International union federations vie for Egypt’s workers
July 27, 2011
The recently liberated Egyptian labor movement is being courted by international union federations looking for inroads into one of the world’s largest worker populations.
The federations see the country as fertile ground to spread the message of worker’s rights. Labor activists estimate that over 150 independent unions have been established in recent months.
In interviews with Al-Masry Al-Youm English Edition, representatives from the world’s two largest federations expressed their desire to bring Egypt’s unions on board.
“Right now, we are expressing our support and solidarity with Egyptian workers,” said Alexandra Liberi, a representative from the Athens-based World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU), on a recent trip to Cairo.
She said the group was in dialogue with both the newly formed unions that are cropping up, as well as the state-sanctioned Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF), which has long been controlled by members of former President Hosni Mubarak’s ruling party.
“We’re talking with all forces, all sides,” she said. “We need to have a clear picture of the situation.”
Under Mubarak, workers were only allowed to organize through the ETUF, a non-democratic body that was largely seen as a trapping to maintain appearances with the West. It was illegal for workers to associate in any other way. Despite its being largely viewed among labor activists as being too tainted by its previous policies to continue after Mubarak’s fall, the union has yet to be fully dissolved.
Liberi’s federation had a relationship with ETUF, but she said the group has also cultivated ties among the emerging independent unions, which she also consulted during her visit.
In May, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), based in Belgium, opened an office in Cairo, ending the organization’s years-long boycott of the country because of the government’s attempt to control union activity. The ITUC had repeatedly turned down the ETUF’s application to join the confederation, and repeatedly asked the government to give workers the right of association.
When Mubarak fell, the ITUC decided to establish a permanent presence here. They immediately began talks with the Center for Trade Union and Workers’ Services, an NGO that advocates for workers rights, and four independent unions.
“We are keen to have an affiliate in Egypt,” said Mustapha Saeed, representative for the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), sitting in the confederation’s new office on Qasr al-Aini Street.
To join the confederation, a union must fit the criteria of being independent and democratic. Admitting the ETUF, said Saeed, which was an arm of the Egyptian government, was out of the question.
International union federations, the two largest being the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU) and the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), are international bodies that hold congresses to unite worker’s movements and unions around the world.
Both groups say that their foremost goal is to provide “solidarity and support” for workers across the globe. Both function like unions on an international scale, with groups petitioning for membership and paying dues.
Though they have similar missions, the two groups are ideologically divided.
The WFTU is largely associated with the former Eastern Bloc countries and its alliances with communist governments; the ITUC has the reputation of working with capitalist systems in Western countries. Today, the WFTU has members in Sudan, Iran and North Korea, while the ITUC’s members are in freer, Western societies.
The two parties have an ideological split dating back before the Cold War, when many of the Western members left the Federation over a disagreement about the group’s support for US funding and economic interference to Eastern Europe after the fall of communism. The WFTU emerged, composed of mostly communist states, and the ITUC became the confederation for the European and American unions.
Since then, the WFTU has taken a strong stance against capitalism while the ITUC has a less stringent position, cultivating a relationship with the World Bank and the IMF.
There remains some bad blood. Liberi accused the ITUC of being a pawn of Western governments, and of paying money to unions to convince them to join.
“We do not use money to buy out trade unions,” she said.
Saeed said the accusation was completely unfounded, and that there were no real ill feelings, just some differences in philosophy. The ITUC, he said, is funded by dues from all its members, which are then redistributed according to activities and need.
“We are not competing,” said Saeed. “I have nothing against them.”
In Egypt, both representatives said their primary aim was to help Egyptian workers secure the right to organize, then to advise them on how to coordinate.
According to Saeed, there is a lot of work to be done, including providing stable, decent jobs with health insurance and pensions and a fair wage to Egypt’s workers.
“All of these problems can be solved by a strong union,” he said. “But we do not even have a class consciousness of workers yet. “
Neither could predict what an established, formal, and independent Egypt labor movement will look like, but both representatives said they were optimistic that Egypt’s labor movement, once organized, could wield great political and economic influence.
“When a working class realizes its power, it will be unstoppable,” said Liberi. “That’s why we will strengthen the labor movement.”