Building Unions in the Arab World

Labor unions are a key piece of nascent democracies in Egypt and across the Arab world. Unions are being fostered in Egypt's transport industries, particularly with seafarers, and also in the West Bank, with assistance from the International Transport Workers' Federation, which includes 781 unions representing more than 4.6 million transport workers in 155 countries. Allied with the International Trade Union Confederation, the ITF has its headquarters in London and has offices in Nairobi, Ouagadougou, Tokyo, New Delhi, Rio de Janeiro, Amman, Moscow, and Brussels.

The blog written by David Cockroft, general secretary of ITF, is one window on the birth of the Egyptian unions. Cockroft wrote March 30 about his recent visit to Israel and the West Bank and two days of workshops to help unions form throughout the Middle East.

"A series of intensive workshops on the second day produced a huge list of ideas for the future: better communications and the use of websites, facebook, and other internet tools to put union activists in touch with each other, basic education and training in union democracy and collective bargaining," he writes. "One of the most difficult issues was that of trade union pluralism. Many of the unionists in the region have grown up with monopolistic union structures which owe allegiance to political parties. Now they have to cope with separating union work from government influence while recognising that unions must always continue to influence government policies and laws. Working out how to accept pluralism without encouraging union fragmentation is going to be one of the biggest tasks ahead.

"Anyway, at the end of an exhaustingly energetic two day event (in my closing remarks I said it was one of the few ITF meetings I had attended where everyone was clamouring to speak and there was no risk of anyone falling asleep) we agreed to put in place a major programme to assist union building in the Arab World in all branches of transport, starting with maritime unions, and to make a full report to the next meeting of the ITF executive in April."

Marking Workers Memorial Day, ITF released a new, four-minute film April 28 to help urban transport workers prevent workplace violence.

Juan Cole's Informed Comment is another online source about democratic movements in the Middle East as they intersect with the push for labor and women's rights and involve workers' organizations.

Posted by Jerry Laws on Apr 28, 2011