AFL-CIO Now Blog
Egypt’s Workers Struggle to Keep Unions Free
Aug 9, 2010
The first recorded workers’ strike was more than 5,000 years ago by the builders of the Pyramids in Egypt. Today, despite substantial government repression and persecution of workers, thousands of Egyptian workers are carrying out that long tradition of protest across their country. The Solidarity Center reports that from 2004–2008, some 1.7 million workers in Egypt participated in 1,900 strikes and their voices have grown even louder in the last two years.
This week, the AFL-CIO honored the courageous men and women of the Egyptian workers’ movement with the prestigious George Meany-Lane Kirkland Human Rights Award, the first time the U.S. union movement has honored a workers’ organization from the Middle East.
The award was accepted by Kamal Abbas, general coordinator of the Center for Trade Union and Worker Services (CTUWS) and Kamal Abu Eita, president of the Independent General Union of Real Estate Tax Authority Workers (IGURETA), the first independent trade union in Egypt in more than 50 years.
The Egyptian government tried to silence the CTUWS, closing down two of its regional offices and its headquarters in 2007. Bowing to an Egyptian court decision and international criticism, the government allowed CTUWS to reopen in July 2008.
IGURETA was formed after municipal tax collectors held an 11-day sit-in strike in front of the Ministry of Finance, gathered 30,000 signatures and elected local union committees in the provinces. It took more than a year for them to gain recognition for their independent union.
In his acceptance speech, Abbas said Egypt’s workers now have a vision of a better future:
They are now approaching the future, beating on its doors with their strong hands, raising flags of freedom and chanting songs of hope.
With every new day for more than 45 months Egyptian workers have delivered a new message: We are not gears in a machine spoiled by misuse. We are not cheap goods supplied to attract investments, we are not goods accumulated in markets, so their prices are devalued and their esteem debased. We are human beings, entitled to a decent living, entitled to freedom, justice and equality.
Abu Eita said the tax collectors won their battle despite a
fierce war waged by the government to use union-busting tools supported by all non-union factions. But the will of independence became a fortress, a fortress that stands in the face of attempts of demolition and containment.
During the awards ceremony, Sen. Robert Casey (D-Penn.) praised the determination of the Egyptians and said independent and democratic trade unions are essential to democracy:
The leadership of the Egyptian labor movement is critical because first and foremost, it helps the workers of Egypt. It helps to inspire a new generation of Egyptians to understand that it is possible in a democracy to express a political view without resorting to violence and without fear of government retribution.
When asked how the U.S. union movement could help Egypt’s workers, Abass and Abu Eita stressed that the workers need our solidarity and our help to build and develop their union movement step by step. They urged U.S. workers to do whatever we can to take their issues to the global community through organizations such as the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and the International Labor Organization (ILO).
As Abass put it, they have a new understanding of the American union movement now that they have visited the country:
We have discovered we have friends in the [U.S.] trade unions who deal with us as friends, with whom we can build real solidarity and relationships built on mutual respect and appreciation.
Click here to read Kamal Abbas’ speech, here for Abu Eita’s speech and here for Sen. Casey’s remarks. Read the Solidarity Center’s report on workers’ rights in Egypt here.