Historic victory for Egyptian workers at Mahalla textile plant

Historic victory for Egyptian workers at Mahalla textile plant

They brought drums and homemade placards, set up a sea of tents in the factory grounds and turned the forecourt of the mill into a week-long mass meeting.

While riot police gathered outside, 27,000 workers occupied the giant Ghazl al-Mahalla textile plant north of the Egyptian capital Cairo last week, demanding the government fulfil its promise to pay a bonus equivalent to 150 days” pay.

Within a week workers forced President Hosni Mubarak”s regime into a humiliating retreat.

As well as winning at least 130 days” pay and improved transport to work, the strikers forced the company to sack the factory boss and remove the corrupt head of the local union committee.

Last week”s strike is merely the latest battle fought by Egypt”s increasingly combative working class.

Workers at the huge state-owned textile company triggered a wave of strikes after walkouts in December last year won significant concessions from the government and management.

In Kafr al-Dawwar near the Mediterranean city of Alexandria, 12,000 textile workers celebrated the victory in Mahalla by launching their own strike and occupation.

The strike contagion quickly spread to other groups of workers, including postal workers, transport workers and teachers at the Islamic university of al-Azhar in Cairo.

While workers” confidence has grown, so has their anger. The price of fresh vegetables in Egypt rose by 38 percent this year. Inflation rose to 12 percent last December. Many workers in Ghazl al-Mahalla take home as little as £22 a month.

“What is meat, what does it look like? I haven”t seen meat for months,” a woman striker told journalists visiting the Ghazl al-Mahalla strike last week.

Yet Egypt”s economy is officially booming, growing on average 7 percent a year since 2004. According to the World Bank, Egypt is 2007″s most improved economy for investors.

Ghazl al-Mahalla”s parent company, Misr Spinning made around £18 million profit this year.

The Mubarak regime is under pressure from many directions.

In 2005 a wave of demonstrations called for democratic freedoms. The following year riot police attacked judges in the streets of Cairo as they marched to denounce rigged elections and attacks on their colleagues.

Anger at both neoliberalism and imperialism has been simmering for years. Ghazl al-Mahalla workers chanted last week, “We will not be ruled by the World Bank! We will not be ruled by colonialism!”

Muhammad al-Attar, one of the strike organisers and an activist with the independent Centre for Trade Union and Workers” Services, told a huge rally, “I want the whole government to resign. I want the Mubarak regime to come to an end. Politics and workers” rights are inseparable. What we are witnessing here right now – this is as democratic as it gets.”


Solidarity for workers spread across Egypt
Hossam el-Hamalawy, an Egyptian journalist and activist, spoke to Socialist Worker about the significance of the strike

We”re talking about a strike shutting down the biggest textile mill in the Middle East. Ghazl al-Mahalla has 27,000 workers, and whatever happens there sets the tone for the struggle in Egypt.

The government settled the previous strikes by promising that workers” demands would be met in the new financial year. But it did not deliver. Once again Ghazl al-Mahalla workers led the way by taking action to enforce their demands.

Workers are fighting without the backing of corrupt union officials.

Decisions are taken in mass meetings. In one incident one of the organisers hinted that it was time to suspend the strike. Workers shouted back, “We”re staying put!” So he made a U-turn – “I”m staying with you!”

These are spontaneous workers” leaders. They are being pushed by the militancy of the rank and file.

The workers organised their own security guards who patrolled the factory. Strikers organised the delivery of food for breaking the Ramadan fast together each day at sunset.

There was so much unity. Women workers played an impressive role in the strike. The strike in December last year was started by 3,000 women workers, and they are still active.

The strikers won impressive solidarity. Workers across Egypt organised collections, from the Helwan steel mills near Cairo to textile mills across the Delta. Workers in Kafr al-Dawwar textile mill near Alexandria struck in solidarity.

Egypt has the biggest working class in the Arab world so these events will have an impact across the region. The strike at Ghazl al-Mahalla ten months ago triggered a winter of discontent.

What”s more, other workers see Mahalla as a model. I recently attended a meeting by EgyptAir cabin crew, and one crew member started attacking the pro-government union leaders.

“Do we have to strike like the textile workers to win our rights?”, he asked. These are well-paid workers who are looking to the textile workers for leadership.

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