For decades, the Arab world knew nothing of independent trade unions. The unions that did exist were state-controlled, reflecting the ideologies (in particular, Arab nationalism) of the ruling parties.
Eight years ago, the first of the new independent unions was born in Iraq following the fall of Saddam. In Iran, long before the contested presidential election, unofficial unions were already posing a serious to the regime.
And then suddenly last year Mubarak fell, and with him the ‘unions’ that had done so little to protect workers as the country moved in a neo-liberal direction.
Today, all over the Middle East and North Africa, independent workers groups are organising. Next weekend many of them are meeting for the first time in Istanbul at the “Global Solidarity Conference” organised by LabourStart, the UK-based trade union news website.
One must not underestimate the problems those unions face, not least of which are internal divisions. In organising the conference, I’ve become acutely aware that from Iran to Morocco, there are widely divergent approaches to trade unionism and strong differences of opinion. The presence of two rival groups from Palestine, and two rival unions from Israel, underlines the problem.
And yet they are all coming to Istanbul, united in spite of all that divides them, preparing for the workshops and plenaries and the all-important informal meetings. In my view, we may be witnessing the birth of something new – a democratic labour movement in a region that has never know one before.