Bahrain: Trade unions and the struggle for democracy

by David Binns (UCU London Retired Members)

MENA Solidarity’s Bahrain Briefing, posted on 21 May of this year, drew attention to the activities of a pro­-regime trade union network named the Bahrain Labour Union Free Federation (BLUFF). BLUFF emerged in 2012, in the aftermath of the Bahraini­Saudi joint state assault on democracy campaigners and independent labour movement organisations the preceding year. Leaders of the established General Federation of Bahraini Trade Unions (GFBTU) as well as the Bahraini Teachers’ Association (BTA) had denounced repressive state steps against pro­-democracy activists. In response, as the May Briefing noted, “attacks and victimisations of trade unionists increased over the following weeks”. These state actions included attempts to internationally isolate the GFBTU and dismissal of many among its leaders. Physical and legal attacks on BTA leaders in particular provoked international condemnation, not least from labour movement bodies.

BLUFF emerged in the midst of this struggle for democratic rights and trade union independence. In the two months since May, BLUFF has enlarged its publicity efforts. On 15th June, for example, Gulf Daily reported the federation’s most recent initiative to organise expatriate workers in the Bahraini construction industry. BLUFF’s vice­president, Bassem Kuwaitan, is quoted as saying: “Our challenge is to form one body that represents all Bahraini and expatriate workforce in the construction sector.”

Such articles, alongside materials on BLUFF’s own website (http://www.bflufbh.com/), contain elements that, viewed in a cursory way, may appear progressive, even radical sounding. Notable is the call for improved rights and condition or all employees in Bahrain, including migrants. Through its evocation of inclusive solidarity within union organisation, BLUFF is appealing to the human need to humanly assocate freely and equitably. Its programme depicts workers in Bahain as, under BLUFF and current regime auspices, moving into a strangely spectral paradise of selective rights and freedoms, while somehow remaining workers confronted by an imperially moulded and sustained, profoundly anti­democratic regime. BLUFF’s declared agenda, in other words, is an oddly inconsistent one, especially where the politics of trade unionism are concerned.

BLUFF has largely defined its project in terms of developing an alternative to the GFBTU. Its statements have been consistent and clear on this. The core objection is to the alleged unacceptable political content of GFBTU activity prior to the deadly state crackdown of 2011. Thus, in its 17th November 2012 account of the initial surfacing of BLUFF, BBC online reported:

“Mr Kuwaitan says the reason for the creation of a new federation was simple. The existing General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions (GFBTU), he claims, was ‘not labour related anymore’. ‘The GFBTU called a strike in March last year that was related to political issues. It was against the law. Labour unions should steer clear of politics,’ he adds.”

Kuwaitan’s key point pervades BLUFF’s project as a whole. Labour unions should stay clear of politics. But toward what kind of union politics in particular does the organisation focus its hostility? The BBC account, as quoted above, leaves no doubt that BLUFF’s apolitical stance is contrived to specifically oppose the GFBTU­-supported strike of March 2011. Labour unions, then, should stay clear of politics, but particularly (perhaps exclusively) where it is a matter of supporting democratisation.

Other aspects of Bahraini political life are viewed according to very different criteria by BLUFF and its spokespersons. On 4th December 2012 its website published lavish praise of prime minister Prince Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa. The occasion for the tribute was the “congratulating telegram” sent by “His Royal Highness” in support of BLUFF’s formation. Solidarity with and from hereditary princes, then, is endorsed as a noteworthy patriotic accomplishment. By contrast, democratising policies and actions are anathema to BLUFF to the point where, for the crime of promoting them, it denounces independent unions already under state siege.

What can Trade Unionists do?

Any non­defeatist approach to international solidarity with workers in Bahrain (and elsewhere in the Gulf) must reject outright BLUFF’s assertion that the struggle for democracy is no legitimate concern of working class bodies such as unions. Indeed it is precisely the struggle for a class approach to democratisation that international labour movement bodies need to address and support, including in the context of post­-2011 setbacks.

  • If you are a trade unionist, consider a motion along the lines of the model resolution published in the May 2014 resolution, still available online here
  • If you are a UCU member whose branch has not yet discussed and expressed solidarity with the victims of repression in Bahrain, specifically raise and publicise the ongoing assault by the Bahraini regime and its allies on the BTA. A short introduction to the issues involved in the BTA repression can be read here

An injury to one is an injury to all.

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