the rights that accompany full citizenship, such as caps on work hours, a minimum wage, protection from employer abuse, and so on. The scheme that currently operates demands a sum of several thousand U.S. dollars for permission to work in Israel, for a period no longer than five years, though this is often extended illegally, and employers frequently confiscate the workers passports making travel home impossible.
After our official delegation in the West Bank, we had the opportunity to meet with a labor organization in Nazareth, the largest Arab city in Israel (approximately 20% of Israelis are Palestinian, a population that lives in similar conditions to blacks in the Jim Crow South). The visit to the union organization in Nazareth, Sawt Al-Amal (which translates to “Voice of Labor”), lent insight into the situation of Palestinians inside Israel. Sawt Al-Amal works to unite Jewish and Arab workers, though they find it difficult because of racial segregation within Israeli society. Most aspects of Israeli public life are separate for Arabs and Jews. Only 5 cities in Israel are considered officially “mixed.” Within the education system there are two school systems, one for Arabs and one for Jews, and the mandatory military service, of which Palestinian-Israelis are exempt, offers educational and financial benefits to Jewish Israelis and not Arabs.
In terms of labor conditions, there are many Israeli employers that refuse to hire Palestinian-Israelis, and all public industries bar Arabs from employment, such as the electricity company, the telecommunications industry, and the airports and seaports. Sawt Al-Amal considers the struggle of Palestinian workers to be the same struggle as workers all over the globe, but unique because of the conflict. Palestinian-Israelis not only face obstacles related to privatization and globalization, but also suffer from institutionalized racism.
Sawt Al-Amal’s efforts to unite Jewish and Arab workers include working with some of the smaller Jewish unions who are organizing immigrant workers, as well as unions within the service industry. Sawt Al-Amal frequently engages in political discourse with these organizations with the belief that “if discrimination exists, all workers are hurt”. Arabs and Jews who are employed in the same shop will take to the streets together, demanding their rights side by side. But as soon as the conversation turns to the causes of economic disparities between Jews and Palestinians, unity dissolves. Political tensions run deep and too often make Jewish-Arab organizing a non-starter.
The preamble of the IWW’s Constitution states that “the working class and the employing class have nothing in common,” and according to Sawt Al-Amal, this line is no less true with Palestinian employers of Palestinian workers than with Jewish employers. According to Sawt Al-Amal, Palestinian employers are not necessarily more sympathetic to Palestinian workers and are just as likely to break a union as any other boss, often playing the “nationalist” card in defense of union busting. It is a difficult situation, in part because there is little awareness in the Palestinian-Israeli community about the rights of workers and the obligations of employers. In general, there is a lack of organizing infrastructure, as Palestinian institutions had been destroyed or crippled following Israel’s formation in 1948.
With annual aid topping $2.4 billion, and with most sent in the form of military support, the United States plays a large role in shaping the realities of West Bank life. At each meeting we asked “what can we do,” and each time we were asked to support, and encourage others to support, the economic, academic, and cultural boycott on Israel. The occupation hurts workers, both Palestinians, migrant laborers in Israel, and Israelis, both Jewish and Arab—for example the cost of sustaining the settlement network alone is about $556 million a year. Thus to benefit Israeli as well as Palestinian workers the boycott must be supported. The consensus was that a boycott campaign, coupled with Palestinian-led non-violent resistance, is the only thing that can end the occupation.
Our delegation zigzagged across the West Bank, passing through innumerable Israeli checkpoints, and seeing fields of centuries-old olive trees that had been chopped down or burned by Israeli settlers in the shadow of the apartheid wall. We saw soldiers threaten civilians. We saw charred rooms in Hebron where children had been murdered by firebombs in their sleep. In the last two years 64 Palestinians and 4 Israeli settlers have been killed in the West Bank. And that says nothing about the 1300+ killed last year in Gaza, nor the countless daily humiliations faced by workers unable to travel a few miles to work because they might be held up for hours at a checkpoint. All for a military occupation that continues to claim the economic potential of generations of Palestinians living in the West Bank—from the Jordan River to the wall.