"Real Unions": Arab Organized Labor in British Palestine

By Power, Jane | Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ), Winter 1998 | Go to article overview

"Real Unions": Arab Organized Labor in British Palestine


Power, Jane, Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)


In Palestine, as in the rest of the world, the end of World War II brought hard times to workers; Palestinian Arabs, like workers elsewhere, reacted vigorously to their new situation. As the prosperity of wartime production vanished and veterans swelled the workforce, unemployment and a falling real wage roused workers to protest. Massive strikes from Bombay to Seattle to Lagos - and in Palestine - registered workers' frustration.

In 1946, then, Palestinian Arab workers and their unions were alive to the same postwar pressures and took up the same means of resistance as counterparts both in other colonized countries and in the United States. Yet, barely two decades earlier, few Palestinian Arabs had jobs in which a union would be useful. This article contends that, once engaged in mass industrial employment, Palestinian Arabs quickly developed unions that operated well within the range of commonly accepted union activities and structures. They established, that is, mass organizations that defended their on-the-job interests vis-a-vis employers and pressed the government to protect their class interests. These unions, like others, generally grew stronger or weaker with the demand for labor. They governed themselves, more or less democratically. They formed shifting alliances, based on members' and leaders' perceptions of their interests, with government bodies, political and civil interest groups, and one another.

The Arab workers built these very ordinary unions despite extreme abnormalities in their economic and political situation. First of all, the British occupation of Palestine put Arab workers in the same abnormal position as workers in any other Western colony. Typically, Western-owned enterprises employed Western managers, supervisors, and technicians, giving them more money and more respect than the mass of mostly unskilled indigenous workers. Colonized workers resented the unfairness of management and the frequent arrogance of their European fellow employees. They also saw those employees form unions which could wrest better pay and working conditions from the employers. Such unions often furthered the interests of the expatriate employees at the expense of the local. Colonized workers thus set out to form unions of their own.(1)

Colonial officials sometimes sought to discredit unions of colonized workers by characterizing them as mere nationalist front organizations. Colonized workers did often act on interests specific to their nation rather than those they shared with workers of different nationality. They did not join foreign co-workers in actions that might not benefit, and could harm, them. They also often "collaborated" with compatriot non-worker politicians to further national interests. No particular choice between class and national interests, however, is per se indicative of some essential union identity. Colonized workers who ignored international solidarity or cooperated with selected non-workers were behaving no differently than the foreign employees of the same firm. In Western Europe and North America, too - for example, in Europe at the outbreak of World War I - workers based similar choices on national considerations.(2)

Palestinian Arab workers under British rule shared the situation, and the reactions, of workers in other colonized economies, but more particularly of a special group of those workers. Palestine was among the colonies where Westerners did not simply rule; they settled. This situation created special conditions for indigenous workers: they had to deal with foreign co-workers and employers not just as individual expatriates, but as members of an immigrant community that competed with their own for jobs and markets. Their unions therefore defended workers' national interests against settler agencies as well as colonial authorities. The Palestinian Arab unions matched the pattern not only of unions in general, but specifically of unions in settler colonial economies. …

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