On the need for a strong and independent trade union movement

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Protesters for the Union Coordination Committee gather in Beirut's Riad al Solh square, after marching through the city to protest for wage hikes (Photo: Marwan Bou Haidar)

By: Abid Briki

Published Saturday, November 15, 2014

The movement of peoples throughout history has proven that economic, social, and political changes are often the result of both subjective and objective factors. Most analysts agree that subjective factors determine, while objective factors qualify, the type of changes and influence them. This approach applies to the reality of the trade union movement in the Arab region. To be sure, it is difficult to understand what the Arab trade union has undergone without analyzing the economic reality and its effects on social conditions and political choices. Furthermore, it is important to diagnose the interaction of Arab trade unions with those choices and their implications for the developmental model in application.

Reactions by the trade unions towards prevailing policies vary according to different national experiences on the one hand, and the extent to which some governments responded to labor demands to organize themselves in unions, on the other. Therefore, it is futile to compare Arab trade unions whose first nuclei had coalesced with the beginning of the twentieth century, with others that are still in the process of being formed today.

What makes for an effective union?

Indeed, trade union experiences should be evaluated based on criteria related to the specific characteristics of each country. Some unions emerged in the midst of national liberation movements and under broad-based labor pressures. Others were formed by political decrees and decisions. Yet, this does not mean that we should forgo the main criteria by which we measure the effectiveness of each union.

To be sure, pro-government trade unions, which have no margins of independence and freedom of activity, cannot influence the conditions of workers and marginalized segments. Moreover, trade unions that are bureaucratic in nature and that do not consult workers in their decisions cannot be influential with other stakeholders in the rest of society.

With the exception of some experiences, the Arab trade unions remained ineffective for many decades. This has influenced the vision of the regional Arab organization the International Federation of Arab Trade Unions, which emerged in an Arab political climate characterized by monopoly of opinion; rejection of dissent; cracking down on the right to self-organize; domestication of the media, and the exploitation of workers, especially migrant ones.

Things became more complicated with globalization, which promoted free market principles and liberalization in an international trading system that placed everybody face to face with intense competition. In that climate, the competitive edge went to those who could best control the cost of production, at the expense of workers’ rights and conditions at the workplace.

Consequently, unemployment rose, workers’ purchasing power dropped, and taxes targeting poorer segments increased. Administrative and financial corruption became widespread, and governments pursued further repression and domestication of trade unions, in order to impose fait accompli policies. Popular discontent increased, eventually leading to massive popular uprisings that brought down a number of authoritarian regimes.

Current state of the Arab labor movement

The Arab labor movement and trade unions split into two fundamentally contradictory poles:

Pro-government unions, which reduced Arab popular uprisings to foreign conspiracies, pursuing in this context a discourse based on slander, derision, and accusations of treason against those who have different views, whether in the International Labor Organization or in Arab and international labor unions. They ended up becoming propaganda mouthpieces of the ruling regimes, and protectors of the policies that had not only led to poverty and marginalization, but also to corruption and repression.

A group of trade unions, workers, and unemployed people, who engaged in varying degrees in advocacy and activism, and were thus able to influence the political scene. These segments contributed to overthrowing dictatorships and entire regimes. These segments sometimes led demonstrations, and organized partial and general strikes, sit-ins and demonstrations.

The Arab scene thus features a number of contradictions: Governments versus peoples; and unions versus unions, because of their different approaches, visions, and methods. Independent labor organizations were also formed, amid a growing awareness about the need for self-organization to find the most suitable frameworks for action. These movements sought to become alternatives to trade unions, which had dominated the scene for decades, when their sole goal was often to protect governments’ policies. Under the pretext of pluralism in the trade union movement, governments even created some unions and supported them to harass troublesome unions.

With this in mind, there are hopes being pinned on trade unionists fighting struggles against their governments and the policies of marginalizing free trade union work that is in line with international norms and treaties. These hopes were spurred with the start of the Arab uprisings, but have begun to decline in light of several factors, most notably:

The exploitation of popular uprisings and the intervention of foreign powers in a direct manner to protect their economic interests, weakening the peoples’ enthusiasm and momentum.
The inability of progressive forces to accommodate and give a framework to social advocacy, and their failure to develop cohesive economic and social alternatives.
The emergence of terrorist forces that took advantage of popular anger and dominated the political scene.

Then regime symbols and old parties soon returned to the political scene. This gave the peoples of the regions ultimately only two options: terrorism or dictatorships. The option of having free societies, and democracy that guarantees dignity and decent employment as well as the right to work and self-organize, was pushed off the table.

A setback like this requires the forces aspiring to build a better reality to support independent and emergent trade unions by focusing on qualitative and cumulative work. It would be a mistake to limit oneself to theoretical knowledge to influence trade unions because history has proven that direct action remains the basis.

Meanwhile, trade union work requires strong principles and flexible tactics, and not taking on more issues and causes that one can handle. It is also important to push toward unifying sectoral movements and those that are fragmented on professional bases to create a trade unionist movement able to have influence on the ground.

Building a new vision

In this regard, there is the trade union movement seen in Lebanon recently, which led protests and industrial action. The protests culminated with the creation of a trade union framework that sought to unify all trade unions on the basis of a progressive platform, where all exploited segments can be involved. To be sure, a trade union that becomes stuck at factional issues and fails to overcome them has no prospects to succeed. But if it expands it would be able to put pressure in a serious way to develop economic and social alternatives that can elevate trade union advocacy from the professional level to the level of being able to influence policy choices.

Coordination within the Arab Federation of Trade Unions should be stepped up. The federation held its founding conference in early October 2014, to entrench the positions of member unions and create an Arab and international solidarity movement to defend the rights of Arab workers and political and national causes. This federation brought together a number of activist unions that proved their ability to influence reality, but also other unions that are still sitting on the fence. This could affect the work of the federation and its ability to support independent trade union action.

No doubt, activating the role of trade unions to respond to the current challenges requires developing abilities, commissioning studies, and building up capacities, but as part of a new vision that sees professional development not as a luxury, but as a necessary mechanism that would allow trade unionists to gain the ability to formulate alternatives. We must also overcome improvisation and generalization in relation to building the capacities of trade unionists.

Despite the duality of the polarization that we mentioned earlier, and despite the setbacks, there are two realities that strengthen the resolve to continue to resist policies hostile to the aspirations of workers and peoples in order to be liberated and to live decently, namely:

The Arab peoples continue to resist terrorists, whether religious or authoritarian, and to break the barrier of fear.
The way things progressed in Tunisia, under influence from civil society led by trade unions, has proven that democracy is a viable option in the Arab countries, and that trade unions when they have a margin of independence can influence reality and act on it.

Those are some of the key factors in the struggle led by trade unions for fair, secure, and stable Arab societies, though stability can never be achieved as long as Israel continues its occupation of Palestine. In this regard, Arab unions are required to continuously work in support of the workers and people of Palestine toward liberation and the defeat of the occupation, based on solid positions on the ground and away from empty slogans that only serve to justify what Israel and its allies do.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


Other than the predictable "blame it all on Israel" in the final sentences, this was an excellent piece. I will take the useful and ignore the nothing-to-do-the-subject swipe at Israel.

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