Global Policy Forum

Freed by Egypt’s Revolt, Workers Press Demands

Egyptian labor unions that played an integral role in ousting President Hosni Mubarak are continuing strikes and pressing the new military-led government for increased wages eaten away by inflation. The ruling Supreme Military Council has repeatedly called on striking union workers to return to work, but its appeals have gone unanswered. Economists are concerned that the strikes may ruin what is left of Egypt's badly damaged economy. Yet, union workers appear unwilling to back down until their demand for higher wages are met.

By Kareem Fahim

New York Times
February 16, 2011

Egyptian workers and the country's military chiefs squared off again on Wednesday as strikes and labor protests spread to the Cairo airport and the nation's largest textile factory, despite pleas by the military for people to get back to work.

Economists have warned that the labor unrest is deepening an already catastrophic financial crisis and scaring off foreign investors. At the same time, the ruling Supreme Military Council has made increasingly desperate pleas to the workers and their leaders to end the strikes.

On Wednesday, cellphone users in Egypt received text messages from the military exhorting the workers to do the right thing. "Some of the sectors organizing protests, despite the return to normal life, are delaying our progression," one of the messages said.

A labor movement that was fragmented and hemmed in by former President Hosni Mubarak's government exploded once the police state collapsed. In part, the strikes are an effort by workers to catch up on wages that have been eaten away by inflation. In some places, the strikes seemed to reflect opportunism, as people all over the country wonder what the revolution can do for them.

But they also seem to underscore the growing confidence of workers whose activism in recent years - despite a ban on strikes and the formation of independent unions - served as a critical root of the revolution. The workers' role grew in the days before Mr. Mubarak stepped down, as strikes involving thousands of workers spread across the country.

"They were afraid the movement in Tahrir could not continue forever," said Rahma Refaat of the Center for Trade Union and Worker Services, a pro-labor, nonprofit group. "If the workers came to the movement it would be very important. And it played a very big role."

Five days after Mr. Mubarak's resignation, the strikes were not as widespread as they were during the height of the protests, but they have not stopped, hobbling the public sector and private companies as workers demand wage increases, changes in management and solutions to long-running disputes.

The strikes have closed the banks, stalled buses in Cairo and crippled some textile mills. Police officers, airport employees, ambulance drivers and electrical engineers have carried out protests. Journalists have risen up against their managers. The government has struggled with its response.

"All ministers here are displeased with the strikes," Magdy Radi, the cabinet's spokesman, said in an interview. "It is hampering our work as a caretaker government. But it is an issue for the Supreme Council to take care of, not us."

Despite initial reports that the military would ban strikes, the generals have so far settled for warnings. On Tuesday, they military issued a communiqué urging Egyptians to tone down the labor protests, citing the consequences for the economy. On Wednesday, it sent its text messages.

The recent strikes build on what labor organizers contend was their critical role in the uprising that toppled Mr. Mubarak: a grass-roots mobilization that seemed to find its own steam without the help of Facebook or Twitter or any kind of a national labor network.

One labor organizer and 20 of his colleagues, using cellphones, spread the word of a strike to a textile mill in Alexandria and a chemical factory in Aswan. The health technicians' union reached out to steelworkers. Fliers were distributed all over the country last week by organizations like the Revolutionary Socialists of Egypt and Ms. Refaat's group.

One flier said: "Three hundred young people have paid with their lives as a price for our freedom. The path is open for all of us."

That labor leaders could organize strikes on the spur of the moment should come as no surprise, they say. They developed tight bonds over "many years of meetings and joint struggle for our rights," said Muhammad Abdelsalam al-Barbari of the Coordinating Committee for Labor Freedoms and Rights. "It was natural during the protests to ask around about what labor action is being taken here and there."

The movement had been building for years, despite the heavy hand of the security services and an authorized trade union federation that was seen as collaborating with the government.

Joel Beinin, a Stanford professor who has followed Egyptian labor movements, said strikes over the past decade accelerated in the past six years in response to the government's efforts to privatize the economy. Mahalla el-Kobra, the center of the country's textile industry, became a stronghold of labor resistance, and remains so.

The workers never developed strong connections to the Internet activists who became the most visible face of the uprising, like the April 6 Youth Movement, which was actually named for a labor action. "By and large, there wasn't any organic connection between workers and middle-class movements for democracy," Mr. Beinin said.

The differences were stark: the Facebook activists - patriotic and well intentioned - commanded huge anonymous audiences, but until recently had trouble mobilizing them. The workers knew and trusted one another and could mobilize readily, but their activism was local.

As the protesters filled Tahrir Square last week, the labor strikes went national, and included a sit-in by workers for the Suez Canal Authority, an alarming development for Mr. Mubarak's government.

Now, amid talk of forming an independent national labor organization, the workers' strikes and protests seem likely to continue. A protest outside Cairo's television building this week was typical, as workers from the Public Transportation Authority called for higher wages and the resignation and indictment of the authority's leader.

"Prices have risen so much that if I buy some lemons to treat a sore throat, I find myself bankrupt for the month," said a Transportation Ministry employee, Abdelrahman Khalil. "The governor has to resign and be put on trial immediately."




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