Egyptian trade unionists tell their movement's story

Submitted by AWL on 25 May, 2011 - 11:14

Between 18 and 21 May, Kamal Abbas and Tamer Fathy of Egypt’s Centre for Trade Union and Workers’ Services visited Britain, on a tour hosted by the FBU, the TUC and the Egypt Workers’ Solidarity (EWS) campaign. Sacha Ismail reports on discussions which he, Paul Hampton and Elaine Jones had with Kamal and Tamer.

Kamal Abbas has been active in Egyptian workers’ struggles since the mid-1970s. His thirty three year career as an activist encompasses a vast array of experiences, from producing rank-and-file bulletins to leading a workers’ uprising under a hail of rubber bullets.

Kamal spent time in prison and on the run, and as recently as 2008 the Mubarak regime was still trying to lock him up. With the overthrow of Mubarak, he and the organisation he leads are at the forefront of Egypt’s burgeoning independent workers’ movement.

You could not tell the story of Egyptian workers over the last four decades without returning to the story of Kamal Abbas. The two are intertwined in one narrative which is not only fascinating and inspiring, but rich with lessons.

Going to work

“After the war with Israel in 1973,” Kamal told us, “everyone in Egyptian society wanted to do volunteer work”, to dedicate themselves to improve society. Many people volunteered for the army.

It was during his time in the army that Kamal met university students who were revolutionary socialists who convinced him about socialist ideas. After he finished his service he put his principles into practice by getting a job in the giant iron and steel works in Helwan, an industrial town south of Cairo.

Kamal was one of many young Egyptian activists to go and work in industry — in the same way that AWL members and other young socialists have got jobs in sectors like the railways or the health service in order to take part in the class struggle. He says it was an obvious move to make at a time of growing working-class militancy in Egypt, culminating in a general strike and uprising against the removal of food subsidies in 1977 — the year that Kamal went to work.

Kamal would work in Helwan for the next twelve years, experimenting with all kinds of methods of struggle. They gradually built up grassroots organisation and a base of support among the plant’s 20,000 workers.

In 1979 he was elected to the executive of the official “union” in the factory, but was prevented from taking his position. From 1958, under Nasser, all unions had been amalgamated into a single federation, controlled by the state. In the formal sector of the economy, membership in these “unions” was compulsory. The regime was authoritarian rather than totalitarian, and the take over of the unions did not completely crush workers’ struggles — but it did make it impossible for a really independent labour movement to develop. “It was then,” Kamal says, “that I realised independent unions were the key”.

In the 1980s, Kamal and other activists organised around a bulletin called Workers’ Speech. It became very widely circulated, and helped create a climate in which “no one was afraid” to discuss and circulate ideas and initiatives. All kinds of workers’ publications blossomed. The culmination of this growth in workers’ confidence was the strike of 1989, which developed into a virtual uprising against the regime and ended with Kamal’s expulsion from the factory.

Although it was over the apparently minor issue of lunch subsidies, this huge strike called forth vicious repression from the army and the police, who invaded the factory. Although the strikers eventually won their demands and more, many activists and leaders were hunted down. Kamal and others fled to avoid torture, or worse. Although he was captured and interrogated, he was released after a month and half in prison — but had lost his job.

New beginning

It was then that the Centre for Trade Union and Workers’ Services began to cohere.

As far back as 1986, working-class activists in Helwan and other centres had talked about setting up a campaign for real trade unions, independent of the state. The wave of solidarity from other workers and from many opposition political organisations which accompanied the Helwan strike made this seem like the right time to launch the project. Kamal slept on people’s sofas, worked night and day and visited as many of his former colleagues as possible asking for money and support. The CTUWS was born in March 1990.

From the start the Centre faced occasional repression and constant denunciation from the regime. A few years ago, Tamer told me, the front page of a widely-read government newspaper claimed that the CTUWS were foreign agents paid to undermine the Egyptian economy. (He understood exactly when I told him how Sun denounced the FBU as Iraqi agents during the 2002-3 firefighters’ strike.)

The first decade was hard. The CTUWS received some funding from Oxfam, but relied mainly on the good will and support of Egyptian worker activists, particularly in Helwan. It was able to play a role in a large number of disputes, and open offices in four other cities. It became a highly visible force, attracting many workers in struggle as well as others looking for a way to oppose the government (this includes Tamer, who became politicised as a student and began his work with the CTUWS as a translator). But it was with the growth of Egyptian workers’ struggles in the new century that the Centre really came into its own.

From 2004, Egypt was shaken by a growing wave of working-class militancy — sparked by both declining living standards and a feeling that the old order was crumbling. One of the most spectacular struggles was by the 27,000 textile workers of the Nile Delta town of Mahalla el Kubra.

In 2008 the strike committee of local government-employed real estate tax collectors, victorious in their dispute over parity with central government income tax collectors, converted itself into an independent union, RETA, and won recognition from the state. That was a massive step forward. Other independent unions, among health technicians, teachers and pensioners followed.

The CTUWS was already in touch with most of the key activists behind these battles, but with the rise of independent unions its role became crucial. It stood “shoulder-to-shoulder” with them. As well as helping train leaders and organisers for the new unions, helping write their constitutions and providing legal support, it facilitated links with the international trade union movement — particularly Public Services International, to which RETA became affiliated.

More than anything else, Kamal says, it was the space won by the new, independent unions, with the help of the CTUWS, that prepared the way for the downfall of the Mubarak regime.

The revolution

At start of the revolution, according to Tamer, the labour movement was submerged in the general tide of mass protest, which included many thousands of middle-class youth. He himself spent a lot of time protesting in Tahrir Square. The initial workers’ demonstrations called by the CTUWS were not particularly successful.

Before long, however, they succeeded in bringing representatives of the independent unions and other workers in various sectors together — in a corner of Tahrir Square! — to form an independent union federation, the Egyptian Federation for Independent Unions. Simultaneously, they stepped up their campaign among workers, calling for workers to combine participation in the revolution with building independent organisation in the workplaces.

The CTUWS was deluged by different groups of workers eager to build unions — and, as Mubarak attempted to cling to power, workers entered the stage of the revolution in their own right by organising a wave of strikes. These strikes, which combined protest against the regime with workplace demands, often focusing on the removal of crony managers as well as wages, conditions and so on, grew to the point where activists were discussing a general strike — but then Mubarak went. The workers’ mobilisation had broken the back of his rule.

The new unions

There are now 20 independent unions, although Kamal said that it was very possible more had formed in the few days he had been out of Egypt! They have their own offices, and will hold their first congress in the autumn.

Tamer said he thought these unions had about a million members, as against the three million who were formally in the state “unions”. He was hoping for three million by the end of the year. Though Egypt is a country with over 80 million people, many are young and many are small farmers. Three million would be an impressive start.

When asked at the London public meeting about how to avoid the development of an over-fed bureaucracy, Kamal said he thought it could be avoided by an emphasis on democracy and rank-and-file control. On the other hand, Egyptian workers “have a bad experience” of unions which the new movement feels ill-equipped to overcome. He stressed how much they need training for activists, organisers and leaders from established labour movements in other countries.

The unions are currently campaigning about the minimum wage (and maximum wage), permanent jobs for precarious workers and renationalisation of privatised industries. Kamal argued that while the working class has won some important democratic space, the neo-liberal economic model entrenched under Mubarak is very much intact.

They are also demanding the scrapping of existing labour laws and a legal right to strike. The new regime has declared strikes illegal (supposedly as a temporary measure), though with little effect.

We asked Kamal and Tamer about the role of women in the new movement. This is what Kamal said:

“In the five years before the resignation of Mubarak, there were 3,000 strikes, sit-ins and demonstrations... Women participated strongly, even confronting the security forces, and were amazing. In some strikes workers slept out in the streets, and women participated in this too, though it goes against Egyptian traditions and customs. And women have played an important role in the independent unions, though not as much as we would have hoped.”

The CTUWS involves many women activists but has not set up any specific groups or campaigns for women. Kamal said that the Centre and the new unions are “concerned with workers, and we don’t differentiate between male and female workers.” At the same time, he and Tamer did accept that women workers face specific issues like childcare, the double burden of work at home, discrimination at work and sexual harassment. This is clearly an issue where the Egyptian workers’ movement needs discussion and development.

A workers’ party?

An important issue we discussed with Kamal and Tamer was that of working-class political representation, and whether there is a need to build a workers’ party in Egypt.

There are elections coming up in September; Kamal told us that the only force really well organised for them is the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood. Tamer thought that if they wanted to, the Brotherhood could win a majority (in fact it is only standing for half the seats). This is because of Egypt’s large rural population, and because the Brotherhood provides basic services which the Egyptian government does not (like Hamas in Gaza).

Unlike many leftists in Britain, Kamal and Tamer think this is a serious threat. They both consider the clash between those who want a religious state and those who want a “civilian” (i.e. secular) state a defining issue in the period ahead. Kamal told us: “Yes, we consider them to be a great threat to workers. Why? Because the basic principle of the labour movement is to be built on the basis of no discrimination according to sex, religious or race, but they [the MB] are based on discrimination. They will not tolerate the participation of women, or Christians, or other minorities. Then if you look at their economic program you can find that it is neo-liberal. So how can they be in favour of the working class? They are against any socialist or even social organisation, so yes they are a great threat.”

For Workers’ Liberty, this only increases the need for a working-class political force which can link the new labour movement with other struggles for democracy and liberation, and present a clear pole of attraction to the discontented. Tamer, for instance, spoke of many thousands of young people who are mobilised around the issue of secularism; then there are the secularising youth of the Muslim Brotherhood, many of whom could surely be pried away if there was a clear alternative.

But Kamal and Tamer feel that this is premature. They think it is necessary to build up the unions much stronger before a workers’ political party can become viable. No doubt they are concerned not to wreck the new movement, which naturally involves workers with all sorts of political viewpoints, by rushing a political project. They felt that the new initiative of the Workers’ Democratic Party, launched by some union and left activists, is too weak to achieve much at present. We disagreed. We hope the discussions will continue.

Learning from Egyptian workers

Egypt’s new labour movement needs solidarity. They want official recognition, messages of support, direct links and training from unions in other countries. They feel they have a lot to learn.

But while the Egyptian workers can learn from workers’ movements in other countries, we can also learn from them.

The long-defeated, sluggish and heavily bureaucratic British labour movement needs the spirit of daring, creativity, self-sacrifice and revolt which has allowed the Egyptian unions to play a central role in their country’s revolution. In absorbing that spirit, we can also rediscover and develop the best traditions of working-class struggle in our own country.

Solidarity with Egypt's unions will be at the core of the new working-class internationalism necessary in the coming period of fightback against capitalist austerity and repression.

Kamal told us:

“When I was working in Helwan, I never stopped being inspired by the dynamism and the creativity of workers in struggle. And it is not just a question of Egypt. Look at your own history in Britain, going back two hundred years, or look at other countries. When I am at a conference like this, in a hotel, I always think back to when I started working in that steel factory, and what I learned there and have learned since about the potential of the working class.”

***

Firefighters welcome Egyptian trade unionists

Kamal and Tamer attended the Fire Brigades Union annual conference, where they were presented with an engraved fire axe by general secretary Matt Wrack and warmly welcomed by delegates. They spent half a day at the TUC, meeting officials from a variety of other unions. They also spoke at two EWS public meetings, one in Liverpool attended by 70 activists and one in London attended by 140 (standing room only!) This is text of Kamal’s speech to FBU conference.

I’m happy to speak to firefighters’ delegates. Firefighters who risk their lives for the sake of duty.

When I think back to when I started my life as a worker, in the iron and steel industry, I remember when I took part in leading the great strike of 1989, and how me and my colleagues stayed strong and resisted in prison. We did this because we believed it was our duty.

And I remember my journey in building the Centre for Trade Union and Workers’ Services, as an organisation advocating and fighting for workers’ rights — above all, workers’ right to build their own, independent unions, and the right to strike. For the sake of those two rights, we went through many battles; we faced many obstacles. Each time I found myself in front of the interrogators, I said to myself: I am doing my duty.

And when we participated in the revolution, from the beginning, we passionately wanted workers to play their role in its victory. We released statements, we organised meetings and we played our full role in the revolution. In the last days of the revolution, we used the weapon of strikes — and we felt that we had done our duty.

After the revolution, we moved towards forming more independent unions. We toured around Egypt’s industrial cities, to help and encourage workers to form independent unions, based on democracy, unions dominated by workers’ will and capable of defending their rights. And when we did this, we thought we were doing our duty.

And today I trust that, as you meet together in this conference, you will discuss how to defend the rights of firefighters, those heroes who risk their lives as a price for doing their duty. To all of you I pay my regards and respects.

***

How you can support Egypt’s new labour movement

1. Invite an EWS speaker to your union branch, college/university or campaign group, and pass a motion of support for the campaign.
2. Make direct links with the Egyptian unions. Through the CTUWS, the campaign can put you in touch with Egyptian workers in the appropriate sector. We want to twin British unions and branches with Egyptian unions.
3. Demand that your union builds links with the independent unions in Egypt, breaking any links with the old state “unions”, and campaigns for this in international labour movement bodies.
4. We hope to send a delegation to Egypt later in the year. Please get in touch if you would be interested in taking part.

For more information, including a model motion, email info@egyptworkersolidarity.org or visit www.egyptworkersolidarity.org

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Submitted by AWL on Fri, 27/05/2011 - 13:58

An interview from the TUC website, by Eric Lee and Gary Kent (25 May).

***

The new societies being created in Egypt and the wider region must include strong, independent trade unions, says Kamal Abbas - the founder of Egypt's Centre for Trade Union and Worker Services (CTUWS), during his visit to the UK last week.

Around the same time as the Berlin Wall was coming down Abbas, then a young welder, found himself the ringleader of an 'illegal' strike by 17,000 workers over pay and conditions at a large steelworks in the southern Cairo neighbourhood of Helwan.

The response of the state was massive repression. They sent in 5,000 soldiers who used live and rubber bullets as well as tear gas. One person was killed - Abdelhai Suleiman. Fifteen more were injured and more than 600 arrested and jailed.

Abbas was the last one to be released and the only one who was not reinstated at his job. He says that the long-term result of the strike was higher wages for the workers in Helwan.

Shortly after losing his job at the plant, Abbas and his colleagues established the Centre for Trade Unions and Workers' Services as an embryonic and independent movement in contrast to the officially-sanctioned Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF), which worked hand in glove with the Mubarak regime.

In 2010, the CTUWS celebrated its twentieth anniversary by receiving the Meany-Kirkland award from the American trade union centre, the AFL-CIO.

Abbas, who was in London recently as the guest of Egypt Workers Solidarity after speaking at the conference of the Fire Brigades Union, met us at the TUC where he told us that the old state-controlled unions were deeply worried about his organisation.

They saw the CTUWS as "an infectious virus" which would undermine their status and "change the whole union scene in the region" where official unions are the norm.

Those unions have worked together in the International Confederation of Arab Trade Unions (ICATU), which was headquartered in Syria and run by a Qaddafi appointee.

ICATU, a relic of the Nasser era, was not only hostile to the CTUWS, but even denied membership to the Palestine General Federation of Trade Unions on the grounds that it 'collaborated with Zionism' by working together with the Israeli Histadrut. The Palestinian trade unionists, though ignored by the official unions in Egypt, have been welcome guests at CTUWS events in the past.

With the collapse of the state-controlled ETUF in Egypt, Abbas thinks they were right to be worried: "the revolution didn't just change the regime but also the old and corrupted unions."

He revealed that a decision had been made to smash his organisation -- but was only averted by the revolution in January.

Abbas admits that he hadn't anticipated the revolution but is surprised by his accidental prescience in the choice of the motto for the CTUWS's annual calendar - 'Freedom is Now' - which was released only days before the Tahrir Square movement erupted.

Judging by his dog-tiredness it looks like Abbas and his colleagues are running to stand still.

They have exchanged messages of support with the newly independent unions in Tunisia but haven't yet found the time to deepen the links, let alone think of how to make the wider movement more representative of the workers of the Middle East.

He was tight-lipped about particular candidates in the forthcoming elections in Egypt "although trade unions are inevitably on the same side as social justice."

But he was crystal clear about the Muslim Brotherhood, saying "they don't have a good relationship with workers or women" and could "provoke a climate of discrimination against women and Coptic Christians." He summed up their viewpoint as 'you should obey your employers'.

Asked about his core message to trade unionists and democrats he said: "the Egyptian revolution succeeded in removing the dictatorship but we are only half way to a democratic state and in transition to building independent unions which are a basis of a more socially just and democratic system."

Given international support -- and more sleep -- this modest former welder could yet help achieve his dream and boost social justice in Egypt and more widely.

GARY KENT is the Director of Labour Friends of Iraq and is writing in his personal capacity.

ERIC LEE is the founding editor of LabourStart, the news and campaigning website of the international trade union movement.

The TUC is supporting an ITUC project to help the new Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions assist workers in forming and joining independent and democratic trade unions across the country. To support this critical work, please donate to the TUC Aid Middle East and North Africa Appeal.

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