Larger labor issues at play in transport workers strike
After a dramatic set of protests that included blocking a main downtown Cairo thoroughfare with parked buses, the more than 35,000 employees of the Public Transport Authority (PTA) called off their 17-day strike on Tuesday.
In addition to affecting all of Greater Cairo and extracting concessions from the management, the PTA strike has raised numerous questions about “legitimate” and “illegitimate” unions that have implications for organized labor across Egypt.
Independent trade unions and syndicates are mushrooming across the country in nearly all industries and in all sectors of the national economy. These independent unions and syndicates are new alternatives to the state-controlled associations, which monopolized the union movement since 1957.
Prior to the 25 January revolution, all of the PTA's army of bus drivers, mechanics, fare collectors and administrative workers were unionized under the General Union of Land Transport Workers. Membership dues were automatically deducted from their wages, and these employees were not allowed to join or establish any other union to represent them. The General Union of Land Transport Workers is one of the Egyptian Trade Union Federation's (ETUF) 24 general unions. The ETUF was the only such organization allowed by Trade Union Law 35/1976.
The ETUF’s monopoly on labor organizing suffered a major blow on 30 January with the formation of the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions. On 4 August the ETUF saw its influence wither further when its executive board was dissolved by ministerial decree in August. Meanwhile, Trade Union Law 35/1976 is currently in the process of being scrapped and replaced with a new law.
But with the independent federation in its early stages and the state-controlled federation in a state of decay, the future of Egypt’s trade unions is in limbo.
That was evident at the PTA strike during the past week.
"We were told not to organize ourselves behind the so-called independent trade union because, as you can see here, the ETUF president informed us in writing that it is an illegitimate union," said Sayyed Abdel Hamid, a striking bus driver standing outside the parliament earlier this week.
"During our meeting with our General Union [of Land Transport Workers] they also informed us that they were the only legitimate union," Abdel Hamid added.
Some PTA workers aren’t buying the ETUF’s description of itself as “legitimate,” especially because the official union failed to back the PTA strike.
"If the General Union [of Land Transport Workers] is legitimate, as they claim it is, then why didn't they support our strike? And what have they given you in terms of services of the past 20 years? Nothing," said bus driver Sayyed Ali during a strike outside the Parliament building.
Ali explained that the PTA strike - which demanded improved wages, bonuses, end-of-service payments, insurance and properly-functioning buses - began with workers at Mazalat Garage in Shubra. Of the authority's 27 garages, Mazalat has long been at the center of the independent union.
PTA employees protested against working conditions in early September; this was followed by a partial strike in Mazalat Garage on 18 September, and then a general strike of PTA employees three days later.
Thousands of strikers protested outside the cabinet and Parliament Sunday, blocking off the vital Qasr al-Aini Street with their buses and bodies. Some strike leaders even threatened to escalate their actions by operating buses - without collecting fares or selling tickets. The strike is now suspended until 1 January after the workers received pledges of LE128 million from the Ministry of Finance, and promises of other concessions from the PTA.
The Independent Union of Public Transport Authority Workers, which was established on 24 March, now has a membership of over 17,000, though a slightly larger number of PTA workers are still dues-paying members of the General Union of Land Transport Workers.
The president of the Independent PTA Workers' Union, Ali Fattouh, is a bus driver and enthusiastic organizer who operates out of Mazalat.
Fattouh, defending his union, has few kind words for his state-sanctioned counterpart: "The caretaker president of the ETUF claims our independent union is illegitimate. Yet Ahmed Abdel Zaher is himself a former member of Mubarak's National Democratic Party. He's the last person who should be talking about illegitimacy."
The independent union, Fattouh said, was democratically elected, while the ETUF leaders were “fraudulently elected.”
“This is not according to my opinion, but rather according to court verdicts issued regarding the ETUF elections of October and November 2006, which were deemed to be null and void," Fattouh said, adding that the General Union of Land Transport Workers was also fraudulently elected.
“It has repeatedly failed its constituencies and does not represent PTA workers in any way," Fattouh said. Fattouh pointed out that this general union's president, Gebali Mohamed, is also a former NDP member.
Representatives of the General Union of Land Transport Workers could not be reached for comment.
The EFITU issued a statement on Tuesday night defending the right of the independent PTA Workers' Union to organize under the international labor laws that Egypt has ratified but not enforced.
The EFITU statement also mentioned that Abdel Zaher and his caretaker committee do not have the jurisdiction to issue decrees pertaining to either the legitimacy or illegitimacy of any independent union.
Many of the striking bus drivers who had protested outside parliament on Sunday seemed relatively uninterested in the issue of which union is their legitimate representative.
"I don't care about the independent union or the official union. I only want the PTA to increase our wages and bonuses so that I can provide for myself and family,” said Nasser Abdel Bari, who makes LE545 per month and has four children.
Abel Bari's colleagues commented that they were also striking for properly-functioning buses that don't breakdown on the streets, along with improved insurance and pension plans. Another primary demand has been for the PTA to provide its employees with uniforms.
The PTA has pledged to increase each drivers' monthly bonuses by LE200, mechanics' by LE175, and administrative employees' by LE150. This concession, costing the PTA an estimated LE60million, has been temporarily accepted by its employees, but they are threatening to renew their strike at the beginning of next year if their bonuses are not increased by 200 percent per year.
The PTA estimates that it lost more than LE10 million throughout the course of this strike.
"We decided to call off our strike out of concern for the Egyptian populace, and so as not to inconvenience the itinerant masses who use the public transport buses. However, we will stand up for our rights, protest and even resume our strike, if our demands are ignored," said Fattouh.
*Photo by Fouad Elgarnousy