On July 27-28, 200 trade unionists from the higher education, electricity, telecommunications, finance, municipal services, pharmaceutical and health-care sectors in the Israeli-occupied West Bank attended a conference to set up the Coalition of Independent and Democratic Trade Unions and Workers' Committees.
The conference, which was organised around the theme of "Decent work and life", was called by the Ramallah-based Democracy and Workers Right Centre (DWRC) and brought together representatives of some 50,000 Palestinian workers.
Addressing the opening ceremony of the conference, DWRC general director Hassan Barghouti said that the most important challenge facing Palestinian unionists was to "unify the movement on a democratic basis".
Currently there are four competing labour federations in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) — three controlled by the Fatah party of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and one by Hamas. None of these federations have had genuinely democratic elections of their leaderships in recent years. Appointments and distribution of positions on their executive boards have been made by the party machines rather than by the federations' memberships.
This situation has considerably weakened the trade union movement. Barghouti said that it was therefore necessary "to create a movement independent of political factions in order to truly represent the will of Palestinian workers".
On July 28, union delegates attending the conference voted to establish a new independent, grassroots labour coalition and elected a new executive committee of 15 members.
According to Nabil Jinawi, the president of the Palestinian Telecommunication and Information Technology Trade Union, the new coalition will not be "like existing labour federations. Instead, it will be active toward serving the workers in all the sectors that it represents, uphold democratic standards, and improving the lives of workers."
He went on to say that democratic, independent unions could and should play a role in empowering ordinary Palestinian workers and "civil society". According to Jinawi: "Because unions are connected to political parties, they stood on one side or another [of the Fatah-Hamas power struggle] instead of fighting for workers' rights. Having politically independent union coalitions strengthens civil society and stops political killing."
Hanan Bannourah, one of the three women elected to the executive committee, said that it was important for union officials to represent their membership, not political parties.
The executive committee will hold another meeting within the next two weeks to agree on a general agenda for the coalition.