Egypt's Workers Rise Up
February 17, 2011
“Egyptian Workers Join the Revolution,” proclaimed the headline of Al-Ahram, the government-owned daily, the day before ex-President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation. Tens of thousands of workers—in textiles, military production, transportation, petroleum, cement, iron and steel, hospitals, universities, telecommunications and the Suez Canal—participated in strikes or protests in the three days before Mubarak’s departure. Although it is too soon to render a definitive judgment, the demographic and economic weight of workers in the popular uprising was likely one of the factors that persuaded Egypt’s military chiefs to ask Mubarak to step aside.
From the start, workers participated in the demonstrations as individuals. It was only toward the end that they registered their presence as organized workers. This is partly because the Egyptian Trade Union Federation, the only legal union in Egypt, functions as an arm of the state. Unlike the General Union of Tunisian Workers, neither ETUF nor any of its affiliated unions joined the insurgent forces. As they have for more than a decade, Egyptian workers who sought to engage in collective action had to do so in the face of concerted opposition from the official union apparatus.
Much of the attention of the media and think-tank analysts has focused on the grievances of youth and their use of Facebook and other social media to mobilize the insurgent movement. The high unemployment rate of educated Egyptians under 30 and their facility with web technologies were undoubtedly major factors in launching the uprising. However, the events of January–February followed a decade of escalating mobilizations among many different sectors of Egyptian society—committees in solidarity with the Palestinian people and in opposition to the US invasion of Iraq; the Kifaya (Enough) movement for democracy; doctors, judges, professors; and, above all, industrial and white-collar workers.
Since 1998 well more than 2 million workers have participated in some 3,500 strikes, sit-ins and other forms of protest. There have been major strikes in nearly every sector of the Egyptian economy, including one in December 2006 and another in September 2007 at the mammoth Misr Spinning and Weaving Company in Mahalla al-Kubra and a five-month struggle at the newly privatized Tanta Linen Company in 2009. The April 6 Youth Movement takes its name from a call for a general strike on that date in 2008; it did not occur because of severe repression.
Workers’ collective actions over the past decade have usually targeted bread-and-butter issues—the failure of owners of newly privatized enterprises to abide by the terms of the contracts in force before privatization, as the law requires; failure to pay long-overdue bonuses, incentives and other wage supplements; failure of public enterprises to pay workers their share of profits; fear of large-scale firings before or after privatization; and low wages. Many observers wondered if or when workers might raise “political” demands, failing to understand that in an autocracy, organizing large numbers of people outside state strictures is in itself a political act.
At the appropriate moment, workers did not hesitate to fuse economic and political demands. On February 9, Cairo transport workers went on strike and announced that they would be forming an independent union. According to Hossam el-Hamalawy, a well-informed blogger and labor journalist, their statement also called for abolishing the emergency law in force for decades, removing the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) from state institutions, dissolving Parliament (fraudulently elected in 2010), drafting a new Constitution, forming a national unity government, prosecuting corrupt officials and establishing a basic national minimum wage of 1,200 Egyptian pounds a month (about $215).
The call for a 1,200-pound minimum wage is the one nationwide demand that emerged out of the decade-long Egyptian workers’ movement. Last year the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights, an NGO recently established to support the workers’ movement, took the issue to court. It won a partial victory when the government responded to the court’s order and raised the monthly minimum wage from 106 pounds (less than $20) to 400 pounds (about $73).
This would still leave a typical family of five with two breadwinners under or close to the poverty line of $2 a day, even with bonuses and other wage supplements. Although inadequate, this is one of many instances when workers won significant economic gains through striking and collective action. In the 2000s, unlike in the 1980s and ’90s, the government did not routinely repress workers’ protests by massive violence, including shooting strikers dead. The cumulative effect of the workers’ movement taught millions of Egyptians that it was possible to win something through struggle and that the regime, perhaps because it feared scaring away foreign capital, would likely respond with only limited repression.
The workers’ movement has been sustained in the face of fierce opposition from ETUF leaders, many of whom are also officials in the NDP. Egyptian law requires that all trade unions affiliate with the ETUF. Nonetheless, two independent unions were established in the course of the past decade’s labor struggles—real estate tax authority workers in 2008 and healthcare technicians in 2010. One of the less noted aspects of the popular uprising was a press release on January 30 in which these two independent unions and representatives of workers from a dozen factory towns declared their intention to form a new union federation independent of the ETUF. This was the first attempt to establish a new institution based on the popular upsurge—a revolutionary act, since, of course, it is illegal. By the day of Mubarak’s resignation there were banners in Tahrir Square proclaiming, The Independent Trade Union Federation Demands an End to the Regime.
The generals now ruling Egypt have banned meetings of trade unions and called for calm. Nonetheless, thousands of public sector workers, including ambulance drivers, airport and public transport workers and even police, took to the streets, demanding higher pay, three days after Mubarak’s resignation. Since their unions do not represent them adequately, and they are not a party to the negotiations with the generals over Egypt’s political future, this is the only vehicle workers have for asserting their demands. The army seems resolved to implement minimalist reforms and leave the essential character of the Mubarak regime unchanged. The extent to which workers and others remain mobilized and willing to take to the streets may determine the extent to which popular aspirations for democracy and social justice are realized.