Representatives of the independent union WAC-Ma’an took part in an international trade union conference in Istanbul in November, initiated by the LabourStart website and hosted by Turkish unions. Participants included some 100 representatives from 30 countries, among them European states, Australia, North America, Africa and Iran. However the most notable delegates came from the Arab states including the those who experienced firsthand the recent revolutions: Egypt and Tunisia. The conference concentrated primarily on the issue of the international workers’ movement and the Arab Spring.
Turkey was not chosen by coincidence to host the event. In the last two years the unions in Turkey led prominent struggles that involved the international union movement. Turkey is a state of contradictions. It has a flourishing economy which exists apart from the European Union, and benefits from cheap labor and foreign investment under an Islamic government which has adopted free-market capitalism and privatizes anything that moves. On the other hand, it has strong secular and progressive traditions, a lively intellectual stratum, young teachers earning low wages, unemployed and pensioners without benefits, and harsh political repression of opposition voices, especially that of the Kurdish minority.
The event began with a protest, together with a group of workers, in front of a metal works factory owned by the German company GEA, in Gebze (a city east of Istanbul). The workers were filled with fighting spirit, and received the international delegation with rhythmic chants, such as “We don’t want charity, we want justice.” They protested their illegal dismissal which proceeded their unionization. We were granted another peek into Turkey’s union history during a tour of Taksim Square, which represents the Turkish workers’ struggle to mark Labor Day. For 23 years, the unions were forbidden to mark this day in the square, ever since the use of extreme force in 1977 when police and paramilitary forces killed 36 demonstrators. Only in 2010, after a prolonged struggle, were the workers once more granted the right to demonstrate here.
The presence of the Arab delegates was moving and powerful. The representatives, especially those from Egypt and Tunisia, spoke of the workers’ situation, of their role in the revolution, and of the role of the unions in shaping the new states. Particularly powerful was the appearance of two representatives of new Egyptian workers’ organizations: Talal Shukur, a veteran union and political activist, and Saham Shawada, from the workers’ city Al-Mahala al-Kubra, who organizes workers and is a journalist with the newspaper El-Badil (“alternative”).
The Middle Eastern delegates, including those from Palestine, North Africa, Iran, Iraq, Kurdistan, Morocco and Algeria, formed very friendly ties with the WAC delegates. This was due on the one hand to their appreciation of WAC’s work in the field, and on the other hand to its solidarity with the Palestinian people, their demand for an independent state, and its support of the Arab uprisings. This welcome cannot be taken for granted, particularly in light of the spirit of boycott that could be felt in the conference. Arab delegates (along with others) took part in a workshop led by WAC, which outlined WAC’s unique efforts to organize both Jewish and Arab workers in Israel – efforts based on the view that the workers’ movement in Israel must be supportive of the revolutionary Arab Spring movements.
In an additional panel, Agbarieh-Zahalka jointly with women from Tunisia, Egypt and Algeria focused on the employment conditions of Arab women. The picture that emerged from the speakers’ descriptions included low wages, poverty, increasing exploitation and sexual harassment at the workplace. Agbarieh-Zahalka spoke about the issue of Israeli Arab women, 83% of whom are unemployed, and spelled out the reasons and implications this implies. She also spoke of WAC’s program to place women in agriculture. The other women then elected her to present the panel’s conclusions in the general assembly.
As a revolutionary, democratic union working to integrate Arab and Jewish workers on authentic internationalist principles, we received excellent feedback. This feedback also entailed the desire among workers in a wide range of unions to open up to new ideas and new ways of organizing. The willingness of the global labor movement to learn new technologies, act in new arenas, and find new partners outside established, conservative structures was very evident at the LabourStart event. WAC, as a dynamic workers’ organization founded outside the Histadrut framework, sees this new spirit as fertile ground for increasing cooperation with activists coping, like WAC, with complex pluralist circumstances while trying to create new solutions, creative and new ways of organizing and recruiting.
What is Labour Start?
The LabourStart website was established towards the end of the 1990s by a union activist, Eric Lee, with the support and financial assistance of various unions in Britain. Joined by Derek Blackadder from Canada and Andrew Casey from Australia, the website quickly became a central hub of information for unions around the world, since it enabled activists all over the globe to upload articles and memos dealing with unions and workers – long before Facebook got off the ground. What makes the site unique is that any unionist can join as a correspondent and easily upload articles published in the local press. Over the years, some 900 activists have joined who post hundreds of items each day, making the site the most updated source of information regarding labor issues. Furthermore, this site of hundreds of correspondents and thousands of readers has become a reservoir of strength which enables unions to run support or protest campaigns on issues such as worker dismissals. WAC approached LabourStart recently during the strike at the Salit Quarries, and the website launched a campaign during which over 4,000 activists sent emails of protest to the quarry management and the Readymix company (Salit Quarries’ largest client), in support of the Palestinian workers who went on strike for three months.