Teachers rewrite Jordan's rules of strike action

Extended work stoppage is unprecedented among state employees in the kingdom

Jordanian teachers clash with security forces during a protest in the capital Amman on September 5, 2019. Thousands of public school teachers marched in central Amman demanding higher wages, just four days after the start of school year, as the Jordan Teachers Association's (JTA) demanded a 50 percent salary increase according to its leader. / AFP / Khalil MAZRAAWI
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Jordan’s teachers are changing the game in labour negotiations by state employees as their work stoppage continues for a fourth week in a bid to extract a long-promised pay rise that the government can now ill afford.

The teachers’ unprecedented action appears to have struck a chord among normally strike-averse Jordanians struggling with a poor economy and austerity measures, with analysts and citizens saying such stoppages could become the norm in future dealings with the kingdom’s revolving-door governments.

Jordan’s professional associations, also known as unions or syndicates, have been a bastion of political organisation since the ban on political parties during the martial law era of 1967-1989.

But rather than labour issues, many syndicates have restricted their activism to regional concerns, holding marches and rallies in support of the Palestinian cause, protesting against the US-led war in Iraq, and against the Jordan-Israel gas deal.

The Jordan Teachers Syndicate (JTS), the kingdom’s largest labour group with 140,000 members, has taken a different approach since its formation in 2012. Two years later, teachers stopped work for a week, leading to the promise of a 50 cent pay increase. However, the government was replaced before the increase was fully implemented. Starting monthly salaries were instead increased gradually to only 370 Jordanian dinars (Dh1,917), leading to the current strike in which teachers are demanding that it be raised to 400-420 dinars.

Lack of trust

Jordan has seen three prime ministers and seven governments since then, most of whom ignored the agreement. The current government of Prime Minister Omar Razzaz has said the agreement was not a promise, but simply a general pledge to improve teachers’ conditions.

The experience of 2014 led to the teachers’ uncompromising stance this time, highlighting a widespread lack of trust in government.

"We have no stability in our governments and we as teachers need guarantees that this government will stay and follow through on its word,"JTS spokesman Noureddine Nadim told The National.

“We have a crisis of confidence right now in this government or any government because there is no security that our demands will actually be realised.”

Also rare for Jordan, the teachers have insisted on negotiating directly with the prime minister rather than the lower-level politicians or tribal leaders often used to defuse tensions and mediate issues in Jordanian society.

Teachers say their lesson from 2014 is that any promise must be “ink on paper” before they return to the classroom.

“This is a sign of a wider belief that there is a systemic problem with the running of the state and governments’ promises and words mean very little,” says Amer Sabaileh, a Jordanian geopolitical analyst.

Copying tactics

Other associations and labour groups are taking note.

Not long after the teachers began their strike on September 5, the doctors of the Jordan Medical Association and the Jordan Nurses Association threatened protests unless the government fulfilled a years-old promise to revise their pay scales.

The medical unions suspended “all escalatory measures” on September 19 after the government agreed to revamp their pay and incentives system, “to provide the opportunity for the agreement to be implemented".

Even imams held an emergency summit in Irbid, northern Jordan, last week to call on the government to pass a long-promised law to legally recognise their union, as ordered by the constitutional court in 2013, and to raise their salaries by 100 per cent as promised by the government in 2012.

Salaries for imams start at 270 dinars per month, and 220 a month for muezzins.

The teachers’ strike has created a difficult situation for the Razzaz government, which has forced through a series of austerity measures and tax increases to address the crisis over public debt - currently at 95 per cent of GDP.

“The government seems to believe that even if they could financially agree to the union’s demands, it sets the stage for other syndicates and other sectors of government employees to demand salary increases and do the same,” says Musa Shteiwi, director of the Centre for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan.

Popular support

The teachers have the sympathy of a large section of Jordanians who are also struggling to cope with rising costs as a result of inflation, higher taxes and subsidy cuts, even though the strike has disrupted children’s education.

“Another factor leading to sympathy for the teachers is that the government is very unpopular, and that has led to tolerance for a general strike like this,” says Mr Shteiwi.

Abu Mohammed, 42, a lawyer in Amman, refuses to blame the teachers even though the strike has affected his two sons’ preparations for the Tawjihi exam, the main criteria for university admissions.

“You have to exhibit patience and hope everything ends well for everyone,” he says.

“We have never seen anything like this strike in Jordan before, but it shows that we are civilised, politically mature and able to resolve disputes without violence.”

Mr Sabaileh, the analyst, says such an attitude suggests this form of protest is likely to catch on.

“This represents a change in culture. Before it was taboo to strike as most Jordanians worked for the state, but the way this has been mishandled has created a sense of solidarity among government employees and citizens.

“There will certainly be future strikes and work stoppages, as this is being shown as an effective tool that can have an impact.”