our 1st day in Ramallah

Today we took the bus in to Ramallah, passing the Qalandia checkpoint with no problem, though we did see one or two cars full of people being inspected by the IDF. We also got our first glimpse of the infamous Apartheid Wall. Rob said it best: It's kind of like a checkpoint on I-95, except staffed by children with M16s. They are not exactly children, but the IDF soldiers all look very, very young.

We were welcomed into the Federation of Independent Unions of Palestine office by Mohammed Aruri and his colleague Ghareeb formerly a worker at a pharmaceutical factory, now a volunteer of the union. At this small meeting, delegation members learned a bit about the Federation of Independent Palestinian Unions, which, as it turns out, is incredibly similar in mission and structure to the IWW.

The Federation organizes within a wide spectrum of unions, from finance to agricultural to medical manufacturing to university employees to certain parts of the public sector, like village councils. Unemployment is rampant, with up to 50% (and much higher in Gaza) of workers unemployed, and the Federation organizes and provides services to workers without jobs. The Federation provides services to 2000 unemployed workers in the form food, medicine, money and free insurance. Most of the money donated to the by the Palestinian Authority goes to paying government employees and to security measures demanded by the Israeli government, and there is little left for unemployment compensation, so it is left to unions to fill the gap. Notably, 50% of Palestinians also live below the poverty line. Mohammed states that the occupation is the main cause for their suffering.

The Federation organizes all over the West Bank, and does some work within Gaza. They do not have members in Jerusalem, where workers tend to organize by local shops and not into federations. Aruri suspects that this has something to do with the difficulty in getting across checkpoints, but there may be other political reasons as well. The Federation is the Palestinian version of “One Big Union”, as they work tirelessly to build solidarity in the the West Bank, Gaza and Israel, and all over the world. If there were a theme to our discussions today it would be “unity in struggle”.

Coming into Ramallah, we noticed an abundance of new and half-built construction, and we asked Aruri why it was that Ramallah was being built up so quickly. He said it was because 50% of Palestinians are outside of the country, with many in the US from New York to San Francisco, from Alaska to Florida. Presumably, this new construction was an outgrowth of the real estate boom evident in the US, and the Palestinian economy has been hit equally hard.

The union was started in reaction to the larger, business unions representing most Palestinian workers, with a structure that reflects a commitment to democratic unionism. The executive committee is comprised of workers who are elected by the members directly. The local leaders must be workers in the industries they represented.

The conversation turned to the Boycott Israel movement of which the Federation plays an active role. The boycott movement, called by Palestinian workers and civil society groups, seeks to put non-violent pressure on the Israeli government to abide by standards of human rights and international law. Mohammed said that most Palestinians are in favor of the boycott, as it will increase job opportunities, as it will increase opportunities in Palestinian factories, as it will decrease reliance on Israeli goods. Aruri asked that more pressure be placed on Obama, and noted this era as one of much opportunity, given Obama's promises made in the Cairo speech. The delegation spoke of our efforts to publicize this meeting and build support for the boycott movement in the US labor movement.

The United States gives 3 billion in aid to the Israeli government largely to the military. Aruri said that this money could be given to workers in the United States to help resolve the economic crisis workers are facing. Aruri said our job is to advocate for US workers as much as it is for others internationally.

Aruri came to the US in 2004 and met with many rank and file union members, as well as peace groups etc. He also met with leaders of the AFL-CIO (in their swanky DC office that Aruri said was nicer than the State Department, where he also visited) who basically accused him of being left-wing and wrote him off. Aruri said the AFL “looks with one eye instead of two”. It should noted that the AFL, as well as the Democratic Party signed agreements with Histradut, the main Israeli union closely aligned with the Israeli state. One interesting anecdote that illustrates the nature of Histradut: the former president of the union went on to serve as the defense minister for the Israeli government and led the country into the war in Lebanon.

It has become clear throughout our discussions that the occupation Palestinian directly impairs worker organizing in Palestinian. It has caused factories to close and has stopped producers from shipping goods to Arab countries. Aruri noted that the union's position on the wall is not against the Jewish people, and not even against the wall entirely: he states that the wall could be built on the 67 border, and not annex Palestinian land. He said that Palestinian don't need aid, that they have the resources to develop themselves. They could have a thriving tourism industry and grow plenty of fruits and vegetables. What they need is freedom.

A direct legacy of colonial Britain are the laws of administrative detention. Anyone can be arrested because they “might” do something that threatens the security of the colonial regime. Israel has inherited these laws and now, being a member of a union is cause enough for arrest and torture and has been used frequently on union activists, as Mohammed has been arrested 6 times and tortured in prison. These arrests usually occur at night and in front of everyone, but because they are fighting for freedom, they learn to not be afraid. Mohammed talked about being released from prison and heading straight back to the office to organize more workers.

On the political situation in Palestinian, Aruri discussed the Hamas election as a vote against the corruption within the PA. This was not a vote for an Islamic republic, as many Christians voted for the party. Most labor unions support the PLO strategy, with few supporting Hamas. Most people in the Federation are independent and not associated with a political party, and the Federation is not associated with any political party (like the IWW), whereas the PGFTU has close ties to the Fatah party.

After our first meeting, we explored Ramallah, wandering into the teeming and lively fruit market and sampling the famous Rakab ice cream.

We returned to the Federation office, where we met with 9 representatives from member unions, where we presented them with $1000 that the delegation fundraised with the help of supporters, as well as IWW t shirts, calendars and buttons, all of which were warmly received.

We discussed with them their current campaigns, such as a campaign for improved pensions, as the state does not provide any social security, and the private sector is not required to match employee contributions.

They talked about the three greatest enemy's of Palestine “occupation, corruption, and poverty”, which have been worsened by globalization. This led to a discussion about the IWWs international solidarity work in Haiti and Mexico. We spoke about our unions' history and philosophy and found that our vision and mission are extremely similar to each other. One of the representatives joked “why don't we open an IWW office in Palestine, to which we replied, it sounds like there already is one”.

Women's status in the Palestinian labor movement is strikingly parallel to that in the US, where women make 75% to what men make, and struggle to get promoted. The Federation, like the IWW historically, has stood in solidarity with women, and fought for for women's rights and human rights. The work of women has traditionally been unpaid or underpaid, much like the rest of the world. But, women are strongly represented within the federations executive committee.

The union mentioned 3 specific things solidarity workers could do: they need help fundraising for a staff position to address women's issues, help organize a visit of members of the Federation to the United States, and connect members to other organizations, unions, women's organizations, and others.

We returned to our hotel for a brief rest, and were then treated to a delicious supper at the home of Ghareeb, one of the members of the Federation. There, over arab-style macaroni and cheese, we talked politics, movies, and played with the kids. A pretty great end to the day.


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