T. Cliff

The Problem of the Middle East

Part VI
The Working Class Movement in the Arab East

<p. 178>

Chapter XXI
The Trade Unions in the Arab East

I. Egypt [1]

The trade union movement of Egyptian workers began in 1899 in which year the first trade union was founded in the tobacco industry. From then until the First World War a few thousand workers were organized. In 1911 there were fifteen trade unions with 7,000 members. Of these many were Europeans (particularly Italians). A decisive role in their establishment was played by the National Party of Mustafa Kamil which saw in the trade unions, co-operatives and evening schools it founded, a means of mobilizing the masses behind the national movement. But as we have already seen in the chapter From the Arab Revolt to the First World War, Mustafa Kamil’s movement did not have a mass basis and every breeze was liable to topple it over and smash it. When, therefore, the National Party was suppressed in the war of 1914–1918, the trade unions disappeared with it. In the national anti-imperialist movement of 1919, as we have already seen, the workers’ strikes had great weight. The strikes of the railway, tramway, electricity and other workers were the centre of the activity of the national movement. Out of the struggle many trade unions came into being. In 1922 there were already 33 trade unions in Cairo, 33 in Alexandria, 18 in the Canal region and 6 in other districts. The trade unions were mainly under the influence of the Wafd; but the enthusiasm of the masses for their ‘national’ leaders waned considerably when they became aware of the fact that these leaders did not intend to struggle in the interests of the masses, but only to use the mass movement in order to wring some concessions from imperialism.

In 1921 30,000 workers took part in a number of economic strikes, a very large number for such a young proletariat. Some of the strikes were very stubborn and extended. The strike in the Suez Oil Company, for instance, continued for 75 days and the strike in the Cairo gas works for 45 days. The militant movement of the Egyptian proletariat reached a new peak in 1923–4. This was the first time that the leadership of the strikes was in the hands of a proletarian class party – the Communist Party. The strikes were of tremendous dimensions and stirred the whole of Cairo, Alexandria and Suez. Sit-down strikes took place for the first time now. This weapon has very great importance especially where there is mass unemployment and the work is relatively simple so that it is easy to recruit strike-breakers. Army battalions and the police force were brought in numbers to suppress the strike. But the Communist Party leaders compromised with Saad Zaghloul in the name of ‘National Unity’. This prepared the ground for two actions of the Wafd – firstly the brutal suppression of the Communist Party (the bourgeoisie is never grateful to its servants) and secondly the breaking of the tie between the Wafd and the trade unions. The second step was taken not only by the disappointed workers but also by the Wafd which saw that the working class movement intended to make use of the organizational framework which the Wafd had created instead of the Wafd making use of the workers’ movement.

Now, in place of government patronage of the trade unions, the government began an iron-fisted suppression of the working class. The workers were denied the right to strike. Artificial and sham trade unions were established which were but means for spying on the masses. The political police infiltrated into the trade unions and began to bribe right and left. Because of weakness, the non-existence of any revolutionary party, and under pressure of the government and the police, many workers were driven to seek a staff to hang on to in the person of Prince Abbas Halim, who in 1929 tried to become a power among the people. The Federation of Egyptian workers was built in that year with the prince as president. After a short while it boasted the support of a great number of unions with a membership of 200,000.

<p. 179> Its daily paper had a circulation of about 10,000, not at all an inconsiderable figure for Egypt, especially for a paper intended for the working masses. The government of Ismaïl Sidky Pasha (1930–34) and Abd al-Fatah Yahyah (1934) did all they could to smash the trade union movement, succeeding in harming the Federation so such an extent that only a tiny portion of its membership remained. But the government never, neither before nor after the foundation of the Federation, managed to suppress the trade union movement entirely, as on every occasion it received a new impetus from the spontaneous struggle of the masses. Thus in 1927 there was a big wave of strikes in the electric company in Alexandria, railway workshops in Boulak (outside Cairo), the Cairo tobacco company, the tramways of Cairo, a silk factory and other places. In 1931 a new strike of the Boulak railway workers broke out. The workers wanted to march in a demonstration into the town and were surrounded by a strong police force; the workers of the government press and the arsenal joined the strike which developed into a barricade struggle which lasted three days. In 1932 there were strikes of the Aswan workers, on the railway workshops, in some textile and tobacco factories and other places. In 1934 a new wave of strikes broke out; striking workers overturned trams and buses and a fierce struggle was carried on against strike breakers and the police; meetings and demonstrations were held one of which broke through the police cordon and went on to the trade union house where the workers fortified themselves and built barricades. Strikes continues throughout 1935 and 1936. In the latter year a strike among the tram workers in Alexandria was cruelly suppressed by the police, a number of workers being killed; there was a sit-down strike in the oil mills and in a textile factory whence the strikers were forcibly ejected; the sugar factory in Howmadieh was captured by the workers, the managers expelled and the guards disarmed; the government (this time a Wafd government) sent troops which shot and wounded the workers, to which the workers could only reply by throwing pieces of iron; the unequal struggle ended with the expulsion of the workers after an extended siege, 63 workers being arrested. The same year witnessed mass demonstrations demanding an eight hours’ day.

Throughout these years the trade unions continued to carry on activity under the leadership of Prince Abbas Halim. When the Wafd was in opposition to the government it did not dare to struggle against the trade unions; on the contrary, it tried to win their favour, and indeed when the Wafd came to power in 1936 it had succeeded in gaining control over a great number of the trade unions, making them dependent on it so that in 1936 and 1937 there existed two Federations, one of the Wafd and one of Abbas Salim. In 1937 when some of the leaders of the Wafd (Ahmed Maher, Nokrashy and others) left the party, a bitter struggle began between the two newly split sections for influence over the trade unions, the process of their splitting thus gaining pace.

In summing up these last years of struggle from 1924 to the Second World War, we may say that there was an unceasing struggle on the part of the workers which was spontaneous and did not receive independent proletarian leadership, except in the case of the 1923–24 strikes.

With the Second World War, the Egyptian trade union movement entered a new phase. The number of workers rose by leaps and bounds. Even more rapidly rose the cost of living. Abundant work and the necessity to raise wages to conform to the rise in the cost of living created favourable conditions for trade union organisation and class struggle. In 1942 the movement reached a high level, a broad strike movement spreading through all the industrial centres of the country. A number of strikes achieved partial success. The workers’ committees tried to attack the government by putting forward memoranda with their demands for labour laws, especially one legalising the trade unions. The strikes and hunger demonstrations together with the grave military situation of the country compelled the government of the day – a Wafd government – to enact law number 85 (1942). This law recognised the right to trade union organisation with a few – but not unimportant – reservations: 1) Prohibition of organisation by government, municipal, public utility and agricultural workers; 2) Prohibition of the establishment of any federation of trade unions; the workers were allowed to organise a union in one trade or in similar trades, in one industry or a few producing the same article; 3) The Ministry of Social Affairs to have full control over the trade union funds and the right of dissolving the trade unions; 4) Prohibition of participation in any political activity.

The Wafd tried in different ways to bind the trade unions to it and <p. 180> rule over them. But the antagonism between the trade union masses and the Wafd grew steadily deeper, reaching such dimensions, that at the first opportunity, when a dispute arose between the King and the Wafd with the latter being cast out of the government, the majority of the trade unions declared themselves against any patronage and for undisputed class independence. Furthermore, political expression was immediately given to their independence: in elections to parliament in January 1945 the trade unions put forward three candidates, one of whom would definitely have been elected if not for the well-known election pranks played by the authorities. All in all, seven workers’ and socialist candidates stood for the elections (the trade unions, the Socialist Front with a very radical programme etc.). At the International Congress of Trade Unions in Paris in September1945 the representatives of the Egyptian trade unions appeared with a militant programme including demands for:

  1. The completion of the Labour Laws and the change of the existing laws in consultation with the workers’ institutions (trade unions, workers’ clubs, the Fronts and Federations), and especially:
  1. The limitation of the working week to 40 hours. The fixing of wages according to the necessities of life.
  2. The right of one day’s holiday a week with full pay.
  3. Social insurance against unemployment, illness and age.
  4. The finding of work immediately for the workers who worked for the army during the war.
  5. The supply of clothes, food and housing by the establishment of popular committees with the necessary authority in all towns and villages and their control over agricultural production.
  6. Recognition of the freedom of trade union organisation and the prohibition of the intervention of the authorities in the actions of the trade unions and other workers’ institutions. A body elected by the workers to supervise these institutions.
  7. Recognition of the right to strike by getting rid of the different hindrances.
  1. The raising of the standard of living of agricultural workers and action for their organisation in unions.
  2. The right to work, study and medical attention for every man.
  3. A struggle against the monopolies and the transference of ownership of the big industries to the hands of the government in every country.
  4. The liquidation of imperialism by the expulsion of the foreign armies from all the countries of the world.
  5. The smashing of the remnants of reaction and fascism and the strengthening of true democracy.
  6. Support for Arab Palestine in its struggle against imperialism and Zionism which is one kind of fascism.

This is not the place to criticise the different points in this programme, some of which are vague, incorrect or incomplete. But it does show the high level of class consciousness reached by a great part of the Egyptian trade unions. The strikes of the last year show clearly the stage reached by the working class movement. There were three big strikes, one of about 30,000 workers in the railway workshops in Boulak, one of about 15,000 workers in the textile works in Shubra, and one also of about 30,000 agricultural workers of Kom Ombo, the plantation company. The Shubra workers went as far as to demand a share of the profits. (Shubra workers have struck on numerous occasions during the past few months.) On what a grand scale these strikes will become clear if we remember that in the two years preceding the 1905 Revolution in Russia the total number of workers participating in strikes in both years together amounted to 112, 000. In Egypt in 1945 at least every thirteenth worker participated in a strike while in Russia one out of every 25 struck.

The tremendous strides forward that the trade union movement has made are shown clearly in the fact that despite the prohibition of the establishment of a general federation of trade unions, the ‘Preparatory Committee for the Egyptian Workers Committee’ has arisen which publishes leaflets and notices in the name of all the trade unions. This committee intends soon to arrange a conference.

II. Palestine

At a much lower stage than Egypt are the trade unions in Palestine.

The trade unions in Palestine are of two kinds: those which contain only <p. 181> Arab workers and those which contain only Jewish workers. Because of the infinite difference in the structure and development of the two kinds of trade unions each must be dealt with separately.

a. The trade unions which contain only Arab workers

The oldest Arab trade union organisation in Palestine is the Palestine Arab Workers’ Society which was founded in 1925 on the initiative of railway workers in Haifa who till today are the pillars of the Society. As with the trade unions in Egypt, this union also underwent great ebbs and flows connected mainly with the economic and political changes in the country. The Society had some influence in the years 1934–36, when great trade union activity took place (strikes breaking out in nearly all enterprises of foreign capital). But with the national uprising of 1936–39 which was diverted by feudal and semi-bourgeois leaders into reactionary anti-Jewish channels, trade union activity was totally paralyzed and the Society continued to exist only in files and on rubber stamps. The war, with its abundant employment and the great rise in the cost of living gave a new lease of life to the Society. At the end of 1942 its number of members was 5,000 and at the end of 1944 7,000.

The second Arab organisation is the Federation of Arab Trade Unions and Workers’ Societies. This is the youngest workers’ organisation, having been founded with the new organisational wave at the beginning of 1942, by a Stalinist group which split off from the Palestine Communist Party and after a while founded the National Freedom League. At the end of 1944 the number of its members was 2,000, the majority of whom were in industries belonging to foreign capital, in the naval workshops and Public Works Department – all in Haifa.

How do these organisations struggle? Their main weapon is the writing of memoranda to government and private employers, and to the central and local authorities. Scores of such memoranda have been written, but of course have convinced neither employers nor government, and there is no doubt that the left oppositional group hit the nail on the head when it proposed to the Society in its pamphlet of July 1943 that a co-operative be established for the production of memoranda whose destiny is to be thrown into the wastepaper basket. The conservative bureaucracy which leads the Society and the Stalinists who lead the Federation fiercely oppose the class struggle, strikes etc. on the grounds that it is a blow to the national unity and, during the war, to the war effort. (For details of the position of the Stalinists, see the coming chapter.) The proposal of a veteran militant leader of the railway workers at the Congress of the Society in July 1943 to declare a general strike throughout the country as the only means of raising the wages of the Arab workers to be equal to those of the Jewish, a proposal received with great applause by the delegates and visitors at the congress, was not even put to the vote by the chairman. Instead it was decided to send an appeal to the Arab states to intervene with England to equalise the wages of Arab and Jewish workers. The counterproposal of the above-mentioned leader of railway workers, to appeal to the workers’ movement in the Arab countries and not to the governments which are really representatives of the exploiting classes was again not put to the vote.

Till now decisions in both organisation are in the hands of opportunist elements, any opposition there may be consisting of individuals.

At the end of the war the two trade unions underwent an interesting osmotic process: on the one hand the majority of the branches of the Arab Workers’ Society revolted against their leadership and joined the federation of Arab Trade Union and Workers’ Societies; on the other the majority of the trade union sections of the Federation in Haifa, disappointed in their leadership, went over to the Society. This process of disappointment in the leadership can, if exploited, be fruitful ground for the activity of those militants who till now are only individuals, who without any organisation, cry out unheard.

It is very interesting to deal with the relation of these organisations to the Jewish workers and to the General Federation of Jewish Labour in Palestine (Histadrut – a Zionist organisation of Jewish workers). The great majority of the organized Arab workers strive for co-operation with the <p. 182> Jewish workers while attacking the Histadrut. Thus at the conference of the Arab Workers’ Society in April 1943 it was declared:

‘Worker is brother to worker … and even though religion and race divide the workers the fight of work and the struggle for the improvement of the conditions of life unite them.’

In the July conference of the same year similar declarations were made:

‘The Jewish workers must unite with the Arab workers. We want a real fraternity with the Jewish workers.’

And concerning the Histadrut:

‘The Histadrut is a Zionist organisation and therefore is one of the greatest dangers to the Arab workers. We must explain to the Arab and Jewish workers that the Histadrut harms them, disturbs the solidarity between them, and tries to cheat the Jewish workers by putting up a face as though it was for fraternity.’

Against this internationalist stand appeared some of the leaders of the Society who are imbued with a chauvinistic clerical spirit and are representative of the feudal and semi-bourgeois parties. They use anti-Jewish propaganda as their main weapon. One of them declared at the conference of July 1943 that the Jews of Palestine were a band that ‘Europe despised’. The same delegate said at the conference in February 1944:

‘If the Jews had human feelings they would not have been cast out of all the countries.’

The Arab reactionaries try to exploit the justified hatred of the Arab workers for Zionism in order to strengthen Arab chauvinism and prevent the unity of Arab and Jewish workers.

The third trade union organisation which contains Arab workers is the Palestine Labour Federation, which was established by the Histadrut in 1927. In order to understand the organisation we can point to one important fact. In Haifa, the only town with relatively big enterprises employing Arab workers and with a relatively developed working class, the Labour Federation contains workers from small enterprises only. It has no foothold in the railways, refineries, Public Works Department etc. This is explained by the fact that the workers in Haifa who are the oldest section of he working class in the country also know best the face of the Histadrut. They will remember the propaganda made by the Histadrut when Arab railway workers who were members of the Labour Federation were dismissed from their work, that this would open the gates for the ‘conquest of labour’ by Jewish workers. They remember how the Histadrut broke the strike of Arab workers in the quarries of Nesher Cement Co., and how Arab workers were thrown out of work in buildings on the pretext that the capitalist was a Jew and the Arab workers had no right to work there.

At the beginning of the war there were no more than 200–300 workers in the Labour Federation. But the war brought about a big change. As there was plenty of work the Histadrut did not need to use the weapon of ‘conquering labour’. This is perhaps the main reason why the Labour Federation succeeded in gaining about 1,500–2,000 members. These are mainly workers who for the first time came into contact with the Histadrut. An additional factor helping the Labour federation is the compromising or even strikebreaking activity of the Arab trade union bureaucracy and of the Stalinists. In nearly all the enterprises in which the Labour Federation has acquired its new members the Arab organisations led no strikes and even appeared as strike breakers on certain occasions on the pretext that the Histadrut intended making political capital out of the strikes. Even if that is the case, must not this attempt be foiled by a more persistent class struggle than the Labour Federation leads?

But even the organisation that the Labour Federation has achieved is shaky and spider-legged. The Zionist character of the Histadrut leadership will inevitably drive the Arab workers out of the Labour Federation despite its pretending to not a political but only a trade union organisation. This is bound to happen as firstly, with the ending of the war prosperity, a background will be created for national competition which the Histadrut will use to the full. Even during the war, the ‘conquest of labour’ policy of the Histadrut in some instances brought about a disintegration of branches of the Labour Federation. Thus for the instance, Acre branch, considered one of the most successful, disappeared in the space of a few weeks: in the middle of the 1944 some scores of workers, members of the Acre branch of the Labour Federation who worked in military camps where the Histadrut had influence on the employment and dismissal of workers, were dismissed. The officials of the Arab department of the Histadrut involuntarily let it drop that the dismissals were for the purpose of creating places of work for the new immigrants. The result – Acre branch disappeared. Another factor which drove many Arab workers to join the Labour Federation, but on the other hand makes their membership only formal, is the control of the contracting institutions of the Histadrut over the supply of work. The fact, however, that the contracting institutions of the Histadrut pay the Arab workers a third or <p. 183> a quarter of what the Jewish workers receive in the same place does not bind the loyalty of the Arab worker who joined the Labour Federation in order to find work to the organisation. The Histadrut policy directed towards a Jewish state also cannot arouse any enthusiasm among the Arab workers, and the slogan of a Jewish State is not a secret to the Arab workers even if at 1st May meetings the words ‘Jewish independence’, ‘Jewish uprightness’ are translated into ‘co-operation’ and ‘solidarity’. This Zionist policy has already borne fruit not only among the scores of thousands of Arab workers who hate the Labour Federation, but even among its own members. Thus, for instance, at the 1st May 1944 meeting of the Jaffa branch of the labour Federation, the organisers were asked how it is possible to reconcile the apolitical character of the Histadrut about which the Arab workers are told, with the decision of eh Executive Committee of the Histadrut to Palestine into a Jewish State. A resolution was passed denouncing the Biltmore Programme (for a Jewish State).

The degree to which the Histadrut leaders treat the Labour Federation as a tool in their hands which must at any price be kept from becoming an independent organisation of Arab workers is clear from the organisational structure of the Federation. The Central Committee is the Arab Department of the Histadrut in which there is no Arab. The local branches are all except for a few very small ones, administered by Jewish secretaries appointed by the above-mentioned Arab department. If in some cases there does happen to be an Arab secretary besides the Jewish, his authority is subordinate to the latter’s. There are no democratically elected branch committees whatever and conferences have never been convened. The only assembly of workers ever brought together since the establishment of the Labour Federation took place about fifteen years after its establishment. Its organisers gave it a fitting name: ‘A day of study’.

b. The General Federation of Jewish Labour in Palestine (Histadrut)

The Histadrut is a unique organisation. It is, as a matter of fact, difficult to decide whether it is a trade union or not, as neither its structure nor its aims are the same as those of the trade unions of other countries. The special characteristics of the Histadrut are seen clearly in the simple fact that while trade unions in general include only wage earners and their aim is to defend them from the employers, the capitalists and the capitalist state, in the Histadrut a very big place is taken by members who are not wage earners at all, and even a considerable portion of those who are wage earners are employed by the institutions of the Histadrut itself, and the aim is not so much the defence of the workers’ interests but mainly the expansion of Zionism. The following was the estimated composition of the Histadrut in the middle of 1944:–






Non-earning wives of Histadrut members



Communal and Smallholders’ Settlements



Histadrut concerns



Wage earners not employed by Histadrut concerns






Thus only 46.2% of the Histadrut members come into direct class conflict with capitalist employers. Even if we add to this the wage earners employed in Histadrut institutions and concerns we find that all wage earners belonging to the Histadrut make up only a little more than half the Histadrut membership. If we also take into account that a great part of the wage earning members of he Histadrut are members only on paper, and that members of the ‘labour settlements’ have a much greater influence on the Histadrut than the ‘simple’ wage earner, we shall easily comprehend how far the Histadrut is from being a trade union pure and simple.

The Histadrut as an owner of enterprises had penetrated inextricably into the Zionist economy. As private capital does not incline to agriculture except in the case of citrus culture, the Histadrut together with the national funds became partners in the establishment of mixed farming which is economically and politically a sine qua non for the expansion of the Zionist economy in the towns. The Histadrut’s share in mixed farming amounts to 70 per cent, while in citrus culture it is only 6–8 per cent. In the realm of building contracting, too, the Histadrut, through its big contracting company, <p. 184> Solel Bonch, concentrates in its hands at least two thirds of all the building contracts of the country. Histadrut contracting is on such a large scale that it reaches far beyond the borders of the country. Solel Bonch build roads in Syria and Lebanon, employing Arab labour, supplied skilled labour for work in the refineries in Abadan, Iran, tendered for the construction of a big dam in Egypt, etc.

When Solel Bonch employs Arab labour in Palestine for financial consideration or under compulsion of the government it pays the Arab worker a third or quarter of what it pays the Jewish worker for he same work.

The Histadrut also penetrated into industry, becoming the owner of several enterprises. In 1943 it was estimated that the Histadrut owned 10–12 per cent of all Jewish industry. Part of these industries exist in the ‘labour settlements’, others are in the towns. Many enterprises the Histadrut owns in partnership with Jewish capitalists.

Another few details of Histadrut activity will help to show how far the Histadrut is from being a trade union, and to what degree it is interwoven in Zionism’s aims and activities. it deducts substantial sums from the wages of every member for a special fund for the ‘Conquest of Labour’ and for the various national funds. It stood at the head of the boycott of the fellah’s products and was one of the most active organisers of the ‘conquest of labour’. [2] When, during the war, the prices of agricultural products soared and the government put ceilings on prices of vegetables, the Histadrut was the most vociferous protester against this.

While every General Zionist or Revisionist – the latter was once upon a time called a Hitlerite by the Zionist Socialist supporters of the Histadrut – was accepted into the organisation (the Revisionists’ leaving was done on their own initiative), if any worker was found to be or suspected of being a member of the Palestine Communist Party, which for years was anti-Zionist, he was summarily expelled from the Histadrut. At this time the Palestine Communist Party was illegal and expulsion from the Histadrut meant arrest and imprisonment by the police or even deportation. Against such deportation there was never once any protest lodged by the Histadrut or any one of the Zionist Socialist leaders supporting it who so loudly demand Jewish immigration.

It is clear that so long as non-wage-earners are members of the Histadrut, and so long as contracting companies, labour settlements and co-operatives have the last word in it, it is impossible to break its connections with the Zionist institutions, the Zionist policy and all the consequences thereof. So long as the Histadrut structure and aims remain as they are, it is only a stumbling block on the path of the internationalist class unity of Jewish and Arab workers.

Despite the objective difficulties in the way of building a united Arab-Jewish workers’ movement (the existence of seclusive national economies, different standards of living etc.) and the opposition on the other to every attempt at solidarity of Arab and Jewish workers, some shoots of common struggle have appeared which herald a bright period to come. For quite a number of years a common organisation of government officials, second division (the Lower Division constituting more than 90% of all civil servants) has existed, which is entirely independent of the Histadrut or any other Jewish or Arab organisation. On quite a few occasions it showed the firmest solidarity in economic struggles. Of greater moment was the sit-down strike of the workers of the railway workshops in Haifa at the beginning of 1944 when despite the most provocative nationalist propaganda and outright strikebreaking by the Histadrut the Jewish and Arab workers struggled unflinchingly shoulder to shoulder. Another common strike was that of 2,000 workers which took place a few months ago in the military workshops of Tel Aviv (the great majority of the workers were Arabs.) The strike was accompanied by a demonstration through the streets of Tel Aviv marked by unswerving slogans of solidity. There were other common strikes during the last year or so among which those of the Jerusalem municipal workers, and the workers of the Posts and Telegraphs engineering department, are prominent.

<p. 185> The biggest strikes in the history of Palestine, however, far surpassing any others which have taken place till now, broke out during the last month. On the 9th April 500 Arab and Jewish workers in the Post and Telegraph services came out on strike. On the 10th, the strike spread to Post and Telegraph workers services in all other parts of the country, encompassing altogether 2,600 workers and employees. The workers of Broadcasting House in Jerusalem and Ramallah joined the strike on the same day. On the 15th government employees of the Second Division in Haifa came out on strike and were joined two days later by the Second division civil servants of the whole country who are 20,000 strong all in all. On the same day the railway workers of the whole country – 7,000 strong – and the workers of the Haifa and Jaffa port – 1,500 strong – joined the strike. (It must be pointed out that the third part of the country that of Tel Aviv, continued working throughout the period of the strike. The Histadrut was unwilling to jeopardise the Zionist activity.) The strike now encompassed a total of about 30,000 civil servants. It awakened responses in many other places. The employees of the war departments (Control of Light Industry, Control of Heavy Industry, Censorship, etc.) – 5,000 strong – made a demonstration strike of three hours declaring that they would stop fully if the government used soldiers to bread the strike or transferred employees of the war departments to the departments where Second Division civil servants worked. The workers of three privately owned factories in Ramallah and a cigarette factory in Haifa also struck and the workers of another cigarette factory, the biggest in the country, threatened to come out if their demands were not acceded to. The municipal employees of Acre and Gaza and a part of the municipal workers in Haifa joined the strike. Work was also ceased for a day by a few hundred workers and employees of Spinneys Ltd – the biggest commercial company in the country – who demanded recognition of their organisation, and 150 workers of the police garage in Haifa joined the strike. Great ferment was felt among the workers of the petroleum companies and the military camps, the former 3,000 and the latter about 30,000 strong. The daily workers of the Public Works Department – about 10,000 – also showed great readiness for action. The strike encompassed all in all about 32,000 workers (26,000 Arabs and the rest Jews) while about 50,000 stood behind them, greatly stirred by their action and ready to join them if called upon. To understand the importance of the strike for Palestine we must recognise that the strikers made up 15% of the entire Palestinian working class and the strike directly affected another 25%. The Arab workers’ leader who stated that this strike has pushed Palestine forward twenty years was indeed close to the truth.

III. Syria and Lebanon

In Syria and Lebanon the trade unions are not officially recognised, but are, within certain limits, tolerated. Lebanese law stigmatises the strike as a crime and categorically prohibits the organisation of drivers, builders and servants. Syrian law also considers the strike a crime. It fixes a working day of 9–13 hours, the length being in accordance with the different seasons; it lays down that committees be appointed to fix minimum wages according to the ‘basic needs’ of the worker; these committees are composed only of appointed government officials and are entirely without the participation of the workers. The right of trade union organisations in Syria is restricted even in theory by the condition laying down that the separate trade unions must be established for each industry in every town, and by additional stipulations that the trade unions shall include, beside the workers, also the employers. Very often even the meagre legislation permitting the right of organisation is nullified. Thus the Syrian and Lebanese governments frequently refuse to affirm trade unions which lie within the framework of what is legally permitted (this was the case in, for instance, the union of meat workers, Sawt al-Sha’ab, 18/7/1944). Many unions which came into being and were at first permitted were later prohibited and their active members dismissed from their work. This happened fir instance in the tobacco monopoly and in the Hedjaz railway. Besides methods of direct suppression the Syrian and Lebanese governments hatch different plots and methods in order to break organisations, split them and weaken them. When a delegation of the trade unions was supposed to go to the World trade union conference in Paris, the authorities first tried to prohibit the passage altogether, and when this failed they attempted to drive wedges between a number of the unions and the elected delegation – again without success.

It is estimated that of the 200 thousand industrial, handicraft, transport <p. 186> and building workers in Syria and Lebanon about 30 thousand are organised, about half in Lebanon and half in Syria. The fact that the Syrian population is about three times the size of the Lebanese alone shows that the trade unions in Lebanon are far stronger than those in Syria. The trade unions in Lebanon are organised in the ‘General Federation of workers and employees of Lebanon’. The head of the Federation in Mustafa Al-Ariss, representative of the Middle and Near East on the World Federation of trade unions. The union since 1945 has published Hayat al-Umal (Life of the Worker) of which until April 1946 13 numbers appeared. There are 21 trade unions in the Federation.

The last two years have been witness to rather large waves of strikes in Syria and Lebanon. We have already mentioned the large strikes which spread through Syria at the beginning of 1944 embracing the tobacco monopoly, printing presses, the electric companies, the textile factories and the railways. Workers in the shoemaking and tailoring trades struck at the same time. In July there was a large strike of the soap workers in Tripoli and the carton workers in Beirut. [3] In August all the municipal workers struck in Beirut. In February 1945 there was a large-scale new strike of the tobacco monopoly workers. The police beat the workers till they drew blood. When a sit-down strike took place in the weaving factories and the police severely wounded a number of workers and arrested many of them, the trade unions of Beirut reacted by deciding on a general strike if the arrested workers were not released. Not many days passed before all the arrested men walked about as free men once more. The end of 1945 saw the outbreak of many large-scale strikes in the weaving factories. In December 10,000 weaving workers in Aleppo struck; they arranged a large demonstration and tried to draw the whole town into the strike. The police suppressed the demonstration with cruelty, arresting about 200 demonstrating workers. Later, after other bloody clashes, the strike spread to embrace the whole town in a general strike. In February 1946 large strikes broke out in the textile factories in Lebanon. A number of employees – of the Bank of Syria and Lebanon, lawyers’ clerks and others – also walked out. In April a new wave of strikes broke out in Lebanon in which the main participants were the railway, port, electric company and tramway workers and officials. This happened despite the threat that every worker who did not return would be dismissed. The streets of Beirut were full of policemen armed with guns and revolvers. Some of the leaders were arrested. The government proposed the erection of concentration camps, but this was rejected by a parliamentary committee. On 20th May 1946 there was a general strike in Lebanon.

IV. Iraq

Until the middle of 1944 it was prohibited by law to organise trade unions in Iraq. In the light of these difficulties and the youth, smallness and backwardness of the Iraqi proletariat. It is no wonder that the first shoots of trade unionism which sprouted already in 1924, and in 1933 were organised into a general workers’ union (later broken up by the police) should have been very weak, much more so than in Egypt, Palestine, Syria and Lebanon. Today, there are 12 unions in Baghdad, but it is difficult to find out exactly how many members they have. In Basra, there are also some unions in existence. The unions are local and are not officially connected, all attempts to erect a county-wide union having met with the most bitter opposition of the authorities. The carpenters in Baghdad, for instance, attempted to set up branches in Mosul, Hilla and Amara, but the district governors and the police intervened and prevented this attempt. The activity of the trade unions is limited even after permission has been given for their organisation by the fact that all matters decided upon, big and small, must be confirmed by the Labour Department of the Ministry of Social Affairs. If the trade unions step beyond the ‘permitted’ bounds they are severely punished. Thus, after the strike of the railway workers in Iraq in June 1945 their trade union was broken up and their leaders dismissed from work and put under police supervision. A few weeks ago the government took similar steps against the port workers of Basra. The government in general does everything possible to prevent contact between the Iraqi trade unions and those in other Arab countries by confiscating passports and withholding visas. They also prohibited the participation of Iraqi in the international trade union congress in Paris. But things do not stand still, and even in Iraq, the most backward of the Arab states here discussed, workers’ unions are growing and establishing themselves even though they have a rough path before them.


1. Seeing that strikes in Egypt were illegal, and the trade unions could not openly take responsibility for strikes or publish the fact that they took place or details of them, and also seeing that the government was certainly not interested in doing so, data about strikes in Egypt are necessarily very incomplete, and have had to be gleaned from odd spots where they were mentioned. The description can therefore give no more than a very general picture.

2. Today there is no necessity for it to do so, as there is a scarcity of products.

3. The conditions of the carton workers were quite characteristic of the denial of the most elementary rights of the workers: they were compelled by their employers to sign blank papers which the employers would later fill in as they pleased, thus forcing their conditions upon the workers.

Last updated on 28.5.2011