Commentary Magazine

Trade Unions in the Middle East

To the Editor:

I would like to comment on Walter Zander’s article “Arab Nationalism and Israel” (July). My purpose is rather to amplify his viewpoint with some recent developments I was privy to at the June sessions of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions in Brussels, its world headquarters.

The ICFTU, a six-year-old organization of free trade union organizations throughout the world (including our own AFL-CIO), has been able to bring into its fold whatever significant trade unions there are in the Arab world. These unions sit side by side with Histadrut, the powerful Israeli Federation of Labor. There are no questions raised, nor if they were raised would they even be countenanced, as to Histadrut’s right to be represented on the highest governing body of the ICFTU, its Executive Board. The Arab or Moslem countries represented in the ICFTU today include Algeria, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Pakistan, and Tunisia.

Confronting the ICFTU today is a recently created opposition nationalist group, inspired largely by Egypt, called the Arab Confederation of Labor, with representation from Egypt, Syria, some Lebanese unions, and a Libyan representative. This organization has pressed its claims to representation of Arab workers with scant success thus far. The ICFTU affiliates, at the last session of their Executive Board, demonstrated an unswerving loyalty to the ICFTU. In fact, immediately upon its admission to the ICFTU, Algeria signed a protocol with its two neighbors—Tunisia and Morocco—pledging to further the aims of free tradeunionism in North Africa. So significant has this world, which Mr. Zander writes about, become that the ICFTU voted to hold its fifth biennial world congress next year in Tunis, the first time such a convocation will be held outside of Europe. And the ICFTU has even scheduled a regional trade union conference somewhere in Africa before the year is up.

These are rather tedious technical details to impose upon your readers but, added together. they offer a glimpse of a different possibility for the Middle East and the Arab world. Histadrut’s spokesmen at the ICFTU have, again and again, urged broadening of trade union activity in the Middle East, seeing in such activity hope—but only hope—for some eventual solution to the unending crisis. This is not to say that strong free unions in the Middle East would mean an end to conflict, any more than the U. S. Supreme Court’s decisions on segregation have meant an end to Jim Crowism in the South. But they do, indeed, afford a shining beam in this darkening part of the world.



The North African trade union leadership has the support of the emerging independent governments, particularly in Tunisia where Habib Bourguiba, who addressed an AFL convention a few years ago, is friendly to the Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail. The basic problem which these Arab or Moslem unions must grapple with is politics in its most elemental sense. In fact, it must be the basic problem of any country whose workers are just emerging into a latter-day industrialism. For American, British, or German labor movements, “bread-and-butter” problems can be dealt with and, frequently are, on a non-political level. But in underdeveloped countries, where workers’ organizations are relatively recent, economic and political demands are closely intertwined because colonial memories are still too fresh.

It is in this area that the ICFTU is playing, and will continue to play, a decisive role. Confronted by the Arab Confederation of Labor, whose direction is largely “anti-Zionist” and anti-Israel, and the pressures of the Communist World Federation of Trade Unions in the Middle East, the ICFTU has undertaken to help direct the nascent trade union movements into normal trade union channels while supporting their aspirations for freedom or self-determination. That is why the Algerian trade unions, young and inexperienced though they are, were admitted overwhelmingly into the ICFTU even though at this writing their organization is proscribed by the French and many of its leaders are either in jail or exile.

By and large, the political orientation of these movements, while nationalist in every sense, is toward democracy, not dictatorship. They most certainly are anti-Communist—the Tunisian movement was an affiliate of the WFTU but left after one meeting—and uninterested in Soviet economic or political aid. . . .

I am not naive enough to believe that substituting a Ford for a camel or a washing machine for a harem will solve the Arab-Israeli conflict; but, in the broadest sense, helping the Arab-Moslem world to emerge from feudalism in the 20th century may yet make survival possible for those Middle East elements who would rather build homes for workers than see them killed in a jihad. . . .

Arnold Beichman
New York City


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