After a one-week strike and occupation in September 2007, 27,000 workers at Ghazl al-Mahalla textile mill in northern Egypt scored a spectacular victory.
In December 2006, this textile mill (the biggest in the Middle East) was the centre of workers’ militancy, when a strike and occupation forced the bosses to make big concessions. But nine months later the workers had not received the profit-sharing bonus, worth 150 days pay, agreed as part of the December settlement.
A mass meeting of 10,000 workers decided to strike and occupy after management tried to renege on the December deal. Thousands more workers soon arrived at the factory. Management declared a “holiday” and ordered workers to leave. Despite threats of police and prosecution the occupation strengthened. 10,000-15,000 slept on the premises. During the day, over 20,000 workers were present.
According to the ‘Daily Star Egypt’: “Each time soldiers approach the factory, workers say they have outnumbered and intimidated them.” They organised their own security guards who patrolled the factory, and organised food delivery each sunset. (This was during the Ramadan fast.)
The strikers demanded pay rises in line with inflation, affordable housing and the resignation of the ‘trade union’ leaders.
“We want a change in the structure and hierarchy of the union system in this country,” said Mohammed El Attar, one of the strike leaders. He added: “The way unions are organised is completely wrong, from top to bottom. It is organised to make it look like our representatives have been elected, when really they are in fact appointed by the government.”
True to form, the official trade union leaders came to the factory to report some small concessions if the strike was called off. So angry were the workers that the officials had to be rescued by the strike leaders.
Workers in Kafr al-Dawwar textile mill near Alexandria struck in solidarity for several hours and Grain Mill Workers demonstrated. Workers organised collections across Egypt. The Mahalla workers are seen as the strongest and most militant section of the Egyptian working class. Other workers are looking to follow their lead.
Five strike leaders were arrested and charged with sabotage, incitement to insurgency and the loss of 10 million Egyptian pounds profit. A spell in Egyptian police cells is usually accompanied by brutal beatings and torture, as a warning against any opposition to President Mubarak. But the five were released two days later and charges dropped after massive solidarity.
Workers are losing their fear of his corrupt regime. The police do not feel confident to dish out the thuggish treatment they usually give to small student and pro-democracy demonstrations.
All important decisions during the strike were taken at mass meetings, counter-acting the pressure on workers’ leaders from management, police and the government.
Faced with this solidarity and the threat of strikes spreading, the head of the Textile Holding Company, and the heads of the stooge General Federation of Trade Unions and General Union of Textile Workers met with 20 strike leaders. They agreed:
- 90 day bonus to be paid immediately, with an agreement of not less than 130 days bonus, the rest to be paid at a time decided by the General Assembly of the Company.
- Strike days will be considered as paid holidays.
- A 7% rise of the basic salary.
- A co-operative to be established to provide transport to work, with a strike leader directing it.
- No victimisation of strikers.
- The company chairman and his assistants to be impeached.
This is a stunning victory against the company and behind it, Mubarak’s rotten regime. Reports make clear that many workers saw the political nature of their strike. Many placards were against Mubarak, and slogans at the meetings included “We will not be ruled by the World Bank! We will not be ruled by colonialism!”
Once again, the main political opposition to Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood, have been sidelined by workers in struggle. Wealthy businessmen and professionals hostile to independent working class struggle dominate the Brotherhood. They did not organise solidarity or even publicise the strike.
Strikes and protests are illegal in Egypt, but the number reported this year is up, from 222 in 2006, to 386 in the first six months of 2007. In August there were 100 industrial actions, including strikes, occupations, demonstrations and illegal assemblies with short-period stoppages.
Although the economy has been growing rapidly, wages are not keeping up with prices, especially basic foods, which have gone up by almost 50% in the past year. Textile workers in Egypt are paid only 85% of the pay levels of comparable workers in Pakistan. After ten years a Mahalla worker earns about US$40 a month. Turkish companies are lining up to invest in Egypt to take advantage of the lower wage rates there.
The al-Mahalla victory will raise the confidence of other workers to take action to defend their living standards. It raises the need for workers to organise trade unions free from state control and under the democratic control of their members.
In Egypt every strike is clearly political, confronting Mubarak’s repressive laws and police. Sheltering behind him stand the Egyptian capitalist class and multinational corporations, exploiting cheap labour. A workers’ party is needed to unite the growing workers’ struggles and build a movement to overthrow the corrupt dictatorship.
A workers’ government, supported by poor farmers, could take over the big companies and plan them under democratic workers’ control, for the benefit of the majority.
If the Egyptian working class, the biggest in the Middle East, took this road it would undermine every other dictatorship throughout the region. Socialism is the only way out of the nightmare of poverty, repression and war that workers there now suffer.