Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Arab Trade Syndicate Movement: The Rise and Fall

The glow of the Arab trade syndicate movement gradually began to wane, eventually reaching the state of extreme weakness that we currently witness.

Arab Trade Syndicate Movement
Lebanese shout slogans during a march organised by the communist party to celebrate International Workers Day. ANWAR AMRO / AFP

Ali Noureddine

This article was translated from Arabic to English

Unlike the current state of affairs, the trade syndicate movement in the Arab region has historically assumed roles far broader than mere demands and trade syndicate functions, significantly impacting the overall political landscape in numerous countries within the region.

Since its inception in the first half of the 20th century, the trade syndicate movement in Arab nations gained notable momentum during both the colonial and post-independence eras. This was especially evident with the proliferation of nationalist and leftist ideologies and other belief systems that promoted workers’ unity and organization.

Several factors contributed to this surge in syndicate activity, including the development of industrial production, the expansion of paid employment in impoverished urban areas and the dissemination of notions related to labor rights and fair wages, among other themes central to the trade syndicate struggle.

During this period, the growth of the trade syndicate movement could be observed in countries such as Lebanon, Palestine, Tunisia, Algeria, Syria, Egypt and other Arab nations. Additionally, there was a discernible progression in the trade syndicate movement within numerous Arab Gulf countries, particularly in the oil industry sector.

However, the glow of the Arab trade syndicate movement gradually began to wane, eventually reaching the state of extreme weakness that we currently witness. These developments were driven by a combination of political factors, such as the limited scope of public freedoms in the vast majority of Arab nations, societal divisions along sectarian or ethnic lines, and the prevalence of military conflicts and civil wars.

Economic factors also contributed to this trend, including the decline of key productive sectors, which had historically served as the primary incubators for robust labor organizations.

The Arab trade syndicate movement renaissance in the 20th century

Starting in the early 20th century, Arab countries underwent significant societal, economic, political and intellectual transformations which proved instrumental in energizing the activities of trade syndicates and professional associations within these nations.

In Syria and Lebanon, well before the countries attained their independence, a substantial labor force emerged, primarily in textile and tobacco factories. This workforce burgeoned alongside the expanding industrial activity in these sectors, leading to a migration of laborers from villages to urban peripheries, where job opportunities in the industrial sector thrived.

However, these societal shifts also bred pockets of poverty and destitution in these suburban areas, coupled with various forms of deprivation experienced by industrial workers, notably in terms of wages, leave entitlements, healthcare, workplace safety standards and other aspects. It is evident that this industrial growth came at the cost of exacerbating social inequality and widening disparities among different social classes, as indicated by contemporary studies.

At the same time, the working classes in Lebanon and Syria became increasingly engaged in political activities driven by various ideological forces influenced by leftist, socialist and nationalist ideals. Consequently, the confluence of grievances and social demands with political advocacy motivated workers to establish syndicates that could effectively organize their collective demands and engage in political activities.

For instance, one can understand the pivotal role played by the “Lebanese People’s Party” (later transforming into the “Lebanese Communist Party”) in the establishment of the “General Syndicate of Tobacco Workers” in 1924, the “General Federation of Workers and Employees Syndicates” in 1944, and various other syndicates.

Over time, the trade syndicate movement in Lebanon and Syria assumed prominent roles, both in opposing French colonialism prior to the countries’ independence and in organizing strikes and demonstrations against successive post-independence governments.

Indeed, the trade syndicate movement in both nations secured certain concessions for the working class, including the enactment of the Labor Law in Lebanon in 1946 and in Syria in 1959, the establishment of the Social Assistance Fund in Lebanon in 1942, and the introduction of a social security system for workers in industry, trade and professions in 1959.

Notably, leftist organizations that supported the trade syndicate movement during this period benefited from the political, financial and ideological support of the Soviet Syndicate.

In Palestine, the expansion of the industrial labor force was a consequence of the British Mandate’s encouragement for Palestinians to transition from agricultural work to paid employment, particularly in ports, infrastructure projects and railways constructed by Britain to serve its interests. This background clarifies the origins of Palestinian syndicate activity, which began with the Railway Workers Syndicate before the establishment of the Palestinian Arab Workers Association in 1925.

Subsequently, political developments compelled Palestinian syndicates to shift their focus from traditional labor issues toward resistance against British colonialism and Zionist settlement activities. Consequently, Palestinian syndicates had to prioritize political activism over narrow labor concerns.

Similarly, the emergence of trade syndicate movements in Arab countries during the 20th century was influenced by prevailing political climates and modes of production.

Notably, in Bahrain, Kuwait and Iraq, trade syndicates saw significant growth within the oil sector, corresponding with the expansion of employment opportunities in this industry. As a result, these syndicates played instrumental roles in securing significant improvements in working conditions and employment terms.

In the case of Algeria, the trade syndicate movement initially developed independently from French syndicates in 1956, swiftly becoming involved in acts of resistance against French colonial rule. Thus, the launch of the trade syndicate movement in Algeria was intrinsically linked to the broader political movement advocating for independence, rather than being rooted in economic or social transformations.

Prior to 1956, Algerian syndicates were associated with the French General Confederation of Labor, which excluded local leaders from prominent positions. This historical context clarifies why the Algerian trade syndicate movement prioritized the struggle for independence before addressing conventional labor concerns.

Much like in Algeria, the trade syndicate in Tunisia originated as a response to the desire to disengage from French trade syndicate organizations. This began with the establishment of the “University of the Tunisian Currency” in 1924, followed by the creation of the Tunisian Labor Syndicate in 1946.

In Tunisia, the trade syndicate movement pursued a multifaceted agenda, addressing both daily public affairs and social disparities, particularly those perpetuated by French colonial authorities against Tunisian workers.

Consequently, the Tunisian trade syndicate movement assumed a dual role: first, as a force in resisting colonialism, and second, as an influential political actor negotiating with authorities to safeguard the interests of Tunisian workers.

To this day, the Tunisian federation continues to wield substantial political influence within Tunisia, setting it apart from other Arab trade syndicate federations.

The decline of the Arab trade syndicate movement: Political and economic factors

More than ever, the Arab region is currently witnessing a decline in the influence and role of trade syndicate organizations in shaping public political life. This transformation results from a complex interplay of political, social, and economic factors, alongside shifts in the perspectives and inclinations of intellectual elites within Arab nations.

Over the past few decades, numerous Arab regimes have sought to align trade syndicates with the political interests of ruling parties. This pattern was evident in countries like Iraq and Syria during the Baath Party’s rule, and in Egypt during the various eras that followed the monarchy’s abolition in 1952.

Consequently, many syndicates lost their autonomy and their capacity to effectively challenge government policies, even relinquishing their primary mission of safeguarding their members’ interests.

In certain instances, such as the situation in Syria after Hafez al-Assad’s ascent to power, syndicates became instruments for advancing policies that directly contradicted the welfare of the working class. In Syria’s case, the country’s division militarily now prevents the formation of a coherent, nationwide trade syndicate movement.

In Lebanon, trade syndicates faced challenges during the 1975-1990 civil war and subsequently succumbed to the influence of sectarian parties, transforming them into instruments of sectarian polarization within the country, instead of prioritizing their original objectives.

The economic collapse in Lebanon in 2019 led to the depletion of funds in Lebanese banks, rendering trade syndicates and professional associations unable to provide benefits such as healthcare coverage, severance pay and maternity benefits, which they traditionally offered through member subscriptions.

At the same time, many Arab nations, including Lebanon, Tunisia and Syria, saw a decline in their core productive sectors, particularly in industry and agriculture. This loss eroded a critical segment of the workforce, which had previously united to protect their interests and rights.

To underscore the gravity of this crisis, the International Labor Organization’s Regional Office for Arab States reported that the Arab region ranks as the worst in the world today in terms of productivity growth in these sectors, comparing data from the 1950s until today the present.

These changes coincided with shifts in employment dynamics, including the rise of remote service-based work, temporary contracts and independent freelancers working for multiple clients.

Consequently, syndicates lost traction among workers who no longer congregated in central workplaces like factories and large corporations. These shifts favored major companies, enhancing their bargaining power when dealing with unorganized independent workers.

Furthermore, intellectual transformations occurred as elites distanced themselves from the ideologies that had prevailed over the past century, particularly socialist and nationalist movements that historically promoted syndicate organization.

Consequently, the trade syndicate movement lost some of the political support it once enjoyed, which had played a pivotal role in establishing syndicates and federations across many Arab countries in the first half of the 20th century.

The revival of the Arab trade syndicate movement in its historical form faces substantial challenges. As a result, it is imperative for the movement to explore new strategies to overcome the political and economic barriers hindering its growth.

The complete absence of the trade syndicate movement, as is the case in the majority of Arab countries today, risks marginalizing the concerns and priorities of low-income individuals, potentially leading to the neglect of these issues in government policies and plans.