All photos courtesy of Sherbel Dissi.
An escalating political dispute between the austerity-minded Jordanian government and increasingly precarious working and middle classes reached a fever pitch on July 25, when police raided the offices of the powerful Jordanian Teachers’ Syndicate (JTS) and arrested its leaders. State authorities then quickly announced the teachers’ union would be outlawed for a period of two years, and any remaining JTS matters would be handled by a governmental body.
The move triggered a nationwide outcry with massive protests in solidarity with the union sweeping across Jordan’s cities and towns. From the northern metropolitan hubs of Amman and Irbid to its southern and more rural areas of Kerak and Tafileh, thousands of teachers and pro-union supporters have challenged a state crackdown against them.
JTS leaders, who organized one of the longest strikes in Jordan’s history in 2019, have gone on a hunger strike to protest their arbitrary detention. Meanwhile, throughout July and August protesters have been confronting the police while giving impassioned speeches on the importance of the teachers’ union.
A state-imposed media ban on covering the crackdown against JTS means there is very little reporting on the matter, but the dispute is emblematic of a global political dynamic. In Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, Sudan and dozens of other countries around the world, people have mobilized in droves to counter neoliberal policies, rampant corruption and obstinate authoritarianism. Independent labor unions have often played an organizing role in these protests, since their ability to generate serious demands can undermine state authority.
Independent unions, like the JTS, have in many cases been part of networks of resistance and solidarity aimed at generating democracy from below without relying on state-approved political avenues that are designed to pacify rather than energize the populace. Most dramatically in Sudan these union-led efforts evolved into a full-blown revolution that ousted the 30-year-old dictatorship of Omar al-Bashir in 2019.
In Jordan however, the demands are more modest: the teachers want the state to prioritize public welfare and give them the wage increases they were initially promised by the government. Instead of higher pay, teachers are being arrested by the dozen.
Direct Action Versus the State
The Jordan Teachers Syndicate is a rare feature in Jordan’s tightly controlled political landscape. Created in the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring that temporarily riled the country and covering all public school teachers as well as many private school teachers, the union boasts a membership of about 100,000 people. In a country of roughly 10 million, the JTS represents a substantial portion of the labor pool.
Whereas many organizations in Jordan are either entirely co-opted or heavily influenced by the long reach of the state and its secret police, the JTS has remained independent and often openly criticizes government policies it sees as harmful to the educational system and its workers.
Its members also come from nearly every background in the country. Becoming a teacher has been one of the few viable means of gaining economic security in Jordan’s constantly beleaguered economy, so the JTS includes both Jordanian and Palestinian, urban and rural members. In other words, nearly every extended family in Jordan includes one or more members of the JTS.
Since its founding, the JTS has represented a critical means to air grievances against attempts to shrink Jordan’s public sector. While the state has attempted to satiate anti-corruption and anti-austerity protests by channeling outrage into superficial electoral challenges via dissolving parliament and calling for early elections, the JTS, as well as a number of other professional unions, has instead consistently opted for direct action in the form of walk-outs and strikes.
The Jordanian state has, for decades, attempted to balance its heavy dependence on imports and foreign aid with the promise that jobs will always be found by joining the public sector, either through the military, bureaucracy or as a teacher. This began to shift decisively in 2016, when the government accepted terms of an International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan that came with recommendations to quickly scale back public spending.
The government began hiking up gas and electricity prices, as well as devising a new tax law aimed squarely at the country’s middle class. Short episodes of protest culminated into a general strike on May 30, 2018.
Over 30 unions jointly demanded an end to austerity and a repeal of the tax law. In addition, regular protests were organized and thousands of Jordanians marched towards the prime minister’s office in Amman. On June 14, Jordan’s king ordered the resignation of the country’s prime minister, Hani Mulki, and replaced him with the popular education minister, Omar al-Razzaz, who was known as a reformer.
Despite the sleight of hand from the state, the austerity agenda remained firmly in place.
A People’s Union Emerges
In September 2019, after over a year of IMF-recommended public sector cuts and a series of failed negotiations with the government, the JTS initiated an indefinite strike.
The primary demand was a 50 percent increase in wages the JTS said was agreed upon initially in 2014. As it stood, the average teacher’s salary barely hovered above the country’s poverty line of $515 a month in income for a family of five. The wage increase would have merely guaranteed teachers a level of stability, not prosperity. However, the demand countered the core drive of the government’s monetary policy at the time, which was to do everything it could to transfer wealth out of the public and into the private sector.
Teachers marching through the streets were met with the full force of Jordan’s police. Crowds of teachers gathering in Amman were hit with tear gas and batons, while stragglers were arrested.
Naser Nawasrah, vice president of the JTS at the time, quickly gained a reputation for being an outspoken, direct critic of government’s actions. “[The teachers] will not enter the classrooms until those responsible for transgressions against teachers… are held accountable,” he said after a particularly violent encounter early on.
The strike shut down nearly the entire country’s educational system for four weeks, as the government repeatedly refused to meet the demands of JTS while threatening its leaders with legal reprisals.
Finally on October 5, 2019, the government agreed to wage increases. School resumed, ending one of the largest and longest strikes in Jordan’s history. “The teachers got their demands,” Nawasrah proclaimed.
The victory soon proved to be short-lived.
A Brutal Crackdown
Police in Amman, Jordan. July, 2020. Photo by Sherbel Dissi.
The government attempted to issue basic food and medicinal necessities to cities under lockdown and managed to keep overall infection rates to manageable levels. But amidst this lockdown, it announced all pay raises in the public sector would be suspended. The JTS had again been denied the wage increase it had been promised twice.
In response, the JTS began organizing a public campaign to secure their pay raise. The campaign’s plan was launched on July 13: it called for renewed dialogue with the government, a national strategy of increasing public pressure via media appearances and talks with tribal leaders, marches throughout the governorates and sit-ins. If these failed, the JTS plan included another indefinite strike.
The state reacted quickly. On July 25, police raided each of the JTS’ 11 branches, arrested all 13 of its council members and issued a gag order to the local press barring coverage of the crackdown.
The union’s vice president Nawasrah, who was being threatened by intelligence agents for openly speaking out against the government’s actions, was driving between Amman and Irbid when he was stopped by police. A family member of Nawasrah told Human Rights Watch that his car had been surrounded by government SUVs and that a bag was placed over his head when he was being detained.
In Kerak, JTS members asked police officers if they had a warrant for the raid of their office. “I am the warrant,” one officer responded defiantly.
Government officials said the union had violated the law but failed to give specific details, and that it would be made defunct for two years. The targeting of the JTS, one of the country’s most popular vehicles to resist austerity, caused a chain reaction in Jordan.
A Quiet Revolt
Tens of thousands gathered publicly to decry the government’s decision in one of the largest mobilizations of dissent since 2011.
In Irbid, Amman, Kerak, Tafileh, Jerash, Salt and other towns, JTS members and supporters marched in solidarity with the union throughout August, braving violence from the police. Large gatherings blocked highways and other major thoroughfares in cities, while marches filled downtown districts.
In the absence of media coverage, social media platforms like Twitter, WhatsApp, Telegram and TikTok became the primary means to share information regarding the protests. Hashtags translating to “with the teachers,” and “solidarity with the teachers’ union” began to trend locally.
Fiery speeches from union members circulated widely on Jordan’s social media. And as the government justified its crackdown with nationalist “law and order” rhetoric while implying the protests were unpatriotic, protesters began challenging this narrative with their own appeals.
In one video, a teacher faces down the riot police, exclaiming “I am the country, I am the nation. I taught you how to love the nation. I taught you the national anthem! I taught you how to draw the flag. How do you dare to raise an arm at me?!” Another teacher was filmed explicitly linking the cause of the JTS to a sense of pride: “When we defend the cause of the teachers, we defend our own dignity.”
Other videos of police brutality also went viral inside Jordan, with one clip showing a protesting woman being harassed and hit by plainclothes officers being widely shared and condemned in the country. Another video shows protesters throwing rocks at heavily armed police carriers; an action that carries the grave risk of being tortured by police in one of Jordan’s notorious detention sites — one of which in Amman bears the local nickname “the fingernail factory.”
The JTS’ potency as a political force
Protests raged throughout August. They dwarfed the anti-austerity protests of 2018 in size, scope and intensity. The detained JTS’ council is still reportedly engaged in a hunger strike. Nawasrah, who suffers from a heart condition, has been allegedly denied medication and treatment.
More than anything the demonstrations indicate just how important the JTS was to millions of Jordanians. That the state feels so threatened by the teachers’ union that it risks a national revolt by the working and middle class shows the potency of the JTS as a political force. Rather than simply asking for different managers overseeing Jordan’s financialization, the JTS’ demands were based on reorienting the state’s priorities away from the edicts of the IMF and back towards the bulk of the population.
It is yet unclear whether the JTS will eventually be allowed to operate again independently or if the government takeover spells its end as a popular force for social change. But while the teachers’ union played an important role in spearheading this particular fight for greater economic democracy, the network it helped to build is growing and radicalizing.
The resistance of the JTS shows the power of the strike in galvanizing support and mobilizing diverse networks of solidarity in society. Even if the crackdown has temporarily stymied the growing movement towards a more robust commons, the possibility for a greater and more militant response has appeared on the horizon.
The struggle of the JTS has received almost no international coverage, but the cause it represents is part of a global struggle against state forces enforcing market liberalization schemes through the barrel of a gun. The case of the JTS has proven once again that when strikes cease to be a feasible option in levying demands onto the state, the next step is to revolt.
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