The Landscape of Labor Protest in Jordan: Between State Repression and Popular Solidarity

Matthew Lacouture, University of Chicago

Workers in Jordan face considerable obstacles to mobilization. Organizationally, workers in the 17 official unions—under the General Federation of Jordanian Trade Unions (GFJTU)—have had little autonomy from the state since the 1970s, while, prior to 2010, migrant workers and workers in the civil service were barred from joining or forming unions.[1] Structurally, Jordan’s labor force remains atomized across public and private sectors and includes a significant reliance on migrant workers as well as refugee populations.[2] In other words, workers in Jordan lack many of the forms of associational and economic power that workers elsewhere in the region possess (see Matta and Al-Sholi, this volume). Yet, previous studies, mostly focusing on studies of single movements, have shown not only that workers in Jordan have been able to mobilize around their own interests, but they have also played an important role in generating and bolstering wider mass contention.[3] To explain how, this essay assesses the landscape of labor activism in Jordan. I demonstrate that some workers have been able to mobilize, in part, by appealing to popular solidarity in their broader communities.

Following Blanc and Eidlin, I argue that workers—particularly public sector workers—possess the capacity to generate “political and social crises”, which can facilitate mobilization and help attain both workplace and broader social aims.[4]  Social and political crises have two main effects. First, they compel the state to respond, providing workers with the opportunity to shape public discourse. Second, in doing so, they command public attention, building popular solidarity through the creation of “shared communities of fate”. As developed by Ahlquist and Levi, this latter concept has been primarily used to explain how some labor leaderships have been able to convince their members to move beyond “economism”—i.e., a focus on “relatively narrow and specific job-related interests”—to view their welfare as entwined with that of their broader communities.[5] By contrast, this essay asks: under what circumstances are community members more likely to see their welfare as entwined with that of labor organizations? To answer this question, I argue that we must look to the context of historical state-labor and state-society relations.

Social Crises, Communities of Fate, and Public Sector Labor

Historical State Obligations

In many MENA states—including Jordan—public sector employment has been a central feature of post-colonial state-society “pacts”, in which authoritarian states traded loyalty for expanded economic opportunities for many citizens (see Hertog, this volume). More than economic bargains, they constituted “moral economies” wherein employment and welfare by the state took on a particular moral valence, both as a right of citizenship and as a vector for fair economic redistribution. In the case of Jordan, the state’s discourse has routinely referred to state-employees—including teachers and workers in the recently-privatized sectors (particularly the port and mining sectors)—as the heart of national development.[6] Most families have at least one extended member employed in the public sector.[7]

Jordan’s neoliberal economic reform project has produced widespread immiseration over the last 20 years. In this new neoliberal landscape of public sector austerity and privatization, the fates of public sector workers and their broader communities remain entwined. The image of destitute, demeaned, and repressed public sector workers exemplify and symbolize the state’s failure to live up to its historical welfare and redistributive obligations vis-à-vis the Jordanian people. Given this historical context, I argue that public sector workers have been able to generate and foster shared communities of fate—and thus mobilize under highly repressive conditions—through the production of social and political crises, which have brought workers, state actors, and broader communities into direct contact (and confrontation) in the public sphere.

Three recent cases of worker mobilization demonstrate the possibilities and limits of popular solidarity as a weapon of organized labor in Jordan: day wage laborers, privatized workers at the Aqaba Port Corporation, and public-school teachers.

Labor Activism in the Public Sector

In 2006, informal workers in the Ministry of Agriculture (MoA)—paid by the day and denied the wages, benefits, and privileges of formal public sector workers—began to mount a series of protests in highly-visible state spaces, such as the MoA offices in Amman.[8] In its early stages the Day-Waged Labor Movement (DWLM), as it came to be known, drew attention to the contradictions between the historical obligations of the state to provide employment, the state’s promises of prosperity through neoliberal economic reforms, and the workers’ own conditions of impoverishment. Over the next five years, DWLM agitation was met with mass arrests, threats of termination and transfer, and harsh rhetoric from state actors. Nevertheless, the movement’s combination of public action and rhetoric generated considerable public support and thus forced the state to recognize and negotiate with the workers. For example, a March 29, 2010 “sleep-in” in front of the Royal Court was aided by the provision of tents and bathrooms by two non-labor organizations, the Social Leftist Movement and the Democratic Youth Movement. Activists and analysis consider the sleep-in as one of the movement’s watershed moments, after which the government began to promise (if not fulfill) concessions, in particular reinstating fired workers and elevating all day-waged workers to permanent status.

Recently-Privatized Workers Revolt

Subsequent workers’ protests similarly produced social and political crises, which uniformly provoked repression while also generating public solidarity. One such episode involved workers in the recently-privatized (in 2008) Aqaba Port Corporation (APC). In 2009, APC workers went on strike, shutting down Jordan’s only port. Immediately, gendarmerie forces—the Darak—were called in as the vanguard of state-organized brutality. Appalled by teargassing, beatings, and mass arrests at the hands of the Darak, locals poured into the streets and human rights organizations descended on Aqaba.[9] Under the spotlight of the national and international press and human rights observers, King Abdullah II ultimately ordered an organizational overhaul of the state security forces and the APC conceded to some of the workers’ demands. In other words, while the workers’ economic leverage incited repression, the subsequent social and political crisis generated by the outpouring of support led to recognition and concessions.

The Teachers’ Movement

Inspired by the movement of MoA and port workers, public-school teachers began to agitate in 2010 for the reinstatement of their union—which they had been denied since its dissolution by the regime in the late-1950s. Teachers in Jordan exemplify the importance of public sector employees in the moral economy, given their historical centrality to programs and discourses of national development. For many Jordanians, education continues to promise (though only sometimes delivering) social mobility, security, prosperity, and even marriage stability.[10] Ideologically, schools and teachers have served (since the 1970s) as the main vector for disseminating the state’s version of Jordanian nationalism. Yet, despite teachers’ professed and actual importance, a recent USAID survey found that Jordanians ranked teaching among the least desired professions in Jordan. As one respondent expressed, “I wouldn’t wish that my sons get into this profession, because there is no focus on teachers and their livelihoods, and their needs.”[11]

These contradictions between the importance and treatment of teachers came to a head in 2010. In response to a meeting of teachers in Amman to discuss the revival of their union, the Minister of Education closed the Amman Teachers’ Club.[12] Adding insult to injury, the Minister chastised the teachers, telling them to shave their beards if they were serious about having a union. The ensuing teachers’ strike—closing schools across Jordan—produced the biggest social crisis yet and created the opportunity for teachers to generate a shared community of fate:

…the schools were completely closed, even the parents of the students started to become upset and annoyed about it, and the government started to arm the parents against the teachers. But we were always trying to explain the situation to the parents: that all we want is to obtain our rights through the establishment of the syndicate […] then they [the parents] understood our demand and they supported us and stood with us.[13]

A Shared Fate

These and other mid-to-late 2000s labor actions by public sector and recently-privatized workers slowly began to build a shared community of fate between workers and their communities. I found evidence of this development through newspaper coverage and in my own discussions with activists and observers, both of which often explicitly identified workers’ struggles with the shared plight of Jordanians under the state’s neoliberal policies.[14] For example, one journalist and activist referred to the DWLM in an op-ed as Jordan’s most “authentic social and democratic movement”.[15] In a 2010 public statement, the Social Left Movement entreated “everyone who has love… for our country, our great people, and its future generations” to support a major march of teachers from the capital to the southern city of al-Karak.[16] As one popular movement activist put it, “the workers’ movement made Jordanians pay attention”—because, in his view, it was the workers who were first impacted by the Abdullah II’s neoliberal reforms.[17] Even the king was forced to concede that the “the most important thing is the teacher, as he is the basis and focus of the educational process and its axis. Nothing we could do would be able to repay the teacher what he deserves”.[18] Taken together, these expressions linked the grievances of public sector workers with national and community fates. Moreover, the king’s statement exemplifies the kinds of state recognition that workers’ protests—buttressed by popular solidarity—could generate.

The Limits of Solidarity

Not all workers were as well positioned to elicit domestic solidarity. As Al-Sholi has pointed out, the mobilization of industrial workers in Jordan’s key textile industry remains severely constrained.[19] This principally stems from the composition and location of the labor force: predominantly migrant workers laboring in the free trade Qualified Industrial Zones (QIZs) where labor laws are as sparse as they are poorly enforced. However, despite being atomized, hyper exploited, and repressed, between 2008 and 2010 QIZ workers were able to mobilize on an impressive scale—with the help of the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center in collaboration with the general textile workers’ trade union (GTUWTGCI, hereafter GTU).[20] Nevertheless, QIZ workers failed to coalesce into a cohesive movement capable to winning substantial concessions from the state. Rather, victories were relatively piece-meal and remained dependent on the organizational support of external actors. A key reason for these limitations has to do with their outsider status vis-à-vis Jordan’s historical social pact, which meant that they were unable to generate a domestic shared community of fate. Consequently, QIZ workers and their allies remained reliant on the “boomerang effect” of international opprobrium from trade partners (and their domestic audiences) over the egregious working conditions in the QIZs.

From Solidarity to Joint Action

The outbreak of the Arab uprisings in 2011—regionally and in Jordan—created new opportunities for some workers to assert themselves in the political sphere. By 2011, employees in the recently-privatized Jordan Phosphate Mines Company (JPMC), who had up until now confined their grievances to channels within the official unions, reached their point of complete disillusionment with the state-controlled union federation (the GFJTU). Motivated by the political opportunity presented by the uprisings, JMPC employees engaged in a series of strikes in 2011 and 2012 and, in the process, broke away from the official union structure and formed an independent union. In tandem, unemployed residents in the mining regions also rose up, demanding their right to state-distributed employment and heightening the political and social crisis. Workers in other publicly-controlled and recently-privatized sectors followed suit. By late-2012 there were over twelve independent unions in the newly-formed Jordanian Federation of Independent Trade Unions (JFITU).

Port workers, teachers, and DWLM workers continued to engage in protests well into 2011, threatening—in some cases explicitly—to merge with the broader currents of popular mobilization in Jordan, in particular the decentralized movement of tribal youths, the Hirak.[21] Labor activists participated in mass protests in Amman and in the governorates. They also made an active effort to articulate their movement demands in terms of a shared community of fate. For example, workers who were not directly impacted by privatizations emphasized privatizations among their grievances and teachers couched their demands in terms of the state’s obligations to future generations of Jordanians. In response, state actors broke with past patterns of repression and quickly capitulated to labor demands: unprecedented concessions were granted to port workers (wage increases, a housing allowance), teachers (the legalization of their union), day-waged workers (hired permanently), and phosphate workers (wages and organizational restructuring).

These state concessions had unintended knock-on effects. Concessions demobilized some workers; their demands having been met. Others were singled out for repression if they continued to engage in activism. Crucially, state rhetoric worked to unravel the shared community of fate by presenting workers’ protests as “single issue” protests and workers as only concerned with narrow, economic demands. In doing so, the regime was able to divide and conquer, using the velvet glove to delegitimize and demobilize workers and the iron fist to repress popular protests. As the uprisings faded, workers’ mobilization dwindled, their demands moderated, and the independent labor movement began to run up against considerable legal obstacles (e.g., JFITU trade unions remain unable to collect dues).[22

After the Uprisings

While labor protests dropped from 900 in 2013 to less than 200 in 2018, the bonds of labor-popular solidarity were far from severed.[23] This became most apparent in 2019, when the recently-reestablished Jordan Teachers’ Syndicate (JTS) mounted its (and Jordan’s) largest public sector strike.[24] The 2019 teachers’ strike is worth unpacking in detail here because it provides a window into the continuing dynamics of labor repression and popular solidarity—exemplifying some of the strengths but also some weaknesses of public sector labor activism in Jordan.

In September 2019, teachers brought 140,000 of their members into the streets. The strike was organized in response to the government’s failure to live up to a three-year old agreement to increase teachers’ wages. Schools across Jordan were closed, throwing the kingdom into an acute social and political crisis. By and large, public support was with the teachers, as exemplified by videos of families and individuals “voicing solidarity with teachers, photos and videos of families and students in their home environments expressing their appreciation for the union’s undertaking, and numerous posts aimed to boost the teachers’ morale and praise their unity and steadfastness.”[25]

Despite their numbers and support, many protesters were met with repression, including tear gas and arrests. Additionally, state actors and their surrogates in the press tried to frame the teachers as illegitimately conspiring to “politicize” the strike—“[b]ut the approach backfired when activists rallied on social media to defend the teachers and their cause while lampooning the government’s ploy”.[26] Four weeks into the strike, the government resorted to threats to disband the JTS, which were met with broad resistance on the streets and on social media. Next, the government moved to declare the strike illegal. But while both parties waited for an appeal to be made, the government bent to public pressure and conceded to salary increases.

Throughout the strike, public support was strong but not absolute. According to a poll conducted by NAMA Strategic Intelligence Solutions, as the strike went on, opposition to the strike increased from 55 percent (Sept 9) to 69 percent (Sept 19).[27] Those who opposed the strike cited the “impact on students and their families”. On the positive side of the ledger, those who continued to support the strike emphasized teachers’ “difficult economic conditions”. Furthermore, 60 percent of Jordanians surveyed (including those who opposed the strike) supported the teachers’ pay raise.

This discrepancy in support requires more research to fully unpack. However, at this point, one plausible explanation might be found in the mechanisms through which communities of fate are generated. This essay has demonstrated the importance of context: i.e., state-society obligations (and visible state repression). However, recent findings on teachers’ protests in the U.S. suggests that union leadership and public outreach are crucial for generating increased support over time for teachers’ strikes. Yet, in his statements at protests and to the press, the JTS’s outspoken vice-president, Naser Nawasrah, kept his focus on teachers’ demands qua labor demands. This may account for why community support for the JTS’s grievances seemed to have reached its limit when weighed against the prospect of prolonged school closures—a community-wide concern.[28]

Between Repression and Solidarity in the Age of Covid

The global coronavirus pandemic that began in late 2019 has threatened to reverse the gains of the last decade of labor activism. In particular, the pandemic created a countervailing crisis, which armed the state with the political cover to renege on its deal with the teachers and, in April 2020, to order the closure of the Teachers’ Syndicate for a period of two years—shuttering the association’s offices and arresting hundreds. As explained by a lawyer for the syndicate, the government closed the syndicate because it “[had] become ground zero for those who want to gather, for the middle class to voice their dissatisfaction.”[29] From this perspective, state repression may have reignited labor-popular solidarity, refortifying a shared community of fate. For example, as expressed by one Jordanian observer of the 2020 crackdown,

“If the teachers are arrested for criticizing the government for cutting their salaries, then any of us could go to jail for being unhappy with the government […] All of Jordan is unhappy with the economic situation and the government; all of us could be in jail right now […] Any one of us could be a teacher.”[30]


What can analysts and organizers learn from the experience of labor activists in Jordan? One lesson is that workers who struggle under limited economic leverage and suffer from intense repression should not be discounted as agents of political change. Relying on the production of social and political crises and the articulation of shared moral-economic grievances, workers were able to leverage public solidarity to force state recognition. In the process, between 2006 and 2013, workers went a long way towards establishing a shared community of fate that extended across the labor-nonlabor divide. However, there were some hard external (repression) and internal limits to workers’ ability to universalize their interests. Indeed, a second lesson is that the social and political crises that public sector strikes can cause, by halting the provision of public goods, are never only crises for the government. As the teachers’ movement makes apparent, the onus is on organizers and pro-labor organizations to leverage their organizational strength to convince their communities that they share a collective fate—one worth making short-term sacrifices for. As labor movements in other cases have demonstrated, public outreach campaigns and the provision of material support to local communities are vital in this regard.[31] This is a challenge for any kind of protest movement but is doubly so in authoritarian contexts. Hence, workers in Jordan will continue to be placed between popular solidarity and state repression. While mobilizing in this environment poses myriad challenges, workers have shown time and time again over the last decade the power of forging bonds with their broader communities.


[1] Fida Adely “The Emergence of a New Labor Movement in Jordan,” Middle East Report 264 (2012).

[2] Katharina Lenner and Lewis Turner, “Making Refugees Work? The Politics of Integrating Syrian Refugees into the Labor Market in Jordan,” Middle East Critique 6149 (2018): 1–31.

[3] Sara Ababneh, “Troubling the Political: Women in the Jordanian Day Wage Labor Movement,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 48 (2016): 87–112; Claudie Fioroni, “From the Everyday to Contentious Collective Actions: The Protests of Jordan Phosphate Mines Employees Between 2011 and 2014,” Workers of the World: International Journal on Strikes and Social Conflicts 1, no. 7 (2015).

[4] Eric Blanc and Barry Eidlin, “Moral Economies, Mobilization, and Inequality: The Case of the 2018 Us Teachers’ Strikes,” Research in Political Sociology 28 (2021): 197.

[5] John Ahlquist and Margaret Levi. In the Interest of Others: Organizations and Social Activism. Princeton University Press. (2013).

[6] Timothy J. Piro, The Political Economy of Market Reform in Jordan (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1998).

[7] Anne Marie Baylouny, “Militarizing Welfare: Neo-Liberalism and Jordanian Policy,” The Middle East Journal 62, no. 2 (2008): 277–303,

[8] For the most comprehensive coverage see Ababneh, “Troubling the Political”.

[9] WikiLeaks, “Aqaba Port Strikes Leads to Security Crackdown,” 2009,

[10] Fida Adely, Gendered Paradoxes: Educating Jordanian Women in Nation, Faith, and Progress (University of Chicago Press, 2012), 34–35.

[11] USAID. “Pre-Service Teacher Education in Jordan: National Survey on Public Perceptions of the Teaching Profession.” (2020). Accessed at

[12] Jordan Teachers’ Syndicate, “History of the Jordan Teachers’ Syndicate,” 2020,

[13] Teacher Unionist, interview with author, al-Tafileh, Jordan, June 23, 2019.

[14] For a more comprehensive examination see Matthew Lacouture, “Privatizing the Commons: Protest and the Moral Economy of National Resources in Jordan,” International Review of Social History 66, no. S29 (2021): 113–37.


[16] Khaberni July 27, 2010

[17] Hirak hai tafaileh activist, interview with author (Amman, Jordan), March 29, 2019.

[18] accessed on February 1, 2021.

[19] Ahmad Awad, “Jordan’s Paradoxical Approach to Trade Unions,” Jordan Labor Watch, 2017,

[20] Janice Fine, “Emergent Solidarities: Labor Movement Responses to Migrant Workers in the Dominican Republic and Jordan,” Solidarity Center. 2013. Later the International Labor Organization (ILO) effectively replaced the Solidarity Center.

[21] Matthew T. Lacouture, “United Discourse, Divided Struggles: Hegemonic Contraction and Social Movements in Jordan” (Wayne State University, 2021); For the Hirak see Sean Yom, “Tribal Politics in Contemporary Jordan: The Case of the Hirak Movement,” Middle East Journal 68, no. 2 (2014): 229–47.

[22] Awad, “Jordan’s Paradoxical Approach to Trade Unions.”

[23] ; “Labor protests” as defined by

Jordan Labor Watch, include strikes, sit-ins, “threats,” and attempts at self-harm.

[24] Ahmad Abu-Khalil, “A Look at the History of the Teachers’ Movement,” 7iber, 2020,حراك-المعلمين-فرصة-لنهوض-تنموي؟/.

[25] 7iber, “Jordanian Female Teacher Activism in the Most Recent Teachers’ Strike.” 2019. Accessed on April 15, 2021.

[26] al-Monitor 2019

[27] NAMA, “Teachers’ strike: A reality check.” Accessed on September 7, 2021.

[28] Daoud Kuttab, “Jordanian teachers come out on strike for promised pay raise,” Arab News, 2019. Accessed on October 8, 2021.

[29] Tula Connell, “Jordan Teachers ‘Will Not Back Down’ in Face of Assaults on Union,” Solidarity Center, February 24, 2021

[30]  Christian Science Monitor, 2020.

[31]  For one example see Blanc and Eidlin, “Moral Economies”.