Despite threats from the army to ban strikes, every day brings more news of Egyptian workers taking militant action to raise their demands in the new situation following the overthrow of Mubarak.
Sit-ins, the blocking of major roads, protests outside the offices of employers — and the official state-run, corrupt union federation, the ETUF — and just plain walk-outs have taken place in virtually all sectors from gold miners and coke workers, via textile and transport workers, through to bank employees — who closed the stock exchange — and teachers. It is as if the lid has been taken off a pot of previously repressed grievances. The paper Al Ahram commented: “Drunk with the revolution spirit, the workers and activists don’t pay much attention to what the law does or doesn’t permit”.
Textile workers at one of the biggest plants in Mahalla, who played an important part in inspiring the youth movement through their strike in 2008, returned to work after a four day strike of 15,000 workers won its demands. The military initially considered force to end the strike but in the end conceded the firing of the corrupt plant director and a 25% wage increase. There is no naive trust in the army. One labour activist stated: “If the military doesn’t keep its promise, we’ll just go back on strike”. They have also launched a petition demanding the recall of the fake union committee and new union elections.
Their demands are typical of those raised by workers in Egypt, centring on economic issues and the removal of corrupt managers and officials, who in many cases benefitted from the wave of privatisations carried on under Mubarak. In the face of rising food prices, demands for minimum and sometimes maximum wages, meal or health benefits, the permanent employment of contract workers and the implementation of old paper agreements are common.
Alongside this, the call for the removal of managers who are corrupt or have embezzled funds is almost universal.
Replacing managers has so far taken the form of a demand on the employers or authorities rather than the workers taking control themselves, perhaps in part because workers’ self-organisation is still only beginning in many places after the previous repression.
However, many sectors are also starting to develop union organisation, independent of the state-run ETUF, whose officials were appointed by Mubarak and whose general secretary called on the workers to “Stop these protests.” (Its previous president, Megawer, is now having his finances investigated by prosecutors.) Across a wide range of sectors there are calls for the replacement of ETUF “representatives” appointed after rigged elections and the beginnings of independent rank and file organisations. The labour centre CTUWS is campaigning for the non-recognition and dissolution of the ETUF — and calling for support from international unions in isolating it.
There is no sign of the strike wave ending. Teachers have called a national strike for 6 March and 1,200 steel workers in Suez and 2,000 at Cairo’s railway workshops have come out as we go to press. The army clearly feels unable to intervene decisively — for now. This space gives the opportunity to organise new unions to resist any crackdown and to win confidence in the battles in the workplaces.
Demands of the Egyptian workers
1. Raising the national minimum wage and pension, and a narrowing of the gap between minimum and maximum wages so that the maximum is no more than 15 times the minimum... payment of unemployment benefit, and a regular increment which will increase with rising prices.
2. The freedom to organise independent trade unions without conditions or restrictions, and the protection of trade unions and their leaders.
3. The right of manual workers and clerical workers, peasant farmers and professionals, to job security and protection from dismissal. Temporary workers must be made permanent, and dismissed workers to be returned to their jobs...
4. Renationalisation of all privatised enterprises and a complete stop to the infamous privatisation programme which wrecked our national economy under the defunct regime.
5. Complete removal of corrupt managers who were imposed on companies in order to run them down and sell them off.
Curbing the employment of consultants ... who eat up £E3bn of the national income, in order to open up employment opportunities for the young.
Return to the enforcement of price controls on goods and services...
6. The right of Egyptian workers to strike, organise sit-ins, and demonstrate peacefully, including those striking now against the remnants of the failed regime, those who were imposed on their companies in order to run them down prior to a sell-off. ...if this revolution does not lead to the fair distribution of wealth it is not worth anything. Freedoms are not complete without social freedoms. The right to vote is naturally dependent on the right to a loaf of bread.
7. Health care is a necessary condition for increasing production.
8. Dissolution of the Egyptian Trade Union Federation which was one of the most important symbols of corruption under the defunct regime. Execution of the legal judgments issued against it and seizure of its financial assets and documents...
Make solidarity with independent Egyptian unions
A new solidarity campaign, Egypt Workers Solidarity (EWS), has been set up. We are asking people to sign the statement below, and organisations to invite a speaker, and donate. The EWS website carries regular news updates of the emerging movement.
The emergence of free and independent trade unions in Egypt is an event of enormous significance for the entire region and is to be welcomed by trade unionists around the world. We call upon the International Labour Organisation, the TUC, the International Trade Union Confederation, and the global union federations to recognize these new unions as the legitimate representatives of the Egyptian workers. The state-controlled labour front, the Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF), should not be recognised as a genuine union organisation. We call upon the Egyptian government and the military to respect the internationally-recognised rights to join and form trade unions, including the right to strike. We will do everything we can in our unions and in the TUC to support the emerging Egyptian trade unions including solidarity delegations, provision of training and equipment, and financial support.
• Email: email@example.com • Web: egyptworkersolidarity.org
• The US solidarity group Labor for Palestine are ciculating a statement in support of Egyptian workers: http://www.laborforpalestine.net/wp/2011/02/23/labor-for-egypt