Palestinian Trade Unionism, 1920-1948

Palestinian Trade Unionism, 1920-1948
A Dynamic Movement Ripped Apart by the Nakba

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Arab Factory

The Naameh Flour Mills Ltd. Machines on one of the upper floors. (Arab factories & general improvements in Nablus.)

12 June 1940
Matson Photo Service, Library of Congress

During the period of Ottoman control, Palestine had no experience of trade union organization. The Ottoman associations law of 1909 allowed artisans and workers only to set up cooperative associations that protected their interests and raised their cultural awareness.

At the beginning of the 1920s, as the working class expanded and became relatively concentrated, Arab workers moved toward trade union organization, especially in sectors where the workers had permanent employment, such as in the railways, which were directly subordinate to the British occupation authorities and which employed hundreds of Arab workers. The workers also had an opportunity to discover trade union activity through contact with the Egyptian workers employed by the British on the line between Haifa and Cairo and with the Jewish workers who had had experience of trade union activity in the European countries from which they had come and who, when they arrived in Palestine, joined the Histadrut, or General Organization of Workers in Eretz Yisrael (formed in December 1920). 

From late 1922 a number of Arab workers in the railway sector tried to join the railway union affiliated to Histadrut. After prevarication that lasted more than a year, the leaders of that union agreed to let these workers join. At the beginning of 1925 the railway workers union had about 400 Arab members, dispersed between the stations at Haifa, Jaffa, Jerusalem, and Lydda. Although these Arab workers made up the majority of the members of this union, the leadership remained in the hands of the Jewish workers. Arab workers resented that, and they decided in the spring of the same year to withdraw from the union and set up their own trade union organization.

The railway station in Haifa was a principal center for Arab trade union activity in the 1920s. At the beginning of 1923 a number of Arab workers, led by Abd al-Hamid Haimour, set up the Fraternal Committee of Palestine Railway Workers, which was independent of the railway workers union affiliated to the Histadrut. This committee provided support to sick and needy workers financial help to their families if they died.

A few months after this committee was set up, the founders applied to the British authorities to set up an independent Arab workers federation with its headquarters in Haifa. About a year and a half later, the British authorities approved this application and on 21 March 1925 the Palestine Arab Workers’ Society was officially announced.

In addition to the Histadrut and the Palestine Arab Workers’ Society, the workers' section of the Palestine Communist Party showed great interest in organizing Arab workers, especially after the party gained recognition from the Communist International (Comintern) in February 1924 and tried to Arabize its ranks. Initially the party encouraged Arab workers to join the unions affiliated with the Histadrut and advocated setting up a united international trade union movement, but the determination of Arab workers to organize independently of the Histadrut led the party to support the Palestine Arab Workers’ Society.

Some traditional political forces and businessmen also took an interest in organizing Arab workers. In 1923, for example, a big businessman in the town of Nablus formed the Party of Arab Workers in Nablus. He succeeded in attracting some of the soap factory workers and workers in artisanal workshops.

A workers' organization called the Association of Christian Workers in Jaffa became active in Jaffa in 1927, with a membership that included workers, artisans, and merchants. A few months after this association was dissolved, the Palestinian Liberal Party took the initiative in 1928 of forming a number of trade union organizations, especially in the construction and commercial sectors, including workers and bosses side by side. In Nazareth and Haifa, trade union activity of a religious and sectarian nature emerged: in 1928 a conference of Christian workers was held in Nazareth under the chairmanship of Father Morkos Abdel Masih and in the same period an attempt was made to organize Arab workers in Jaffa as part of an Islamic religious organization led by a member of the Haj Ibrahim family.

After the outbreak of the al-Buraq Uprising, an Arab worker in Haifa published an article in which he invited his colleagues to hold a public conference to tackle the problems faced by the Arab working class in Palestine. The leadership of the Palestine Arab Workers’ Society organized a general conference of Arab workers on 11 January 1930, at the headquarters of the Islamic youth society in Haifa. Sixty-one delegates from Haifa, Jerusalem, Jaffa, Acre, Nazareth, Lydda, and Shafa ‘Amr representing 3,020 workers took part in the conference.  After the conference it looked as if there was going to be a significant change in the way workers organized and in their methods of struggle.

However, the most obvious trade union activity in the first half of the 1930s was the attempt carried out by Fakhri Nashashibi, a civil servant in Jerusalem’s city council and a relative of opposition leader Raghib al-Nashashibi, to organize Arab workers in Jerusalem and Jaffa. In August 1934 Fakhri Nashashibi took advantage of the weak presence of the Palestine Arab Workers’ Society in Jerusalem, gathered some of his supporters, and set up the Society of Arab Workers in Jerusalem, with himself as the president. In September of the same year Nashashibi managed to set up a workers' organization in Jaffa called the Society of Arab Workers in Jaffa. This society was soon able to break free of his control, however, after some communist workers joined and organized several groups of Arab workers that stood up to the Zionist policy of employing only Jewish workers.

In addition to these two associations, small trade union organizations appeared on the scene, such as the Association of Transport Workers in the Southern District, which communist workers set up, and the Union of Drivers and Vehicle Owners, which was established by a lawyer, Hassan Sidqi al-Dajani.

Worker activity declined in Palestine after the start of the general strike and the armed revolt in 1936, and the trade union movement entered a period of stagnation. The movement was also weakened by the assassination of Michel Mitri, the president of the Society of Arab Workers in Jaffa, in December 1936. (The investigation did not reveal the perpetrator.) Then, in 1937, the British authorities arrested several leaders of the Palestine Arab Workers’ Society.

When World War II broke out and Palestine became a marshalling yard and supply base for the British armies in the region, the British authorities soon set up a number of camps, factories, and workshops and encouraged the emergence of new local industries to meet the needs of their forces. This led to a large increase in the number of Arab workers and a revival of their labor union movement. The Palestine Arab Workers’ Society in Haifa, under the leadership of Sami Taha Hamran, resumed its activities in early 1942 and in the following year set up new branches in Jaffa, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Acre, Ramla, and Tulkarm; it worked tirelessly to organize Arab workers in the British camps. It also set up numerous cooperatives and a savings fund for workers and started planning a housing project and a fund to help the sick. Membership estimates ranged from 30,000 (union leadership) to about 5,000 (government labor department).

As the workers movement revived in Palestine, a number of intellectuals and communist workers set up a new Arab trade union organization in Haifa called the Federation of Arab Trade Unions and Labor Societies (FATULS). Within a short time the federation was able to attract hundreds of Arab workers in the oil company Shell and in the Iraq Petroleum Company and to organize workers at Haifa port and in the Haifa public works department. A report by the government labor department in July 1943 estimated that it had more than 4,000 members.

The Palestine Arab Workers’ Society protested against the Mandate policy of salary discrimination between Arabs and Jews, called on the civil servant department to appoint Arab civil servants in government departments, and asked the government to approve an application to publish a newspaper that spoke on behalf of Arab workers. By contrast, the leaders of FATULS focused their efforts on ensuring that the government officially recognized the Arab trade unions, gave Arab workers representation on the official committees that examined their concerns, and allowed them to publish a newspaper. It also called for the creation of an Arab workers' council that would unite all the labor organizations in the country and campaign for higher minimum wages, equal pay for equal work without discrimination between Arabs and Jews, and legislation on a social security system. But the refusal of the Palestine Arab Workers’ Society to recognize FATULS undermined all attempts to form an Arab workers’ council. While the leaders of the society failed to publish a workers’ newspaper, the leaders of the federation succeeded in May 1944 in obtaining an official license to issue al-Ittihad, a weekly newspaper. 

In 1945, after the Arab communists had joined the National Liberation League in Palestine, a dispute arose between the leadership of the Palestine Arab Workers’ Society, represented by Sami Taha Hamran, and the communists and their supporters, who had retained their membership in the society’s branches and had not joined FATULS. The dispute was over the communists' demand for elections and for more democratic representation in the leadership structures of the society; tensions flared when the society chose two delegates to go to an international trade union congress that was to be held in two stages, in London and Paris. The communists objected to Sami Taha Hamran's proposal that he and the lawyer Hanna Asfour be the society’s delegates, and the representatives of the Jerusalem, Jaffa, and Gaza branches withdrew from the conference that the Palestine Arab Workers’ Society held in Nablus on 5 August 1945. Those representatives, together with representatives of other workers’ associations and of FATULS, then held a conference in Jaffa, where they announced on 19 August that they were setting up the Arab Workers' Congress in Palestine. In October 1945 officials of FATULS announced that the federation was dissolving itself, amalgamating with the Arab Workers' Congress in Palestine and transferring ownership of al-Ittihad newspaper to the executive committee of the new congress.

The Palestine Arab Workers’ Society was not affected for long by the split in its ranks. In 1946 its membership noticeably increased, in part because the leadership of the Arab national movement officially recognized it as the sole representative of Arab workers in Palestine and it had a strong relationship with the British Labour Party. In order to reorganize its ranks, the society held a general congress in August 1946, at which it decided to move toward engaging in political action by setting up a workers' party, with a “reformist” concept of socialism. It also adjusted its internal regulations and changed its name to Trade Unions’ Council. In January 1947 the Arab Higher Committee (AHC) agreed that Society leader Sami Taha Hamran should be part of the Palestinian negotiating delegation to the London Round Table Conference convened by the British government. At the convention it held in August 1947, the Society/ Trade Unions Council decided to form a political bureau and to send a telegram to the United Nations stating that Arab workers rejected the plan to partition Palestine and demanding independence and self-determination. The AHC thought that by planning to form a political party and contacting the United Nations directly, the Trade Unions Council had exceeded its authority and encroached on AHC’s status as international representative. On the evening of 11 September 1947, an unknown man presumed to be linked with the AHC assassinated Sami Taha Hamran in Haifa. Vast crowds attended his burial in the village of Balad al-Shaykh near Haifa. 

As to the Arab Workers' Congress in Palestine, it held its first conference in April 1946 in Jerusalem, with fifty-five delegates representing twenty-five branches. For the first time in the history of the Arab labor movement in Palestine, two women workers were among the delegates, one of whom was elected to the central committee. After this first conference the Arab Workers' Congress in Palestine was subjected to a fierce campaign of attacks by the traditional leadership of the Arab nationalist movement represented by Jamal al-Husseini, after it adopted an independent political program. For example, the Congress refused to equate the Jewish inhabitants of Palestine and the Zionist leaders who controlled them, and it called for a democratic national government that would guarantee the rights of Jews in Palestine, for democratic elections, and for representation of the working class in the leadership of the nationalist movement. In September 1947 the Congress in Palestine held its second conference under the slogan “Demanding Evacuation and Complete and Unconditional Independence.” Ninety-four delegates represented thirty branches; workers in the military camps, the public works department, and the oil companies also participated. At the end of its work, the conference condemned the assassination of Sami Taha Hamran.

The second conference of the Arab Workers’ Congress in Palestine was the last major event staged by the Arab labor movement in Palestine before the Nakba, which ripped Palestinian society apart and displaced and dispersed the Palestinian people.

Selected Bibliography: 

Charif, Maher. “Le Premier congrès ouvrier arabe: émergence du mouvement ouvrier arabe en Palestine”. In: René Gallissot (direction). Mouvement ouvrier, communisme et nationalisme dans le monde arabe. Paris: Les Éditions ouvrières, 1978, p. 147-158.

De Vries, David. “British Rule and Arab–Jewish Coalescence of Interest: The 1946 Civil Servants’ Strike in Palestine.” International Journal of Middle East Studies 36, no. 4 (November 2004): 613–38.

Lockman, Zachary. Comrades and Enemies: Arab and Jewish Workers in Palestine, 1906–1948. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.

Power, Jane. “Real Unions: Arab Organized Labor in British Palestine.” Arab Studies Quarterly 20, no. 1 (Winter 1998): 13–28.

Taqqu, Rachelle. Arab Labor in Mandatory Palestine, 1920–1948. PhD dissertation, Columbia University, 1977.

Taqqu, Rachelle. “Peasants into Workmen: Internal Labor Migration and the Arab Village Community under the Mandate.” In Joel S. Migdal, ed., Palestinian Society and Politics, 261–86. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1980.