Palestinian Arab Workers
In the years spanning 1919-1939, Palestinian Arab workers responded to the opportunity of mass industrial employment by developing large organizations that would protect their employment interests against those of their employers. At the same time, they struggled for the government's assistance in protecting their personal and class interests. In spite of the significant irregularity in the economic and political situations surrounding Palestine, Arab workers persisted in organizing and maintaining these unions. Their strengths or weaknesses were largely dictated by the demand for labor as well as the shifting alliances with political and civil interest groups, the perceptions and interests of the union leaders and members and the government.
The effect that the British occupation of Palestine had on Arab workers was not unlike similar situations in Western colonies however, in many of the other colonies, the Westerners merely ruled, but in Palestine they also settled. Colonized workers found they had to deal more frequently with the inequities demonstrated by the management where they worked and with the disrespect from their European co-workers. These European co-workers had successfully formed their own unions, which had garnered higher wages and better working conditions, often at the expense of the local workers. This situation was primary in prompting the development of Arab worker unions.
The union activity cultivated by Palestinian Arabs was largely nationalist and took several forms including religion-based worker's societies, benevolent associations and even employee-employer groups like the Jerusalem Car Owners and Drivers. Their employers were often the least of their problems and they contended more often with the Zionist settlement and the British practice of contracting with Jewish businesses. The disparity was evidenced in the dramatic difference between the wages earned by Arab employees and Jewish workers.
The Arab worker's unions saw rapid growth in the early 1930s however the Arab Revolt was responsible for a major decline and the potential elimination of these unions from 1936 to 1939. Fortunately, the years of developing and maintaining a union stronghold prepared Arab workers for the change and with ability to start again once the political strife was tempered.
In spite of the difficulties and discontent surrounding its development, the history of the Arab worker unions in Palestine is significant because it demonstrates that the Palestinian Arabs were not against methods of change when confronted with a new and rather troublesome situation, regardless of the common perception that they were hesitant when it came to forfeiting traditional ways. Their adoption of a largely Western practice of unionization, especially in a largely capitalist workplace is substantial proof that this perception is, to some degree, unfounded.