Militants struggling to build fighting, independent unions

The World Bank ranked Egypt as the world’s most improved economy for investors in 2007. Bankers and speculators licked their lips at the thought of rising profits.

In June 2008, a forum on “Future Trends in Egypt” was held at London’s exclusive Mayfair Hotel, organised by Beltone Financial, an investment bank. It brought together many of Egypt’s leading businessmen, the Minister of Investment and British financiers.

Foreign investment into Egypt had increased from US$407million in 2004 to US$11billion in 2008. Economic growth at around 7% was one of the highest in the world. The forum’s organisers were optimistic the upward trend would continue. “The fundamentals that are fuelling Egypt’s fast growth remain robust.”

By “fundamentals” they meant privatisation, poverty pay, cuts in subsidised food, education and housing, and the continuing repression of any opposition. Two weeks before the bankers gathered in London, thousands protested in the coastal town of Burg El-Borollos after the state governor redirected subsidised flour rations from individuals to bakeries. In a familiar pattern, tear gas and batons were used on protestors. Arrogantly, the governor said they “were a bunch of kids and we dealt with them.”

But Egyptian workers have been fighting back against poverty pay and intolerable living conditions. Two million workers have taken part in 3000 strikes and industrial actions since 2004, the largest movement of the working class in the Middle East for decades.

Although virtually illegal, strikes increased from 222 in 2006 to 650 in the first nine months of 2007, involving 200,000 workers. In August 2007, alone, there were 100 industrial actions. The Ministry of Manpower oversees all aspects of the Egyptian Trade Union Federation’s activities, so strikes involve taking on the official union as well as the bosses.

Mahalla textile workers strike

Strikes had been small and isolated until December 2006, when Ghazl al-Mahalla textile mill (with 28,000 workers the biggest in the Middle East) became the centre of workers’ militancy. A strike and occupation forced the bosses to make big concessions. Women workers played an important role. Five thousand workers tore up their membership cards of the official union in March 2007 and a new organisation emerged, the Textile Workers’ League.

By September 2007, the workers had still not received the bonus agreed as part of the settlement, worth 150 days pay. A mass meeting of 10,000 workers decided to strike and occupy. Despite threats of police, army and prosecution 10,000-15,000 slept on the premises. During the day, over 20,000 workers were present, organising their own security guards and food deliveries.

The strikers demanded pay rises in line with inflation, affordable housing and the resignation of the official 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. “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.”

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. After a week the Mahalla workers won a stunning victory. Many workers saw the political nature of their strike, with placards against Mubarak and slogans at the meetings including, “We will not be ruled by the World Bank! We will not be ruled by colonialism!”

Property tax collectors’ new union

During the summer of 2007, the movement broadened to include white-collar employees, civil servants and professionals. The single largest collective action of the entire strike movement was the December 2007 strike of 55,000 property (real estate) tax collectors employed by local authorities. After three months of strikes, a 13-day sit-down protest in front of the Finance Ministry by 5000 workers a day ended with a great victory. The strike committee continued to meet together and a year later formed Egypt’s first independent trade union.

Abd El-Kadr Nada, Assistant General Secretary of the new union, told the CWI in 2009, “There haven’t been free trade unions in Egypt since the 1920s. The government philosophy has been to build unions to control the workers and so they’ve not allowed independent unions to start. They are scared more independent unions will succeed. They are scared a revolution will happen.”

‘April 6th’ 2008 ‘General Strike’ call

In January 2008 Mahalla workers drew up a new list of demands. As well as higher wages, bonuses and allowances, significantly it included a rise in the national minimum wage from 35 Egyptian pounds (£E) to £E1200 (US$212) a month. It had not gone up since 1984! They announced a strike on April 6th if their demands were not met.

Several weeks later a group of campaigners against the Mubarak regime called for a general strike on that day. The call was not made by organised groups of workers but was supported by some small opposition parties, intellectuals, some youth and radicals. The general strike call spread rapidly through the Internet and text messages. Around 65,000 people signed up to a Facebook site promoting the strike. This represented a movement of largely middle class youth inspired by the growing displays of working class power.

The Interior Ministry warned that there could be violence and that people should stay off the streets. In the event, thousands of workers took strike action but a general strike did not take place. In Mahalla, some of the workers’ leaders, who had played a leading role in the previous strikes, called the strike off after the monthly food allowance was doubled on April 5th. The strike had been due to start at 7.30am but at 3am hundreds of plain-clothes security moved in to the factory and arrested anyone who tried to speak out. Despite this many stayed away from work.

The following day, April 7th, saw more battles with the police in Mahalla. A demonstration of 2,000 started at 4pm and grew to several demonstrations with up to 40-50,000 involved. Chants went up against the government and for the release of those arrested the previous day. It was reported that children were “throwing rocks, in a scene similar to the Palestinian intifada, against Central Security Forces officers and soldiers, while chanting ‘The revolution has come! The revolution has come!’”

The very next day, Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif went to the factory and announced a bonus of 30 days wages! "We know Mahalla is suffering and you have passed through many crises," he told workers. The regime has balanced between repression and concessions whenever powerful workers’ movements have occurred. After this incident at Mahalla, the regime was less confident to crack down on workers in the way it did on students, community or democracy campaigners.

The April 6th Youth Movement, one of the initiators of the “Day of Anger” on January 25th 2011, took its name from these events. It attempted to repeat the success on May 4th 2008, Mubarak’s 80th birthday. However, no significant strike action took place that day and street protests were largely prevented by the security forces.

Independent workers’ organisations needed

Strikes by teachers in 2009 made steps towards another independent union being formed, but it was not until December 2010 that a second national independent union was founded - of health technicians.

On January 30th 2011, in Tahrir Square, leaders of the two independent unions and a number of activists from different cities and industries announced the formation of a new Federation of Egyptian Trade Unions. It is not yet clear what strength this represents, but it has the potential to grow rapidly.

The events of the past few years show increasing confidence of Egyptian workers to fight for decent pay and living standards. Organisation with regular mass meetings and a democratic leadership was a feature of both the Mahalla and property tax collectors’ strikes. Solidarity action by other workers has developed. The hesitation and confusion of the regime in dealing with these struggles has lifted the confidence of workers and other layers of society, including professionals and especially the youth.

Now the urgent task is to build independent democratic trade unions in every workplace, linking together at national level, with elected leaders on workers’ wages.

International workers’ solidarity can greatly aid the building of genuine independent unions in Egypt. But Egyptian worker-activists need to be alert to attempts by right wing bureaucratic union tops in the West to help create pro-capitalist and bureaucratic structures in their image in Egypt, which could act as a barrier to the genuine development of campaigning, independent and fighting unions.

Workers need independent unions could organise the takeover of workplaces and companies by their workers. The accounts should be opened to inspection to see where past profits have gone. Democratic workers’ control would then allow the planning of industry and public services to meet the needs of workers, their families and the poor.

Along with a government of workers and the poor, this would lay the basis for the socialist transformation of Egypt, ending a society of massive inequality and repression. This would inspire similar movements across North Africa, throughout the Middle East and worldwide.

Committee for a workers' International publications

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