New Orleans When more than 20 organizers from labor unions and community organizations as part of the Organizers’ Forum delegation visited Egypt in 2011 after the revolution several years ago scores of meetings with political parties, activists, community and labor organizers, proved the one clear reality-tested conclusion that cut through all of the hype was that this was no Facebook revolution whatsoever. If there was one clear, unheralded hero in the drama whose relentless pressure broke the Mubarak government it was the labor movement. Their continuing strikes kept the pressure on the government no matter how much repression and press coverage occurred in the Square. The events leading to Tahir Square and the surge of hope for change in Egypt that many called the Arab Spring were the classic case of something that seemed like a victory having a thousand fathers while a defeat is a bastard child.
We were also convinced even in the fall of 2011 that the revolution was slipping away. Now three years later so many of the hopes and aspirations of that time are mired in disappointment. The elected government, dominated by the best organized, which in that case was the Muslim Brotherhood, failed to right the economy or open government to the array of voices that had made the revolution so vibrant. In fact repression grew and for those of us who had been there it was not a surprise to see the government go after the leadership of independent trade union federations, often with minor or trumped up charges. Labor unions were not silent during this period largely because they felt that one of the promises of the revolution were breeched when the new government continued to prop up the state controlled labor apparatus and hold down the ability of emerging, autonomous unions to bargain or even collect dues. The alienation of some of the independent worker advocates was so extreme that some of them heralded the military coup that displaced the elected government as a relief, hoping that they would finally be able to appropriately establish their unions.
I often wondered whether we were the only ones stumbling through the hype to the real story until I stumbled on a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal of all places finally giving some credit to workers as the last line of protest and defense threatening “to disrupt the widespread public adulation expected to propel Abdel Fattah al Sisi into the presidential palace….” In a piece by Matt Bradley and Leila Elmergawi they not only gave credit to workers and trade union activists for their role in ousting Mubarak finally but also noted the price the labor movement is paying by continuing to put on the pressure for rights and wages, including the fact that leaders of the Post Office Union have been taken away and accused of creating a “terrorist” cell and a suit by against 11 strike leaders. Teachers, doctors, police, and transport workers have also created independent unions and struck the government. The Journal points out that only about one million of Egypt’s 23 million workers belong to independent unions, and that the government will obviously try to cut separate deals, but the unionization numbers are higher when state unions are counted and workers are still voting with their feet to hit the street in wildcat actions even from these more tightly controlled unions.
Unfortunately, unions by themselves can’t restore democracy in Egypt, but their continued pressure will eventually win wage relief from the government and will continue to speak to the courage and the aspirations of people. You can’t tweet that or post it on Facebook easily, but workers are still proving that it’s strength at the base that counts more than Hail Mary shots at the powers that be through the internet’s social media channels. It’s got to be feet on the ground, not just fingers on a key board to make real change.