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Historical Background
Development Phases of the Labour Movement 1953-2000

The Jordanian Labour Union Movement is currently comprised of seventeen Labour trade unions unified within the General Federation of Jordan Trade Unions including about 230,000 members in the year 2000.

The General Federation of Trade Unions was founded 1954, when six unions submitted a request to register a federation that unifies all trade unions and represents their interests before the relevant authorities and employers. Most significant of the provisions of the constitution of the General Federation were supervision of Federation-associated unions and organizing workers in them; defending workers through legislation that protected rights regarding working hours, wages, compensation and aid in cases of unemployment, aging, illness and injury; and regulating leave and healthcare. The constitution also included a provision calling on workers to form co-operative societies among themselves.

Several objective factors had paved the way for the foundation of the General Federation and its rapid development. Among them was that those who took the initiative to establish trade unions in the early 1950s had experience related to union activities in Palestine. Trans-Jordan in turn experienced during the mid-1940s attempts to establish unions, but these suffered from absence of legislation on Labour rights and the firm rejection by the authorities of the establishment of unions specifically for workers.

Nevertheless, with the merger in 1950 of Trans-Jordan and the West Bank, there arose an obligation for the state to unify national legislation and create a progressive legislative structure responsive to the ambitions of citizens and capable of gaining their loyalty. The new Jordanian Constitution in 1952 represented an important turning point, providing guarantee of freedoms and rights for citizens to found political and professional organizations and associations, as well as to enjoy freedom of opinion, assembly and press.

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The Jordanian Constitution paved the way for the promulgation of some legislation that protects the rights of Labour. Article 23 states that „Work is a right for all Jordanian citizens, the state has to secure it by steering the national economy and supporting its growth." The second paragraph of the article covered protection of workers and issuing legislation guaranteeing their right to wages equivalent to volume and quality of work, defining working hours, and granting paid annual leave and a weekly day of rest. Furthermore, it stipulated compensation for Labourers, as well as protection in case of job termination, sickness, handicap, and work emergencies. It also defined work conditions for women and juveniles and site compliance with adequate health regulations, and guaranteed the right of Labourers to establish a free union organization for themselves within the limits of the law.

The other important development was the issuance of Labour Trade Unions Law number 35 for 1953, which was published one year after issuance of the constitution. That law covered part of the rights included in the constitution, which was the right to organize trade unions. It became possible for each group of seven workers or more, of the same profession or working in the same institution, to form their own trade union. The law also inherently acknowledged the right of workers to strike. Less than one year after the issuance of the law, ten Labour trade unions were formed in the country. Six of these organized themselves within a unified national organization, the General Federation. Formation of the General Federation in turn provided momentum that resulted in the doubling of the number of the registered Labour unions, which reached 36 at end-1955, 25 of which joined the Federation.

Foundation and Rise of the Labour Movement (1954-57)

These years were noticeable for being the foundation phase of most Labour trade unions on both Banks until the 1967 War. The period witnessed the initial experience of the trade unions in demands-oriented struggles, and in their attempts to promote more progressive and inclusive Labour legislation among which was the Labour Compensation Law ratified at the beginning of 1955. Jordanian trade unions played an important role as well by calling

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for creating the first Arab Labour confederation. To that end, a meeting was held in Damascus in early 1956 in which trade unions from Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan participated. Shortly after, the International Confederation of Arab Workers was formed, and held its first conference in Damascus in March 1956.

Under the influence of leftist and nationalist parties, who enjoyed a powerful influence within the leadership of the General Federation and within the majority of the trade unions, the Jordanian Labour Movement played an active political role. The movement demanded the termination of British influence in Jordan and of the Jordanian-British Agreement of 1948, and called for refraining from entering into foreign pacts. The Labour movement also supported the coalition government of Suleiman Nabulsi, representing the leftists and nationalists during the April 1957 crisis that erupted between the government and the palace. The leaders of the unions joined the protests against the suspension of the Nabulsi government.

Growth of the Labour Movement and Development of Modern Labour Legislation (1957-67)

That crisis ended with imposition of martial law, suspension of parliament, dissolution of political parties, and persecution and arrest of opposition leftist and nationalist leaders and activists and presidents of many professional and Labour organizations. The positions of Labour unions deteriorated under such circumstances. Many union leaders were obliged to leave the country to escape persecution and arrest. Thus, the number of registered trade unions decreased from 39 during 1955-56 to only 29 in 1958-59, and then to 16 in 1960-61. Consequently, trade union membership fell to only 9,000. (See Table 1)

Nevertheless, the Labour movement overcame this crisis during the first half of the 1960s, and when the first Labour Law in Jordan was issued (Law 21 of 1961) the Labour movement started to flourish again. This was evident in its growing negotiation capability to conclude collective agreements for enhancing living standards of workers and securing new benefits for them. Likewise, the number of unions started to grow again and reached 40

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in 1965-66. Meanwhile, trade union membership reached 20,000, double the number at the end of the 1950s (See Table 2).

The Post-1967 War Period (1967-71)

Because of the occupation of the West Bank by Israel after the June 1967 war, Jordan’s economy suffered a sharp blow that caused it to lose the rapid growth realized during the 1960s. Gross national product declined until the early 1970s. The conditions of the working class were especially affected by the shutting down of many industries and cuts in production. The general wage level fell, as did demand for Labour. Unemployment grew, fuelled by immigration from the occupied West Bank to Jordan.

Nevertheless, the financial aid offered by Arab states, and international help to refugees in Jordan helped overcome economic difficulties. On the other hand, the transfer of the Palestinian resistance factions to Jordan or their use of it as a base against Israeli occupation provided a suitable political environment for establishing more Labour trade unions. Their number increased from about 20 by end-1967 to reach 40 in 1969. Likewise, trade union membership climbed from 26,000 in 1967 to about 40,000 in 1970.

Neither the growth of the trade unions nor the accumulating demands-oriented movements in that phase (68 strikes and Labour conflicts erupted in 1970 alone) were evolutionary. Rather, much of this was inspired by the resistance and by extremist tendencies of some left wing factions in that phase. Therefore, as soon as confrontation between the Jordanian authorities and factions of the Palestinian Resistance Movement erupted in September 1970 and July-September 1971, the number of viable trade unions decreased, particularly after the exit of the Palestinian Resistance from Jordan. Due to the impact of those incidents, the leadership of the General Federation of Trade Unions split. Some members of the Executive Committee of the Federation aligned themselves with the Palestinian Resistance, and this led the committee to lose its quorum. The authorities as represented by the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour then took the initiative to assign a temporary executive committee to replace the elected one. This temporary body was charged with the duties of the General Federation until new elec-

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tions could take place. The committee also hastened to prepare a draft of a new internal constitution for the federation. Those two steps triggered the protests of 14 trade unions, which rejected both in a memorandum to the Government in October 1971.

Reorganization of the Jordanian Labour Movement (1971-76)

Similar to events during the crisis of April 1957, the confrontations of September 1970 and July 1971 were an important turning point for the Federation, as the government grasped the opportunity to place a stranglehold on various public organizations considered incubators of opposition, which could present a threat to security and stability in Jordan. The authorities took a series of measures to cause a substantial change in the structure of the Labour movement and secure within it a majority loyal to the government. Among these was Decree 14/K1/1971 through which the minister of Social Affairs imposed on all trade unions the holding of new elections for their administrative committees, transferring the authority to determine election dates and procedures and prior approval candidates to the minister. Temporary Labour Law number 67 granted the minister extensive authority from the right to interfere in the internal affairs of the trade unions and dissolve them if the minister decided that they were undertaking political activity or propagating „destructive" ideologies, as described by the law. In 1971 the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour interfered to merge a number of unions, aiming to weaken the influence of the opposition on many of the trade unions.

This was the background against which the second elections for 1972 were held. These resulted in minimizing the influence of the Labour opposition bodies to one-third of the unions, which then led those trade unions to boycott the elections for the presidency of the Central Council and the Executive Committee of the Federation.

On the other hand, union leadership, which had left Jordan after the confrontations of 1970-71, undertook countermeasures declaring themselves the legal leadership of the Federation. They were recognized as such by the International Confederation of the Arab Labour Trade Unions and by the

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Confederation of the World Trade Unions. This re-enforced the isolation of the General Federation of Labour Trade Unions in the country.

During the following two years, opposing union powers managed to mobilize their forces and entered the February 1974 elections. These witnessed a tangible realignment of power. The share of the opposition rose to 14 unions out of 21 members in the General Federation, increasing despite the larger representation in the central council given to some of the unions supported by the authorities.

Those results encouraged opposition unions to participate effectively in the central council, and not to resort to boycott. Actually, the opposition, which consisted of diverse leftist, nationalist, and Islamic elements, as well as those connected with Palestinian organizations, had regained the initiative a year before the 1974 elections. They had benefited from the escalating demands-oriented movement, fragmentation of the conservative leadership, and prevalence of a political environment sympathetic to the Labour opposition in and outside Jordan. Under these circumstances, the meetings of the Central Council of the General Federation became heated. The opposition even succeeded in cancelling the internal constitution that was imposed on the Federation in 1971, pushing the Central Council to issue a new, more democratic one officially approved and published in early 1974.

The government authorities did not accept tipping the scales in favour of the opposition in the unions. Hence, the government started to mount a political campaign against the leftists and nationalists within the unions. The pretext was that the government considered these "destructive currents led by leftist elements, aiming to divert the track of the trade unions in favour of their own political goals." Furthermore, the authorities had resorted to introducing substantive amendments to the Labour Law of 1960 through the amendment of Article 84. Thus, the law provided that the minister has the right to classify the professions, handicrafts and industries in which workers may create unions. One of the amendments stipulated the right of the minister to define groups of professions, handicrafts and industries in which it is not allowed to form more than one union. This amendment prescribed that the decisions of the minister are applicable to existing unions 30 days after issuance. The amendment allowed whatever number of the executive com-

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mittees of dissolved trade unions or any 30 workers to submit an application to register a union to replace the abolished one. In this case, the new union is considered a legal successor to the previous one. The amendment of Article 84 was faced with a wave of objections led by the majority of the trade unions, who protested to the effect that forming unions is the sole prerogative of the union movement. They also held that re-organization of trade unions requires prior study and a two-year transitional period before any changes are undertaken. Meanwhile, the Government had separated the Ministry of Labour from the Ministry of Social Affairs and entrusted a liberal, Issam al-Ajlouni, with the portfolio. Thus, following long negotiations between the minister of Labour and the Labour leadership, it was decided to limit the number of trade unions, after re-organization, to 17. The government had called for limitation to 13 only. (The number of existing general trade unions was 23 at the time. Table 4 lists the names of the 17 trade unions and the number of their members.)

Thus, this re-organization led to abolition of some existing trade unions and the merging of others, which reduced the influence and representation of the Labour opposition.

Notwithstanding, the elections of 1976-77 revealed that the representatives of trade unions with conservative leaderships marginally succeeded over those unions with leaderships dominated by opposition or independent political powers. Nevertheless, the re-organization of trade unions had left long-term effects and resulted in increasing domination by the authorities of the Labour movement, dismantling its independence, and marginalizing its role in following phases, as we shall see below.

Independence and Decline of the Labour Movement (1976-89)

This phase witnessed great regression with respect to the weight and position of the Labour movement as well as an increasing marginalization of its demands and ambitions. Due to conflict between conservative and opposition trends on the one hand, and splitting the Labour opposition front and failure to develop its Labour discourse and program on the other, the union movement suffered steady exhaustion and decline of influence.

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Since the early 80s, the country experienced regression in economic growth and the bargaining power of Labour. This was due to growing unemployment and the competition of foreign Labour in Jordan accepting jobs for lower wages and benefits. This caused the union movement great challenges, among which are the restriction of migration of foreign Labour to Jordan and the preservation of wage levels. Following a policy aiming to neutralize the influence of political opposition forces within the Labour movement, the authorities disregarded violations of democratic union practices. They ignored many unions not holding periodic elections, or holding them in a superficial manner. This government conduct led, in the end, to the emergence of union elements that profit from dominating the leadership of the trade unions and the General Federation. This conduct also prevented the emergence of young blood among union figures. These facts distanced the Labour base from unions and contributed to the spread of resigned attitudes to change. Labourers lost confidence in the possibility of enhancing living conditions by joining unions.

Actually, the Labour movement had during this phase witnessed conspicuous manifestation of rigid union leadership ranks and no development of structures and expertise. These ranks remained mostly captive to the mentality of narrow, career-oriented union work. Likewise, most unions pursuing courses independent of the authorities failed to reach achievements surpassing frameworks and methods of conventional action. The majority of this leadership had aged while heading their unions. They did not allow the emergence of young union leaders, which led in turn to shrinkage of the Labour base and decline in its membership.

It is also imperative to point to susceptibility of the union movement in Jordan to the local, regional and international climate suppressing Labour organizations, under the influence of the Cold War, Arab divisions, and continuous application of martial law. These facts placed union and demand-oriented struggles in the framework of internal and regional political strife. They allowed the authorities to deal with these struggles as threats to national security and political stability, and not as a demands-oriented struggle between Labour and employers.

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The Jordanian Labour Movement in the Era of Democratic Openness (1989-2000)

Unlike other social movements (e.g. women, students, etc), which benefited from political change in Jordan during the 1990s, the Jordanian Labour Movement was not affected by the openness and democratic achievements that characterized the decade.

In the early 1990s through the mediation of the International Confederation of Arab Labour in Damascus, reconciliation was concluded between the factions of the Labour movement acting inside and outside Jordan. Pursuant to this, the Labour opposition leaders based in Damascus returned home, and retook the name of the legitimate General Federation of Labour Trade Unions. That ended a 20-year long era of isolation, which the main body of the Jordanian Labour Movement had endured separated from the Arab Labour Movement, represented by the International Confederation of the Arab Labour Trade Unions.

The Democratic Union Assembly was also constituted in the early 1990s, encompassing four trade unions led by the Communist Party: Health Services, Textiles, Electricity, and Banking, in addition to other trade unions and union branches. In other words, the Democratic Assembly represented about one half of the existing trade unions. This amounted to a crucial shift towards recovering the balance within the General Federation of the Trade Unions. After negotiation in which the government and the International Confederation of the Arab Labour Unions took part, agreement was reached on the Democratic Union Assembly being represented in the Executive Committee of the Federation and its other institutions.

Ending the Cold War, the fall of the USSR and its satellites in Eastern Europe, and the eruption of the Second Gulf War all left strong imprints on the structure of the Jordanian Labour Movement. Thus, the sole international pole that used to compete with the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) vanished, and the arena became free for the latter. That was a decisive event, returning the General Federation of Labour Trade Unions in Jordan to the ICFTU after having long been a mem-

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ber of the World Federation of Trade Unions (Prague), as most Arab federations had.

However, the impact of the fall of the USSR on the Jordanian Labour Movement was much greater on the unity and cohesion of the leftist current in the Labour movement, and ideologically. Many leftist parties active in the Labour trade unions split, causing decline of their influence in several trade unions, which they had dominated for many decades. Likewise, the Second Gulf War induced similar effects on the unity and cohesion of the opposition parties and consequently on their union extensions.

Attention should also be drawn to the continuing role played by the security forces’ interference in the Labour union movement, which led to the dismantling and cessation of the Democratic Union Assembly as well as to restraining the role of the Labour opposition. By mid-1994 this meant that the number of trade unions independent from the state had shrunk.

Nevertheless, the most prominent event in this phase was the convening of the Fifth General Conference of the Federation in 1994. This introduced a new constitution for the General Federation of the Trade Unions, the most significant features of which were concentration of authority in the Executive Committee at the expense of the Central Council and the General Assembly of the Federation. Likewise, the constitution aimed to negate the independence of member unions by imposing a unified framework on all seventeen trade unions. The new constitution also increased the term of the leadership in the trade unions from two years to four. Another important event was the ratification of a new Labour Law in 1996, after several decades of struggle for the enactment of a just and modern Labour law. While there were many positive aspects to this law, it did not meet aspirations of the Labour Movement, as will be shown in the fourth section of this study.

Generally, the 1990s did not witness positive developments on the level of Labour legislation and industrial relations. At the same time, living pressures on the Labour class were growing drastically because of continuation of economic recession, growing unemployment, and increased competition by foreign Labour against Jordanians. This explains growing tensions and Labour disputes during the last decade. On the other hand, bureaucratisation

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of the union movement grew steadily and leadership performance declined heavily, expanding the gap between the General Federation and the Labour base. All this encouraged government and employers to disregard the General Federation. The isolation of the leadership of the General Federation from the majority of civil society organizations grew. The political opposition dealt with the General Federation as an appendage of government and thus refused to involve it in joint activities of political parties and professional associations.

© Friedrich Ebert Stiftung | technical support | net edition fes-library | Januar 2002

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