Cairo Every small piece that comes together in a campaign makes a difference and is essential to victory, so the young people in the Square, the social media, the bravery of the Tunisians and the martyrs, and more all played important roles, but on the ground it is crystal clear that the militant and on-going strikes by workers taking control of their unions and refusing the Mubarak regime’s back-to-work orders was the key to breaking the back of the government and forcing the all powerful military to change sides. As one international NGO executive pointed out to us, “no matter what you have read, this was a workers’ revolution.” Our meetings have produced estimates of strikers in that period between several “hundreds of thousands” to “millions.”
Thanks to amazing help from the AFL-CIO affiliated Solidarity Center and their program officer in Cairo, Marian Fadel, and the newly annouced director, Shawna Bader-Blau in DC, a week before we arrived the doors swung open for us, so that we had excellent access to the movers and shakers that have build the independent labor movement in Egypt. As a worker leader told us when we met with Khaled Ali at the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights (ECESR), a labor non-profit with 9 lawyers that has been used as a hammer by the independent labor movement, for activist at work this has been their individual “jihad for justice, whether we live or die.” Another woman, fired four times and reinstated three times (so
far) told us that they had been fighting since the IMF imposed neo-liberalist privatization requirements in 1991, so the activists in Tahrir Square were “late to the game.” She was making a point for emphasis, but the work of Kamal Abbas and the Center for Trade Union and Workers Services (CTUWS) for 20 years after he was blackballed for a wildcat strike in the iron and steel industry where he had worked and was a union leader, proves that point. Abbas had been in the trenches supporting, advising, and training union leaders for decades, and from his report the pace had quickened since 2005. He and CTUWS were such a significant threat that the Mubarak regime had closed them down for 18 months to blunt their effectiveness, but they finally were back in business over recent years. Abbas has been frequently jailed and beaten and has become the independent conscience of the emerging labor movement.
Emerging, unfortunately is the operative word here. On January 30th Abbas and the key emerging unions, including the critical government employees organized in the Real Estate Tax agents union, the teachers, and health care technicians, had formed EFITU – the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions to try and supplant the government controlled unions. Like everything in the revolution though, nothing is easy and much is still undone. The Minister of Manpower and Migration suspended the leadership of the old federation with 4.5 million members, but it took a lawsuit to finally win dissolution of 7 of the 23 general unions that made up the federation to finally give independent unions a “space” as Abbas called it to finally win recognition. In the other 16 unions, including the textile workers and many of the government employee unions (since they are the bulk of the formal sector), the independent unions are still embryonic, starved for resources, and fighting to win.
We had a lengthy meeting with the president of the Teachers union and many of his leaders, so got a much better idea of the obstacles. Even while winning with 70,000 new members in the last several months, it is an all-volunteer operation that is unable to collect dues. The automatic dues collection of 7% of gross
payroll (which includes social services and benefits) is paid to the old unions, so the new emerging unions are unable to bring themselves to ask workers desperate and string for a living wage to pay more dues on top of what is being extracted now. The unions are caught in a complicated and difficult process of having to try to legally wrest the resource transfer from the old to the new, but there is no labor code now that provides a clue on how they can be recognized. Furthermore since they are government workers in a situation where there is really nothing but a caretaker government now for the military, their larger goals are winning the new laws, making the right to organize and freedom of association permanent, and making the right to strike legal. The military junta has passed a new law post-revolution reaffirming the illegality of the strike, so these concerns are ever present.
Meeting with workers, their passion and excitement is palpable and infectious. Nonetheless this is a work in progress whose outcome is still in the balance. The workers are angry and impatient, now 8 months after the revolution, and the deteriorating economy of the Egyptian state from declining tax revenues, the collapse of tourism, and the foreign investment now sidelined and waiting for stability, has only exacerbated the situation. Workers want change yesterday, and, correctly, feel like they have paid their dues and want what comes with it, and they are starving. Without understanding Arabic we watched an argument at ECESR where our women union leaders tore into the Young Revolutionary leadership for the lack of progress. They handled it well, but the temperature was real and the words were red hot.
Clearly, these relationships between the key movers of the revolution were welded on different seams and now have to be joined together more firmly. It hasn’t happened yet but whether around human rights issues, livelihoods, or other concerns, unless the bridges are built to labor, nothing will work, and that work is not being done effectively yet. Labor clearly is sitting waiting and without resources as the political alignments emerge as well, yet in the end they clearly are still the wide awake giant that must be fed to make Egypt work and to make the changes real and permanent.
What an honor to even have our delegation in the same rooms with these freedom fighters who are trying to win the war of the workplace!