By Herbet Claros and Florence Oppen, IWL-FI members, 4/1/16
The month of February was a time of an extraordinary event in the labor movement in the Middle East. On February 10th 2016 thousands of teachers in Palestine, on the West Bank, organized a two-day walk-out of their jobs as they did not receive the expected 2.5% backdated pay rise included in the agreement reached in 2013. Yet the walcout became quickly, through the determination of the teachers, a month long and victorious strike.
As the Strike Expanded, Political Demands were Raised
They were fighting for both economic demands and a democratic unions demanding: of a) Granting an occupational allowance of 2.5%; b) Granting a 5% increase of wages, which should be implemented retroactively from 1/1/2014 until 31/12/2015; c) Enabling teachers to progress on the salary scale as is the case for other categories of governmental workers; d) Paying a cost of living allowance for 2014 and 2015; and e) the Organization of free and democratic elections in the Palestinian Teachers’ Union and accountable leadership that represents rank-and file interests
The average salary of a Palestinian teachers is not more than $3.000 shekels (around US$765) a month. To have an idea, the average spent in rent in Ramallah is around $1.370 shekels a month, almost half of the salary they receive. R., a 27-year-old English teacher in Nablus has been teaching for three and a half years and makes 2,200 shekels ($565) a month: “The prices keep rising but the salaries stay the same. It is only enough to buy food for about two weeks,” he said, laughing.
Yet as the strike expanded in time, it also began to address other key issues amongst the teachers workforce. The first was the need to have democratic and independent unions, the second was to fight for equal rights for female teachers. Female teachers face a dire discrimination in the West Bank as they do not have equal benefits: “If a female teacher with a pension dies, her salary will stop,” said Samih, an English teacher from Qalqilya. “But a male teacher, if he passes away, the salary will go to his wife, or sons and daughters. So it’s not just about wage increases, there is also gender equality. This is also what we mean by dignity.”
An Impressive Victory Despite Repression and Street Closures
During the numerous demonstration, teachers and students carried banners demanding #Dignity. This has been one of the slogans of the demonstrations and picket lines. The striking teaches provide primary and secondary instruction to 700,000 students in the West Bank. Throughout the first days of the strike they managed to organize an overwhelming support of students, principals, parents and other fellow workers for their strike and demands, holding community meetings, teach-outs and rallies, to put pressure on the Palestinian Authority to honor their demands.
On Tuesday Feb. 23th, a rally with more than 20 thousand people was organized. After the protest, 22 teachers were arrested as retaliation, and to intimidate the movement. Teachers’ were released the next days, after protests took place in several cities. The protest could had been bigger if the government had not closed the main accesses to Ramallah. Talking with a teacher, he mention that ‘blocking he accesses to the demonstrators is an anti-democratic absurd’, and he is sorry the National Palestinian Authority uses the same methods Israel’s army uses, the check-points. Even with this, more than 10 thousand people concentrated in front of the Government’s building to protest. The demonstration counted with the participation of students, also.
Imad Temiza, Director of the Palestinian Postal Services Workers’ Union (PPSWU) said there is no chance of building a country with dignity with low paid teachers. This is a generalized feeling among Palestinian people. Besides using checkpoints and street closures, the “the government used mosques to urge teachers to restart their classes” and “waged warnings by taking “administrative measures” against strikers”.
Yet, despite coexisting with the Israeli occupation and a government that does not respect their labor rights, the teachers and the working class communities supporting them held strong and won their demands: on March 13th Abbas the Abbas government cave in and promised a 10 percent pay raise, a management review and the implementation of a 2013 work agreement.
The Strike and Union Reform Process
With a 95% adherence over 35,000 teachers, the strike is being organized from base committees at schools and in the neighborhoods. The strike has an important meaning, as it is passing over the bureaucratic leadership of the union, aligned with the National Palestinian Authority’s government, and the party Fatah.
As Times of Israel argued: “The Palestinian public sector was once represented by the Union of Public Employees. Following several organized protests in November 2014, the PA declared the union “an illegal entity with no legal existence,” forcibly disbanding the organization and arresting its president. The International Federation of Workers Education Associations (IFWEA) said in a statement that the move deprived public sector employees in the West Bank from “collective bargaining and any form of dialogue with their employer, the Palestinian government, in view of safeguarding and advancing their rights and interests.”
The union has been under the same leadership since the 60’s. Teachers demand new elections and denounce the President of the Union does not even practice as a teacher.
The current Union president opposes to the strike, and after meeting with the government, he announced his resignation from the union, together with other members, all of them part of Fatah, the government’s party. Despite his statement, teachers say this might be just a facade.
The strike is being organized from the base and through social networks, outside the union. A committee called Coordination Committee was created, its members elected by West Bank teachers. One of the Committee’s proposals is to democratize the Union and choose new representatives over the next two months. Human Rights entities and the General Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Palestine, linked to the International Labour and Solidarity Network (ILSN), supported the strike.
The ILSN is composed of more than 25 national independent labor federations, and dozens of sector and local unions, coming from more than 30 countries. Among them we can mention some rising independent and democratic unions at the international level which are today reference point for an independent and radical labor alternative committed to fight ALL government that impose austerity and all form combat women’s oppression: like Independent Trade Unions for Egyptian Federation (EFITU) born out of the Egyptian revolution, the Solidaires Federation in France, also know as Sud, which was created out of the wildcat strike of transport workers in 1995, and the Brazilian federation CSP-Conlutas, (which has 200 affiliated unions and popular organisations representing the homeless, Black groups, women’s groups and students and represents 3 million workers including teachers, civil servants, bank workers, university workers, General Motors and construction workers).
The Labor Movement, the Israeli Occupation and the Fight for A Free Palestine
While there is no doubt than the PA is a corrupt and not a pro-workers leadership which needs to be replaced. Yet one cannot address the misery situation of the Palestinian teachers, and workers, and the betrayal of the PA without denouncing the Israeli occupation of the Palestine. The PA is facing a chronic budgetary crisis linked to the fact that the Israeli state does everything to cripple, limits and plunge the economy of the Palestinian people. The PA “spends nearly half of its budget on wages for its 180,000 civil servants,” and “the monthly wage bill of nearly $150 million is 16 percent of the Palestinian gross domestic product, one of the highest in the world.”
Through the 1993 Oslo Accord, when the PA was created, US and European imperialisms institutionalized both the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the 60% of the West Bank after the 1967 war and the economy dependency of the remaining Palestinian territories – which are bound to survive on Israel’s charity and foreign aid. The Oslo Accord gave Israel full control over customs, taxes, land, flows of labor and trade in areas supposedly under the control of PA and also opened the door to foreign capital. In this regard, Joseph Massad, a Palestinian Professor of Middle Eastern History, wrote that the PLO would go down in history as “the only Third World liberation movement who has sought liberation through selling the resources it expects to ‘liberate’ to international capital before it even ‘liberated’ them.” The PA, which was supposed to have been an interim body and be replaced in 1999 by a sovereign state of Palestine, became a new form of neo-colonial administration. The efforts of the PA that is can manage the economy under the occupation is just an illusion of prosperity for some fuelled by an explosion in private debt: “Consumer credit increased six-fold from $70 million in 2008 to $415 million in 2011 and car loans almost tripled from $40 million to $112 million, according to the Palestinian Monetary Authority.”
The occupation of Gaza and the West Bank are not only a violation of the Palestinian people’s right for self determination – there are more than 350,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank. It has also deprived the Palestinian people of their best lands and the capacity to develop an independent national industry. According to a Human Rights Watch report in the occupied territories of the West Bank, there are now 20 Israeli-administered industrial zones covering about 1,365 hectares. Israeli settlers oversee the cultivation of 9,300 hectares of agricultural land. As the Hindu Times reported “according to the finance ministry, in 2013, Israel exported more than $600 million worth of industrial goods manufactured in the settlements. On the other side, a World Bank report says restrictions in Area C cost the Palestinian economy $3.4 billion a year.” 
Since the Oslo Accords too, the PA, like most of Arab government in the 90s, was forced to become a puppet of imperialism and adopt the Washington Consensus and the structural reforms imposed by the IMF and the WB. Thus the PA has been reducing public spending and increasing tax revenues. As a recent study on the neoliberal turn in Palestine has argued, “The PA wants to cut the wage bill by a mixture of layoffs, hiring freezes (except in the health and education sectors), and a public sector pay freeze in order to bring it from 27 percent to 22 percent of the budget at the end of 2010.  The scale of projected layoffs, around 40,000 public sector workers, has been described as “probably the harshest attack on any public sector in the Middle East in recent history.””
The needs of the Palestinian working people will never be met by any “two state” solution that accommodates and outrageous and unbearable colonial occupation. This is why the fate of the Palestinian working people, its labor movement and that of the Arab peoples of the Middle East is bound to the struggle for liberation, the repeal of imperialist neoliberal policies and the overthrowing of the colonial racist state of Israel. This is why all unions should support the BDS campaign if they want to stand in solidarity with the cause of Palestinian workers.
Long live to Palestinian teachers’ strike and their struggle!
For independent and democratic unions! Lets grow the ILSN!
The Labor movement should support the BDS campaign everywhere!
Free Palestine! End Occupation Now!
 Raja Khalidi and Sobhi Samour, “Neoliberalism as Liberation: The Statehood Program and the Remaking of the Palestinian National Movement”, Palestine Studies, Vol 40, (2010) http://www.palestine-studies.org/jps/fulltext/42411