Trade unionists from Britain met Egyptian workers in Cairo last week. They found that workers’ struggle is playing a critical role in developing Egypt’s ongoing revolution
Cairo, 1 May. Some 3,000 doctors spilled out of the Doctors’ Union, intensely debating whether to call for a national strike over pay and health funding. In nearby Tahrir Square, the Minister of Labour watched uncomfortably from the stage as thousands of chanting workers surged past him in the swelling May Day rally.
Bus drivers, postal workers, tax collectors and textile workers—all were there with banners proclaiming independent unions.
The spirit of 1 May seemed to have even reached the conscript troops of the old riot police. At the Gabal al-Ahmar camp, they had thrown out their officers and elected a strike committee to negotiate over longer breaks and air conditioning units in barracks.
The revolutionary energy of the popular uprising is turning to the struggle for bread and dignity at work. Workers are up-ending the common-sense hierarchies of the workplace and challenging the logic of capitalism.
Impelled into battle by economic crisis and driven by an emerging consciousness of their own power, workers are enlarging the social soul of the revolution day by day.
The trajectory of the workers’ movement is on the rise, although the number of strikes has dipped from the huge wave that followed Hosni Mubarak’s fall.
There is a marked trend towards the politicisation of workers’ demands. Workers are more frequently calling for reforms that would bring benefits beyond individual workplaces.
Some are demanding the implementation of a national minimum wage of 1,200 Egyptian pounds per month.
University lecturers and students are organising a national campaign of strikes to democratise the universities by enforcing elections for college heads and deans of faculties.
Workers are also building independent unions out of strikes and coordinating strikes through the unions.
This gives them greater opportunities to coordinate and build networks that can turn spontaneous protests into organised collective action.
The model of union organisation that has spread like wildfire is also highly democratic. It relies on elected reps immersed in the day-to-day struggles in the workplace, not well-paid bureaucrats sitting in an air-conditioned office.
But there remain massive contradictions between the workers’ movement’s potential and reality.
One serious obstacle is the relatively small weight of organised workers in a political landscape that contains groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood.
The independent unions are largely organised at a workplace level, and do not yet represent mass organisations on a national scale. The forces of the left are also small, despite gains being made through initiatives like the founding of the Democratic Workers’ Party (see Struggle and solidarity in the streets of Cairo ).
The activists on whom this project depends are vulnerable to repression. Groups of workers are now being targeted under the anti-strike laws.
It will take time to build workers’ organisations-particularly a mass workers’ party which can lead both the social and political struggles from below.
This is an urgent task, as other political forces are stirring up sectarian violence (see right). Yet after the clashes in Imbaba on 8 May there were large united protests between Christians and Muslims. This unity can be an alternative to all those who would rather see workers and poor fight each other than win real social gains.
The Muslim Brotherhood was the focus of much of the visible opposition under Mubarak’s regime. Now it is under serious strain.
It is cooperating with the military government but its base includes poorer people. Many of these admire the Brotherhood’s sacrifices before the revolution, but—as social issues move centre stage and sharp political questions remain—they want a pro‑poor politics now.
Mohammed is a worker and trade unionist in a military factory, run by generals. He told us how workers in his factory and others like it have been striking, even though they face military trials for doing so.
Mohammed is a Brotherhood member and says he understands the need for patience. But his actions and support for class demands point to a much more aggressive clash with the government and those who support it.
Such contradictions pushed the Brotherhood to hold its own workers’ demonstration on May Day. Staged outside the headquarters of the old unions, it called for a higher minimum wage and other improvements.
But the Brotherhood’s leaders have no strategy to win such demands. And their opposition to strikes cuts them off from many of the new union activists.
Strong pressures could split the Brotherhood—into a conservative layer based on small owners and sections of the Mosque leadership and a more radical section based on the poor.
But the upcoming elections give the Brotherhood a reason to stay united.
Meanwhile the Salafist movement, Islamist activists who stress strict adherence to Islam and focus on how individuals behave, has organised political mobilisations recently.
In the past, the Salafists have criticised the Brotherhood for contesting elections and engaging in mass politics. They have also strongly denounced the left and the unions.
But now the Salafists are calling demonstrations that can mobilise tens of thousands of people.
In smaller numbers some Salafists have been involved in organising protests against Coptic churches.
Clashes at Imbaba in Cairo last Sunday led to the deaths of 12 people —although it is far from clear who was resposnsible for the killing. It may have been Salafists, Copts, elements of the old regime manipulating the protests or a combination of these forces.
Neither the Brotherhood nor the Salafists offer any way forward to Egypt’s masses. Their policies would derail the revolution. But their influence will remain, and can even grow, in the absence of a left alternative for workers, peasants and the poor.
That makes building such an alternative even more urgent.
The Cairo bus workers’ strike, in the week before Mubarak fell, helped take the revolution out of Tahrir Square and spread it across the city.
Bus workers were organising before the revolution—and once Mubarak was gone they turned networks of activists into an independent union.
Elected committees represent each bus garage. They can make their own decisions about strikes. Members can easily call their officials to account and recall them if necessary.
The reps are closely attuned to the rhythms and moods of the workplace.
The Egyptian state sees the bus workers as a real threat. Ali Fattouh, a leading activist, was summoned for trial at the State Council on 7 May. The case was then postponed until 4 June.
His charges are highly symbolic of the continuity between the old regime and the new military rulers.
Ali faces the sack under a charge brought through pre-revolutionary legislation of what we would call “bringing the company into disrepute”. He could also be jailed for incitement to strike under new laws brought in since the revolution.
Our RMT union delegation arrived back from Cairo and went straight to a meeting of London Underground Engineering branch. Members wanted to hear about Ali’s case.
It is very close to our hearts, given the number of times we’ve been threatened by the courts and anti‑union laws. The meeting unanimously agreed a statement in solidarity with Ali. Our general secretary, Bob Crow, has sent him a personal message of solidarity.
Unjum Mirza, part of RMT delegation
Email messages of support for Ali Fattouh to firstname.lastname@example.org
Muhammad Shafiq is president of the Manshiyet al-Bakri hospital workers’ union.
“It started on 7 February. I had been at the protest in Tahrir Square working in a makeshift hospital. I went back to my hospital and found a revolutionary mood. Even people who supported Mubarak were saying the situation in hospitals couldn’t continue. So I made a petition with doctors’ demands.
Unlike previous experiences of petitioning, nearly every doctor signed.
A number of nurses asked to sign. At first I said no. There has always been an invisible barrier between doctors and nurses. But so many asked that I thought, ‘Why not?’
We got 300 signatures on the first day—out of 750 workers.
Then the revolution happened.
Afterwards at the hospital people were asking how we would take things forward. We decided to set up one trade union for our hospital. Within two weeks we held elections.
Some were uneasy that doctors, porters and nurses would have an equal say. But we won this argument.
We rearranged the hospital and the budget. Our manager refused to implement these changes. Hospital managers are small dictators—Mubaraks. So we told him to go and not come back.
The union council ran the hospital but there were problems—cheques need to be signed and we have to work with government and local officials. So we elected a manager.
The new public transport trade union oversaw the process. Technicians made ballot boxes and we had special forms that couldn’t be copied. Some workers are illiterate so we used pictures of candidates.
About 500 staff voted. We asked the deputy minister for health to appoint our manager before the story appeared in the press. He tried to argue—but rang us within two hours to agree.
There are problems. The total budget for the ministry of health is only 3.5 percent of the government budget. To win changes, we have to take this up in every hospital in Egypt—we cannot do this alone.
We started talking about linking hospitals together. Other hospitals are taking the same steps as us. They have reached the same conclusion as we did. It is spontaneous.”
As Socialist Worker went to press doctors were on strike over conditions and pay after a union mass meeting of 3,000 voted for action.
Anna Owens and Andy Lawson are civil service workers in the PCS union in Britain. They spoke to Kamal Abu Aita—president of the independent Real Estate Tax Authority Union (RETA). More than 40,000 of Egypt’s 50,000 property tax collectors are RETA members—the majority women.
“Egypt had the first strike in history 5,000 years ago when the workers who built the pyramids struck. Since then the struggle has never stopped.
In 2007 we organised strike committees in 27 provinces across Egypt and set a strike date. It was a dramatic step, and different from other strikes because it was held in the street. It was the first strike on the street involving women.
We held a sit-in outside the official trade union federation building and faced water cannon. The president of the official union said he could beat the strike in two weeks. The strike grew.
Colleagues from all over Egypt gathered in Cairo—from different cultures and dialects. They took over the street. Men and women slept alongside each other. This was real direct democracy.
Workers voted to continue the strike and called out more people. Bigger delegations arrived and families of strikers joined us.
We won a pay rise for all tax workers—opening the door to winning more demands. We agreed to turn the strike committees into a new union.
The strikers showed people they could change things. It was a precursor to the revolution. So on the fifth day of the revolution we announced the formation of the IFU and called a strike in defence of the revolution. Many workers came out the next day. This was crucial to the downfall of the regime.
We changed from being some of the most hated people to some of the best loved. We are seen as a model for organising, with the ruling class split on how to respond. The independent unions are now legal, but the state is trying to put its mark on the rights that we have won.”
Kieran Crow, London Underground worker from London Transport Region RMT
The railways have been a tough place to work in Egypt. Rates of pay were grossly unjust and bosses saw training, safety and maintenance as luxuries.
The breakthrough came when workers in one station hung up a banner proclaiming that they were going to organise a new union for their area. They set 4 May as the date for its founding conference.
They were inundated with contacts from other train lines and even members of the public.
By 1 May, over 50 percent of the workforce had pledged to join the new union. The 4 May conference became the launch of a national organisation.
Rank and file democracy, based in workplaces, is extremely important to the railworkers, as is all-grade unity. They are extremely proud to have drivers, crew, engineers and admin staff fighting for each other’s rights.
It was an honour for us to deliver solidarity greetings to their founding conference.
Nick Grant, teacher and member of the NUT union’s executive committee
Resources for education in Egypt are scant. Some 63 percent of schools have class sizes of at least 45, rising to 90 in urban pockets.
One teacher in Giza told me that some of his classes held as many as 120. He described his job as more like a prison guard than a teacher. Teachers in their first year earn only around £30 a month.
Thousands of teachers have formed new trade unions.
The Syndicate for Education Professionals (SEP), the only teaching union recognised before the revolution, is seen by many as closely allied to the Mubarak regime. It has around one million members.
An officer of the newly formed Independent School Teachers Trade Union (ISTTU) said that it has around 40,000 members.
Another union, the General Union of Egyptian Teachers (GUET), has also emerged. It is smaller than the ISTTU.
These unions are campaigning for a decent minimum wage, an end to private tuition as a means of subsistence, greater professional development and class sizes of no more than 30.
Both organisations want to cleanse management and administration of corruption in all provinces—including the SEP.
There is a strong battle in the universities. On 9 May, the “March 9 Movement” for academic freedom will stage campus protests calling for the removal of the rectors of all Egypt’s universities.
Lecturers and students want an improved university curriculum.
Sameh Naguib will speak on the story of Egypt’s Revolutionary Socialists at the Marxism 2011 festival in London on Sunday 3 July. For more information visit: www.marxismfestival.org.uk