SCAF takes strike-breaking into its own hands
While the independent trade union movement has flourished over the past year, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has taken a harsh line toward organized labor, criminalizing strikes and work stoppages, and arresting protesting workers and labor activists.
But the military rulers are also trying another tactic when it comes to limiting the workers' rights movement: using their own labor force and resources to undermine strikes.
The most recent act of strike-breaking has been the Egyptian army's operation of buses from 25 February to 5 March during a nationwide strike at the Delta Bus Company.
More than 1,500 workers employed at the Delta Bus Company violated the anti-strike law, arguing their strikes aim to improve — not harm — the national economy.
The strike began on 23 February in the Suez Canal cities when hundreds of workers at the branches of the East Delta Bus Company escalated their protests into work stoppages.
Workers demanded improved wages, affiliation to the Transportation Ministry rather than the Holding Company for Transportation, independent trade unions, spare parts and proper maintenance of buses, along with the removal of corrupt administrative officials from the company.
Army officers met with these strikers on the first day of their strike in an attempt to have them call it off. On the second day, officers reportedly threatened to arrest strike leaders and forcefully operate the company's buses. On the third day, the Second Field Army began to operate a fleet of its own buses to counter the effects of the strike.
Within a matter of days, hundreds of workers at the West Delta Bus Company had joined in the strike, followed by the Central Delta and Upper Egypt bus companies. All 14 branches of the Delta Company had ground to a halt.
"I was surprised to hear that the army was operating bus lines during our strike,” said Samy Abdel Rahman, an administrative employee at the Upper Egypt Bus Company.
“This is the first time we’ve heard of such an action,” Abdel Rahman said.
The employee clarified that while the army's acts of strike-breaking had only been directed against the East Delta Bus Company, this act also had consequences on the strikes of the other company branches.
Nabil Hamam, a bus driver from East Delta Bus Company's branch in Port Said, said the army operated its fleet of buses "servicing cities east of the Nile Delta under the pretext of keeping commuters from being stranded and protesting.
However, they should've taken into consideration the reasoning behind our strike. We strike not only for our interests, but for the interest of the commuters — for the sake of improving our company, and improving state-owned transport services," said Hamam, who earns LE300 per month, though he has been working at the East Delta Bus Company for seven years.
"The SCAF has moved to counter our strike, while the [Muslim] Brotherhood and Salafi MPs who we voted for in Port Said have ignored our demands," the bus driver said. "They're not defending our rights or the rights of commuters. Like us, the commuters have suffered from the company's poor services and broken-down buses in the past."
On 5 March, striking workers received a pledge that the entire Delta Bus Company would be financially and administratively affiliated with the Transportation Ministry by July of this year.
Their wages and benefits are to be brought on par with employees in this ministry. But that won't be enough to satisfy the workers, who say they also demand a change of administration.
"We're still struggling to remove corrupt administrators from their posts and hold them accountable for their financial irregularities. We have a long struggle ahead of us," Abdel Rahman said, adding that he expected solidarity from the new ruling authorities in the fight against corruption, especially in state-owned institutions.
Hamam says some commuters even criticized other transport companies for not joining the Delta Bus Company strike for the sake of improving their services.
"They understand our demands, and a number of commuters have even stood in solidarity with our strike," he said.
According to journalist and labor analyst Sherif al-Baramony, the SCAF is desperately trying to gain the sympathy of commuters and the general populace, which is why they operated alternate bus services.
State-owned media have also been used to demonize strikes and labor protests, claiming they are detrimental to the Egyptian economy and the well-being of the revolution. State-owned radio and TV stations have even described such industrial actions as being "counter-revolutionary."
That may be working.
During the strike, the scene at East Delta's bus terminal in the Shubra district of Cairo saw long lines of commuters waiting outside other companies' ticket offices and cramming themselves into buses, microbuses and station wagons heading east.
"This is not the time for strikes. We need to rebuild Egypt," said Hassan Mahmoud, a commuter on his way to Ismailia. "May God help us settle all these problems, and improve the conditions of this country."
There are other reasons for the SCAF's decision to break the strike itself rather than just arrest the organizers, as has been the case in other labor actions, according to Baramony. He says that after violent clashes with protesters over the last six months, the generals are trying to avoid direct confrontation.
Another analyst had a different explanation behind the army's scabbing efforts.
"The Suez Canal and its cities, along with the Sinai Peninsula, are directly under SCAF control. The military regime perceives this area to be a particularly sensitive area, and they want things to flow smoothly there without incident," explained Karam Saber, director of the Land Center for Human Rights. "They don't want additional conflicts with workers or any acts of labor unrest in this area, which they tightly control."
In April, the SCAF-appointed interim cabinet issued Law 34/2011, which criminalizes strikes and protests that harm the economy with penalties of fines and/or imprisonment. These fines range from LE30,000 to LE500,000 and prison sentences of one year or more. However, this law — meant to be enforced only during the course of the national transitional phase — has been widely ignored by workers and has seldom been enforced by authorities.
On 10 May, striking doctors at the Mahalla General Hospital were forced to resume work after the hospital’s administrators called in the military police. These forces reportedly threatened doctors with trials before military tribunals if they did not return to work.
On 5 June, military police attacked protesting petroleum and gas workers outside the Petroleum Ministry. Five workers from the state-owned Petrojet Company were jailed and, one month later, were handed down suspended sentences of one year's imprisonment.
Again, on 26 July, military police forcefully dispersed striking workers in Ismailia who had been blocking a highway in protest — at least 36 workers and two officers were injured, while dozens of strikers were arrested.
Early last month, company administrators called on the army to take over production at the Sukari Gold Mine, where hundreds of workers were striking. The army did not take over the mining operations, however.
The SCAF led a mass media campaign against a planned general strike on 11 February that was organized by youth activists rather than workers. And on 28 February, military police attacked protesting clerical employees of the Justice Ministry in Suez City, injuring at least two at their protest site outside a courthouse.
Most recently, five striking workers employed at the Sumid Seaport Company were arrested by military police on 7 March while blocking maritime traffic. These five workers have been jailed pending trial before a military tribunal.
*Photographs by Alsayed Albaz