Workers push for independent union movement on Labor Day
Egyptian workers and labor activists on Sunday celebrated Labor Day independently of the state for the first time in nearly 60 years.
It was the first Labor Day in 30 years to be celebrated without former President Hosni Mubarak’s sponsorship.
Tahrir Square, the heart of the January 25th revolution, hosted the celebrations, which were attended by thousands of workers, labor-organizers and activists. Those in attendance celebrated the establishment of independent unions and the Workers' Democratic Party. Commemorative services were also held for the more than 850 martyrs of the 25 January revolution.
The rally was briefly interrupted toward evening as a group of self-proclaimed pro-revolution protesters stormed the stage. However, the military police quickly restored calm.
Earlier in the day, Reda Noaman, the secretary general of the Real Estate Tax Authority (RETA) union in Gharbiya Governorate, clarified the aims of his union, and of the Labor Day celebration in general.
"We are here to commemorate Egypt's workers and its martyrs," he said. "We are here to demand the dissolution of the corrupt Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF), against which several court verdicts have been issued.
"This corrupt and non-democratic institution never represented Egypt's workers. It represented only the interests of Mubarak's men and their National Democratic Party," he said.
A smaller protest was held outside the state-controlled ETUF to demand its dissolution along with the trial of its former President Hussein Megawer and other leading figures in the federation perceived as corrupt or supportive of the ousted regime. The event at the ETUF was attended by interim Prime Minister Essam Sharaf, other ministers, and governmental officials.
The ETUF's upper echelons were occupied by members of Mubarak's recently dissolved National Democratic Party (NDP), with 22 of its 24 general unions presided over by members of the NDP.
As RETA representative Noaman explained, while the ETUF has yet to be dissolved, its power has been weakened by the establishment of a rival and independent union body, the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions (EFITU).
"Today we are also celebrating the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions, which was established during the revolution, on 30 January," said Noaman. "There are today at least 21 unions that have been established independently of state control."
Employees from the RETA union, which constituted the country’s first independent union since 1957 when established in April 2009, were present in large numbers.
Around 1000 employees of the Information and Decision Support Center (IDSC), affiliated with the Ministry of Local Development, briefly staged a protest outside the cabinet.
"We raised demands for full-time contracts, an adequate minimum wage and a maximum wage for administrative officials,” said IDSC employee Rashid Radwan.
"We also demanded the dissolution of the Egyptian Trade Union Federation, and we denounced the new law criminalizing workers' strikes. We hope our message has been heard this time. If not, then we will resume our protests."
A popular tribunal was staged in Tahrir Square by labor and opposition figures. Mock trials were held for Hosni Mubarak, Megawer, and former Minister of Manpower Aisha Abdel Hadi, along with other ministers and officials.
"Our verdict is to be announced this Friday," said one of the jurors. Members of the tribunal emphasized demands for a monthly minimum wage of LE1200 (around US$207) and maximum wages of no more than 15 times the minimum.
Other Labor Day events included poetry recitals, a play about workers' grievances, and a protest march to the cabinet, where a list of workers' demands is to be submitted.
Banners, some of which announced newly established independent unions, were hung up in and around the square. Opposition groups, including the Revolutionary Socialists, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Egyptian Communist Party, the liberal Ghad Party, and the Workers' Democratic Party, marched around the square hoisting banners and posters.
One read: "The right to strike against poverty and against hunger is legitimate." Another said: "Egypt's workers support the January 25 revolution."
*Photo by Nariman El-Mofty