Jordanian Teachers Union Leaves Behind Legacy of Wins
One of the Middle East’s most active and militant labor unions has come and gone.
The Jordan Teachers’ Syndicate (JTS) was outlawed and dissolved by the government in July 2020. It represented around 140,000 teachers in the small country of 10 million people.
Now, dozens of teachers who protested the government crackdown against their union are being forced into early retirement, taking drastic pay cuts in the process. The union’s leader, Naser Nawasrah, has been singled out by the state and faces a set of criminal charges that could land him in prison for openly criticizing the government’s actions against the union.
The JTS’ only real crime was its plan to stage a nationwide pressure campaign to secure wage increases the government had previously promised the union’s members in 2019 following a month-long strike.
Jordan’s government’s forceful actions to crush the teachers reveals how threatening the JTS was to the country’s elite. And while the union’s downfall is tragic, it is also instructive. An outgrowth of a popular uprising, the JTS was firmly embedded in the communities for which it spoke. It represented both rural and urban teachers during its short life. Nearly every teacher in the country was represented by the JTS, meaning most Jordanian extended families had at least one JTS union member.
Teachers and union leaders have been resilient through the crackdown and the result has been an enduring solidarity from parents, students, and the families of teachers throughout Jordan. This offers hope that the JTS may return in the future or see its organizational efforts give rise to another union to replace it as a vehicle for democracy from below.
BACKBONE OF MOVEMENTS
Independent trade unions like the JTS have quietly served as the backbone for pushing popular demands in the Middle East and North Africa. The so-called Arab Spring of 2011 is heralded as a turning point during which social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter became critical political tools. At the core of many of the protesters’ grievances throughout the region stood the rising cost of living, stagnating wages, and utterly unresponsive governments captured by corrupt and unaccountable elites.
Behind the scenes, the popular movements in many countries were generated by radical organizers who had taken steadily greater risks to organize mass swathes of the population over a long period of time.
In the years leading up to the short-lived 2011 Egyptian revolution, for example, independent labor movements were organizing women and private sector workers to push for better conditions and to combat austerity measures. They gradually shifted tactics from factory occupations to strikes, which occurred more frequently and lasted longer in the run up to 2011.
Jordanians were among the first to respond to the Tunisian protests of late 2010 that set off the Arab Spring with actions of their own, thanks to a pre-existing network of organizers. Labor organizers from the small Jordanian town of Dhiban had first developed a workers’ movement of day laborers demanding permanent employment. They quickly formed youth committees to organize nationwide Friday protests, starting on January 7, 2011.
In the years prior, from 2006 to 2010, the radical actions of these day laborers throughout the country had inspired workers in other industries to stage their own strikes. These included a closely watched strike by dockworkers at the Port of Aqaba—the country’s only port—as well as strikes by phosphate miners. By the time Tunisians began protesting for better lives, Jordan’s grassroots organizers were well-positioned for the moment. There were 829 labor protests in Jordan in 2011, a massive increase from 2010, when there were only 139.
TEACHERS JOIN THE PROTESTS
As the 2011 Arab Spring protests gained momentum and thousands staged mass demonstrations in Jordan’s major cities and towns, the country’s teachers began contacting labor activists in Dhiban to ask for help in forming a union.
In the midst of the national tumult, teachers staged around 70 protests, including sit-ins and a strike. Police forces, which largely tolerated other protests, intervened against the teachers. They stopped buses full of teachers from rural areas of Jordan from entering the capital Amman to take part in the sit-ins, but this only delayed the inevitable. As a concession to the ongoing protests, Jordan’s government recognized the teachers’ union within a year.
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The JTS stood as the single biggest achievement of the 2011 mass movement. Most of the union’s members were public school teachers, meaning that their fight for wages was simultaneously a battle over the entire government’s budget priorities.
Since the 1980s, Jordan has been steadily cutting down on its public spending in order to fulfill loan conditions imposed on it by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other financial institutions. In the last 15 years, Jordan has cut livestock feed subsidies, driving rural populations to seek low-paying jobs in cities, slashed subsidies on staple food items like bread, hiked gas and electricity prices, and imposed a wildly unpopular tax aimed squarely at the precarious middle class.
In 2016, the government began implementing waves of austerity measures to repay a loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), sparking intermittent protests for the next several years. By 2019, the JTS had effectively mobilized its rank-and-file members to not only resist general cuts to public spending, but to demand higher pay.
Rather than siphoning money away to service external debts, JTS called for reinvestment into communities by paying teachers a living wage. The 50 percent pay increase demanded by the union would have transformed the average teacher’s salary, which hovered around the poverty line, into something that could support a small family.
To secure the wage increase, JTS launched an indefinite strike in September 2019 that shut down nearly every school in the country for a month. Then-Prime Minister Omar Razzaz threatened legal action against the union, and the government sent riot police to break up picket lines and coerce teachers back into classrooms.
WAVE OF POPULAR DISCONTENT
By October 5, the government capitulated to the union’s demands, but after the Covid pandemic broke out, officials announced they would be unable to afford the pay raises they had initially promised.
JTS reacted quickly by drafting a document outlining a national pressure campaign to secure the wage increases won during their 2019 strike. The document, which was posted publicly in Arabic on the JTS website, included calls to engage in formal dialogues with the government, coordinate with other unions, garner grassroots support through tribal leaders, and organize direct actions like sit-ins, hunger strikes, and marches. Many Jordanians belong to tribes, which carry significant political sway with the Monarchy and whose support is crucial to the success of any national action. If these steps failed, JTS would call for yet another indefinite strike.
To stop the campaign before it began, the government raided all 13 JTS regional offices, arrested its leadership board, and outlawed the union. These actions sparked the largest wave of popular discontent Jordan had seen since the 2011 Arab Spring.
Tens of thousands poured into the streets to defend the union and posted messages of solidarity on social media despite a gag order censoring discussion of the crackdown. To many, the willingness of JTS to mobilize against austerity was rare. Jordan allows no serious electoral opposition to its monarchy, and maintains a tight fist around the few recognized labor unions.
The dissolution of JTS is a step back for organizing the country’s working class. As the Covid pandemic forces governments around the world to take on debt to finance their ailing economies and crippled public health sectors, a new round of austerity measures are on the way. If the past is anything to go by, these efforts to squeeze public budgets will be enforced anti-democratically—by riot police and legislative maneuvers that further restrict workers’ ability to organize.
It is also in these moments that organizations like JTS are born and become critical conduits for the working class. Perhaps we have not seen the last of the teachers union.
Ty Joplin is a journalist covering labor rights and repression in the Middle East.