MESA Banner
Labor Organizations, Leverage, and Capacity

Session V-10, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Friday, December 2 at 1:30 pm

Panel Description
How do established unions and similar organizations reshape social movements and mass uprisings? In this panel, discussants will explore several approaches to this question in the MENA, investigating both agent-driven capacity building and structure-enabling opportunities. At least two points of contention persist in the literature. First is the internal cohesion and contradictions of social movements and mass mobilizations. Scholars of social movements have long been interested in the ways bureaucratic organizations shape, aid and restrain these movements. While social movement organizations theorists have emphasized the important contributions formal resources could make to movement success, others have pointed to the conflicts of interest that can emerge between the leadership and base of mass movements. The second point of contention is the role of existing environments in which social movements operate. For some scholars, organizational innovations and successful discursive strategies could carry a movement forward if enough charismatic and leadership capacities existed. For others, a window of opportunity or a point of leverage needs to exist to make an impact. In this session, panelists will contribute to this debate by introducing various colonial, transnational and local factors that have shaped these processes. More specifically, the panel will explore the relationships between mass social movements and established labor unions in Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt and Israel-Palestine. Three out of the five papers tackle the colonial question, juxtaposing a context that absorbs indigenous labor against another that excludes it. Three out of the five papers take on the internal dynamic of organizations by investigating how workers operated in democracy movements using organizational resources, again comparing two contexts with different leverage positioning. How do unions navigate the various tensions that emerge from operating across colonial boundaries? How do unions and other organizations react to and shape the outcomes of mass uprisings? Conversely, what impact have Middle Eastern and North African workers movements and organizations had on states and empires? Papers will examine how political economy, institutions and other factors have shaped labor movements and workers struggles across the MENA.
  • What led different imperial powers to offer radically different responses to the rise of labor unions in colonial territories? In this paper I address the question using two cases (1) French Tunisia, where anti-labor repression was more targeted and comparatively restrained, and (2) British Egypt, where union busting was far more aggressive at every level, and a national labor federation was never allowed to form. While these two colonial cases have been well studied individually and their contemporary labor movements have recently drawn the attention of several comparative works, the question of their very different colonial policies has gone largely unexamined. This leaves a serious gap in the literature, as accounts which treat colonial legacies as something of a black box from which current politics emerged cannot then explain change and variation within imperialism. To explain this question, I draw on an archival study of both colonial (the French and British Foreign ministries), and labor sources (the French CGT, British TUC and local press archives). Based on these sources, I argue that the difference between British and French colonial policy largely stems not from institutional differences at the state level, but rather in the French CGT’s policy of organizing workers in colonial territories, whereas the British TUC largely limited its involvement to consulting and training, most often as a partner of the British Embassy. Despite the many contradictions of organizing across colonial boundaries, I argue that the connections to the broader labor movement nevertheless reshaped and limited French labor policy in several crucial ways. These cases not only show the global and transnational nature of imperial state building but also the critical place of civil society.
  • In 1937, French colonial soldiers fired on a crowd of workers assembled during a mass strike in Tunisia’s Gafsa phosphate mines. 18 workers were killed, and many more were injured. These workers had been advocating for better social-environmental conditions, including higher wages, access to potable water, and guarantees for health and hygiene. Today, their names are inscribed in the built environment of Gafsa’s largest mining town, at the center of a monument to the martyrs of the national struggle, and alongside the names of those killed in the armed anti-colonial uprising almost two decades later. The organizational strategies Gafsa’s mineworkers used to mobilize in 1937 mirrored their survival strategies for coping with injury and death in the massacre’s aftermath. Drawing on workers’ testimonies, archived documents from the colonial state, and the built environment of the martyrs’ monument, I argue that an analysis of labor organization in 1937 requires centering questions of embodiment. This paper explores “capacity” in labor movements in a dual sense: the organizational capacity workers developed to mobilize for change, and the embodied capacity workers lost through colonial-industrial repression, when their broken bodies denied possibilities for future wages from manual labor. To understand how Gafsa’s workers navigated existing institutions to build a mass movement in 1937, we also need to understand how they and their families navigated these same institutions to deal with corporeal ruination in the strike’s aftermath. Both of these “capacities,” organizational and embodied, explain the 1937 movement’s ongoing presence in struggles for rights decades later. Gafsa’s labor organizers took advantage of new mobilization possibilities after the Front populaire, a coalition of communist and socialist parties, won election in France in 1936. They joined the dominant French-led trade union, but they defied the union’s French leadership by calling the 1937 strike. French union leaders scrambled to catch up after the massacre, sending a doctor to supervise the colonial state’s investigation of the workers’ injuries. Workers recalled the embodied experience of injury in ways that drew on institutional processes for support while contesting the investigation’s very premises. Their families filed petitions for workplace accident compensation, seeking restitution for lost potential income from manual labor. These linkages between organizational and embodied capacity were folded into the monument in Gafsa, ultimately undermining the post-independence regime’s attempt to transform the massacre’s history into a classless national epic.
  • What role does the Histadrut play in the lives of Palestinian citizens of Israel employed in the Israeli economy? Much recent scholarship on the Histadrut emphasizes three core elements of the labor union’s status and relation to the Zionist colonial project: first, the Histadrut's role in organizing and incorporating new Jewish immigrants into the economy of the British mandate and, after 1948, of the nascent Israeli state; second, the national labor union’s general decline during the neoliberalization of the Israeli economy from the mid-1970s onward; and third, signs of hopeful revitalization of worker organization (both within and outside of the organizing umbrella of the Histadrut) leading up to and following the 2011 general strike. While the Histadrut has expanded its initially narrow base of support to allow both Palestinian citizens and guest workers (both from the Occupied Palestinian Territories and abroad) to become members, it has done so without abandoning its support for the Zionist colonial-national project. It thus finds itself in the contradictory position of working to defend those very workers whom the Zionist project has colonized, expelled, and exploited while simultaneously viewing itself as a central pillar of this same project. The contradictory role of the Histadrut vis-a-vis Palestinian workers mirrors the contradictory position that those same workers find when laboring within the Israeli economy: Palestinian workers’ labor has built the very economic, infrastructural, and institutional frameworks that the Israeli state has used to further the ethnic cleansing of Palestinian lands, the military rule over the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and the economic, social, and political marginalization of Palestinian citizens of Israel. Through both ethnographic observations within the local Histadrut office in a working-class Palestinian village in Israel and through interviews with union office staff, current unionized members, and former members living in the village, this paper examines how Palestinian-citizen Histadrut members navigate their contradictory roles as Palestinian members of a Zionist labor organization. In doing so, this paper examines the ways in which labor activism is strategically racialized and de-racialized depending on the organizing context; the ways in which colonial racial, ethnic, and gender hierarchies intersect with class hierarchies within Israel’s neoliberal capitalist economy; and the ways in which national labor organizations like the Histadrut can and cannot operate as tools for promoting class solidarity beyond these colonial hierarchies.
  • Morocco’s Arab Spring events constitute a puzzle. Most scholars agree that a popular protest movement emerged in the country during the 2011 cycle of uprisings in the region. But for many scholars, the formation of government through elections that was introduced to the structure of the Moroccan state in response to the movement is a non-transformative outcome. For some, the content of the constitutional amendments are toothless since the monarch retained vast unchecked authority. Others argue that the mobilizations were still unthreatening to trigger a militaristic suppression seen elsewhere in the region under regimes with similar patrimonial militaries, or even that the amendments are just a reflection of the monarch’s own independent will to delegate power and avoid the daily functions of government. Alternatively, I argue that this transformation is path breaking from previous policies of liberalization of the Moroccan autocracy because it represented a peculiar alignment of social forces in Morocco. Labor mobilizations over new austerity measures substantiated the threat of the ensuing democracy movement by arming it with disruptive capacities that put pressure on the alliance of the ruling elites over the question of democracy. As such, the concession that the elites offered in Morocco is multi-layered. The concession included a direct cost that elites absorbed by accepting an unprecedented increase in minimum wage levels to remove labor from street protests, and it also surrendered the premiership to electoral victors – traditional, Islamist, and radical opposition parties that all had trade union arms present in the mobilizations. Fractured trade unionism that emerged out of entrenched segmentation of the Moroccan labor market was significant enough to threaten disruption, but still easily demobilized by the elites when it is compared to the costs Tunisian workers put on their ruling elites unraveling their alliances. The Moroccan outcome is a product of these historical processes. This research builds on interviews with 46 democracy activists and trade unionists in Morocco and applies various microeconomic analyses.
  • In revolutionary struggles, large numbers of people try to transform politics and society in fundamental ways, including in the remaking of constitutions. Often dismissed as symbolic at best, constitutions become critical sites of contention and eventual markers of change in the aftermath of regime overthrow, where multiple groups seek to change (or preserve) a country’s long-reigning power blocs and institutions. In this study, I examine the constitutional campaigns of Egyptian and Tunisia labor movements from 2012-2013, namely “The Workers and the Peasants Write the Constitution” campaign in Egypt and around “the National Dialogue” in Tunisia. I ask: (1) What did the labor movements envision, respectively, as their desired alternatives? and (2) What explains their impacts on formal constitution-making? This paper relies on interview, archival, and newspaper data, alongside draft constitutional texts and reports on collective actions. It finds that the campaign in Egypt sought the more ruptural transformation, modeling associational and direct democratic forms while advocating an inclusive, if uncertain, participatory socialism. By contrast, the UGTT’s campaign envisioned social democratic statist economic regulation with a heavy dose of liberal democracy. Tunisian organized labor would breach formal national constitution-making, where they dropped key social democratic institutions, whereas Egyptian independent labor fell flat, never really having the chance to negotiate. I argue that rather than organizational legacies alone, critical to the divergence in both the visions and impacts is an organized disruptive capacity (or lack thereof) that enables labor to build societal power in broad-based coalitions, the presence or absence of which animated these specific campaigns. In doing so, the paper addresses arguments that separate out the effects of class structure and social movement factors. Yet rather than mechanically aggregating separate features or capacities, the argument is about how a set of movement power resources can combine in particular ways to shape the content and related outcomes of constitutional campaigns.