AT A JANUARY press conference, a group of Palestinian political leaders revealed their demands for ending the uprising in the occupied territories. High on their list: reopening Palestinian trade unions banned by the Israelis and ending military intervention in internal union affairs.
In recent years, union activists in the territories have faced severe harassment from Israeli military authorities. Union offices have been raided or closed, publications censored or confiscated and union leaders detained without charge or even deported.
Attacks on the unions have continued despite objections from the International Labour Office (ILO), which has monitored conditions in the West Bank and Gaza since 1978.
After a visit to the territories last year, a team of ILO observers reported that "the tension between the authorities and the trade unionists is . . . translated into practice by the arrest, deportation, house arrest and administrative detention of trade unionists... said by army representatives to be political leaders." Freedom to organize is listed as a basic human right in the ILO charter--to which Israel is a signatory.
Israeli authorities, however, have refused to register any unions in the territories since 1979. Under Jordanian law, which still governs labor relations in the West Bank, employers can refuse to recognize or bargain with unregistered unions, the ILO report noted.
Despite such obstacles, the Palestinian union movement has grown steadily over the past several years. Activists claim about 20 percent of all workers in the territories are organized, and about 160 unions are active there, according to the ILO. Many are affiliated with the General Federation of Trade Unions (GFTU), an umbrella organization that pre-dates Israeli rule, but rival groups have arisen in recent years to challenge the GFTU's predominance.
While closely identified with some political factions within the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the unions have largely focused their efforts on "bread and butter" issues--attempting to build popular support by winning better wages and benefits for their members. The unions also offer legal advice and financial assistance, and some have set up health insurance schemes for workers and their families.
In addition, some unions have become involved in consumer cooperative efforts, attempting to stimulate the local economy in the territories by selling Palestinian-made goods at below market prices.
Although they are not legally recognized in Israel proper, the Palestinian unions have sought to help residents of the territories who work there by forming "defense committees" to negotiate informally with Israeli employers over wages and working conditions. These efforts have met with mixed success-- in some cases winning concessions, in other cases leading to firings and arrests.
Over the Green Line
Such commuter workers also must register at the official labor exchanges that have been set up in the West Bank and Gaza. The Israeli government, however, estimates that about 30 percent of all Palestinian workers lack the proper permits. The Palestinians say the figure is actually closer to 60 percent.
While unregistered Palestinians risk arrest and harassment if caught working in Israel, they also are able to avoid the heavy taxes and fees deducted from the paychecks of registered workers.
"I worked for three years through the labor office and no one ever told us what benefits we were entitled to," one worker explained. "They were taking over 25 percent of our wages and giving us nothing in return."
(balance of this article omitted here; unscannable)
FACTS ON FILE
Head of Government: Prime Minister, Yitzhak Shamir.