Textile strike shows the way forward for Middle East workers
Millions of workers in Egypt do not have enough bread to eat. Each day people go through a "bloody" process just to have bread subsidized by the government at $ 0.01 per piece. Workers and the poor are forced to stand for hours in bread queues and in the past few weeks, people have died in clashes over the limited amount of bread available.
Egyptian workers’ conditions are getting worse every year. Mahalla city in Egypt is a major industrial city with 24,000 workers. After their last strike, in September 2007, workers saw their living conditions worsened due to increasing living costs. After previous experiences, the workers’ demands were not restricted to the improvement of their own living conditions, but were widened in name of the working class, as a whole, by demanding of the raising of the minimum wage.
Workers in a textile company in Mahalla city, who only constitute 15% of the city’s workers, held two strikes and got mass support from Mahalla’s workers.
Workers are now calling for a general strike on 4 May. This sends a clear message to the authoritarian ruler of Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak, that workers are angry. Around 21,000 people visit a Facebook calling for the strike. News agencies are reporting that the regime is on high alert and that the president will call for the minimum wage to go up, as a ’trial’, to try to subdue the anger of workers.
The Egyptian state has always tried to divide and destroy the workers’ movement, by inflicting weak trade unions, and repressing jailing militant workers. Yet workers have succeeded in organizing themselves and pushing forward their demands. In the Mahalla strikes, they showed how an organized workers’ movement could force the government to make concessions.
The state tried to use propaganda to portray the workers’ movement as promoting violence and disorder. Nevertheless, the recent strikes took place despite severe state repression over the past year. Following big strikes in December 2006 and in September 2007, workers developed tactics, including how to deal with state repression.
The idea of holding a strike was began in February, when negotiations with government officials were reaching a dead-end. On a Facebook, a group called for a strike on 6 April and demanded rights for workers. A young woman called Esraa Ahmed (who was imprisoned for leading a strike for 20 days) created this Facebook group. People started joining the group and it reached 70,000 people on the night of 6 April. Middle class youth were working in collaboration with young workers, to support the strike and to help it spread across Egypt.
Internet bloggers played an important role in calling for the strike, and clarifying the demands of the workers. A number of these bloggers were arrested and some of them are still in prison.
Textile workers in a publicly owned factory had been calling for the strike since February, asking for the improvement of their working conditions, and for a rise of the minimum wage. Their demands were ignored and the government tried to divide and weaken the workers’ movement by raising food money from 43 Egyptian Pounds (8 dollars) to 90 (17 dollars).
However, the workers refused to divide their demands, and they insisted on the strike. The government, under pressure from workers, organized a meeting with the president of the trade union (which is dominated by the state) and other seven trade union leaders and demanded they sign a pledge not to strike.
Five signed the pledge while two refused. One of those who refused was placed in prison. This ’pledge’ was used by government officials and was published in all the government papers. Intelligence agencies started a campaign of lobbying and targeting the workers’ movement.
The Interior Minister continually threatened that measures would be taken against anyone who participated in strikes. But no measures were enough to stop the strikes, and the workers were determined to have the strike on time. In the night of April 5th, a statement by the workers was released calling for the strike.
In the morning of 6th April, the workers awoke to find unprecedented numbers of security forces filling the city. The night shift workers were dismissed, while the workers of the day shift were forced to enter the factory from different doors. This was in order for them not to meet in the main door.
When they entered the company workplace, they found hundreds of security forces in civilian cloth, who did not allow the workers to assemble. By these measures, the strike was initially stopped.
By this time, there was a high level of anger and tension in the city among workers waiting to join the strike against high prices. The city stayed on alert until the start of a spontaneous movement. The security forces attacked these protests, using repressive measures, leading to the eruption of clashes that continued until late that night.
The following day, on 7th April, a spontaneous rally took place in one of the side streets. It started with assembles against the high prices, and hundreds of people moved toward the biggest street in the city that leads to the main square. In the beginning of the demonstration, a big crowd formed around the demonstrators, and the security forces came to disperse the people. They held a worker, which provoked other workers. The workers demanded the immediate release of their arrested comrade and this successfully freed him.
Police gas protesters
Later, a big number of security soldiers started shooting gas cylinders at demonstrators, which led to the doubling of the number of protestors. This number tripled once the protesters reached the square. When marching back to the city, the workers were divided into smaller forces. When the security forces attacked the media, angry workers protected them, as the protesters were concerned to have the events recorded as they happened.
Parts of the demonstration decided to go and demonstrate at the doors of the police headquarters, demanding the release of their fellow workers who had been detained the day before the demonstration. At the headquarters, security forces shot at demonstrators and randomly detained tens of them. Some of those detained were not even related to the demonstration but were violently attacked with thick wooden sticks causing injuries and killing people. The demonstration ended with three casualties, with ten injured and hundreds put in prison.
The following day, the Egyptian prime minister visited the city with a number of his ministers, trying to calm the workers by meeting a limited number of chosen ones and by offering them a month salary as a bonus and some additional benefits to the city.
None of the repressive measures used by the state forces enabled the government to gain control and dominance over the workers’ movement. Such means included control of trade unions and the exercise of pressure on the workers themselves to portray the movement as one of vandalism and against the interest of workers. However, workers were well organized and focused on demonstrating without resorting to vandalism. This type of organization was seen in the December 2006 and September 2007 strikes, when workers in Mahalla city stopped all work except in the water company and power plant, so as not to effect a regional hospital. Thus, the workers’ reputation is one of a disciplined and conscious movement for rights of the masses.
In the next period, Egypt and the region will witnes movements of workers and the poor masses rising up against poverty and repression. Egyptian workers have shown that spontaneous strikes can be organized and how the effects of such determined class action can force the government to back down and even give concessions. The Mahalla workers are playing an inspiring role and have indirectly been appealing to workers in the region to follow their steps.
In Lebanon, a general strike has been called by the trade union confederation, the General Workers’ Union (GWU), which is feeling the pressure from below on issues of low pay and high living costs faced by workers and the poor masses. As the GWU is dominated by government opposition supporters, it is important that new workers leaders develop out of this struggle and new fighting trade unionists take the lead to spread united mass action against neo-liberal cuts and attacks on workers.
On 4 May, solidarity action with Egyptian workers is being organized by the Left and by five trade unions in the ’Meeting of Solidarity with Workers of Egypt’. The solidarity action will be a protest and a lobby of the Egyptian embassy, calling for workers’ rights and for the release of detainees. The CWI supports these demands and points out that the Lebanese working class has common interests with workers in Egypt in the struggle against neo-liberalism. The CWI in Lebanon calls for trade unions and the Left to provide a platform for unity for workers in Lebanon armed with a socialist alternative to war and poverty. On the May Day rally in Beirut, CWI supporters distributed nearly 800 leaflets and got a warm response.