MERIP on Egyptian workers’ strikes

Our friends Joel Beinin and Hossam el-Hamalawy have a MERIP piece on the recent strikes in Egypt, looking at some of the biggest strikes of recent months, the workers’ fight against union bureaucracy, and the historical context of the Egyptian labor movement. It’s a long piece with many interesting subsections, so I will just post the conclusion here:

The regime is especially wary of the Mahalla workers’ challenge to the leadership of the General Federation of Egyptian Trade Unions, because the federation is its primary means of mobilizing support in the street. The “National Democratic Party supporters” bussed to provincial polling places to stuff ballot boxes during the November 2005 parliamentary elections were mainly miserably paid public-sector workers, rounded up by NDP-affiliated union bureaucrats. Labor bosses also turn out the “spontaneous” cheering crowds who greet presidential visits to outlying towns and “mass demonstrations” like the regime-approved protest against the Iraq war in Cairo Stadium in February 2003. In the past, the General Federation (together with the Arab Socialist Union, the NDP’s predecessor) supplied the foot soldiers for the “mass” pro-Nasser gatherings following Egypt’s defeat in the 1967 war, and the “popular” rallies against the January 1977 “bread intifada.”

In public meetings and private interviews, labor activists and strike leaders in the textile and railway sectors frequently mention the phrase “independent parallel national labor union.” Various leftist organizations are talking about building such a thing: the Trotskyist Revolutionary Socialists, the Nasserist Karama Party, the remnants of the Egyptian Communist Party, the People’s Socialist Party, the Center for Trade Union and Workers’ Rights, and the Workers’ Coordination Committee. (Nearly absent from these deliberations is the “legal left” Tagammu‘ Party.) As of yet, however, there are no concrete plans.

The success of such endeavors will depend on whether industrial militancy is sustained, whether political activists can intervene in the strikes and whether workers can establish effective coordination among themselves. It will also depend on whether the Misr Spinning and Weaving workers indeed manage to withdraw from their government-dominated union. If they do score a victory against the union bureaucracy, other workers will be encouraged to emulate them. It is no secret that there is tremendous frustration with union leaders among the rank and file in the railways and other sectors.

Because of the high price of oil and receipts from the sale of public-sector firms, the government has significant cash reserves and can afford to meet workers’ bread-and-butter demands. It has done so in the hopes that workers will return complacent to their jobs. But some workers, and it is not yet clear how many, have begun to connect their thin wallets with broader political and economic circumstances — the entrenchment of autocracy, widespread government incompetence and corruption, the regime’s subservience to the United States and its inability to offer meaningful support for the Palestinian people or meaningful opposition to the war in Iraq, high unemployment and the painfully obvious gap between rich and poor. Many Egyptians have begun to speak openly about the need for real change. Public-sector workers are well-positioned to play a role if they can organize themselves on a national basis.