Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Egypt on Strike, from April 2007

This essay was originally written for The Skeleton News and reprinted in my zine Power of the Impotent. There were massive strikes across Egypt from 2006-2007 that expose some of the underlying issues in the protests in the country today. Of particular interest is the continued use of the Muslim Brotherhood, by the West and Mubarak, to distract from real working class dissent. 

     In 1991, the International Monetary Fund gave Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak a $371 million loan in exchange for opening the country to free-market policies, which resulted in mass lay-offs in the public sector industries and the sale of numerous public companies to private investors. In 2004, the American Chamber of Commerce reported that Egypt was still not open enough to free-trade capitalism, noting that “a flexible labor market attracts investors” and encouraging Egypt to eliminate wage regulations (that is, minimum wage requirements) and job security laws. On December 26, 2006 Mubarak announced that he intended to make thirty-four changes to the constitution, removing any remaining trace of socialist principles instituted by Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 60s. A drastic proposal, considering that under current legislation all union activity is closely monitored by the government, strikes are illegal, and factory workers earn, on average, less than $2 a day. In January, Investment Minister Mahmoud Moheildin announced that one hundred state-owned companies would be sold to private investors, a move which will result in thousands more workers laid off and significant pay cuts for many.
     Mubarak’s trigger-happy approach to workers’ rights and zealous pandering to Western interests is not unnoticed by Egypt’s working class, nor are the arbitrary firings of their fellow workers, pay cuts, insufficient medical care, and unfulfilled promises of bonuses and raises (Recently-privatized factories told workers they would receive 45-day bonuses, but they were then denied this pay or told it was only a “loan” in many.). For the past three months, wildcat strikes have broken out throughout the country, with tens of thousands of workers demanding their rights, in all sectors of industry. Textile, cement, poultry, and sugar factory workers, teachers, hospital workers, garbage collectors and street cleaners, subway and rail operators, riot police have walked off the job, joined in protests, and gone on strike. The Land Center for Human Rights reports that between mid-2006 and February 13, 2007 there have been 115 workers’ protests in Egypt, including over thirty-one strikes. The government and factory management quickly blamed the Muslim Brotherhood for the strikes, but workers have adamantly denied this charge. The Brotherhood has never had a strong tie to the working class; Kafr el-Dawwar worker Khalid Ali told Dan Morrison of the SF Chronicle that “when the ruling party has a bad dream, they wake up and blame the Muslim Brothers. You know why we’re striking? Conditions have reached a dismal level.” Although most of the strikes have been spontaneous and independent – that is to say, this is not technically a “general strike” – their contagious nature and the unity demonstrated by workers of such disparate sectors has struck genuine fear in the ruling party, and in many cases, the government and “unions” have capitulated to workers’ demands.
     All unions in Egypt are government-approved, and officials are “elected” to them under fishy, to say the least, conditions. They are controlled by the General Federation of Trade Unions [GFTU], made up primarily of members of the ruling National Democratic Party, and consistently side with management in labor disputes. While strikers have been making demands specific to their places of work, they have been united in calling for the impeachment of GFTU members and the creation of independent, worker-run unions. In December, 27,000 textile workers at the country’s largest public sector factory, Ghazl el-Mahalla, went on strike demanding the 45-day bonus owed to them. After five days, management capitulated, agreeing to pay up, but the workers pressed on to demand impeachment of the Factory Union Committee [FUC]. On February 14, 2007, a compromise was offered by the GFTU and management: workers would be allowed to establish a Representatives’ Committee to complement the FUC, through which they would have equal clout in all factory decision-making. Egyptian journalist Hossam el-Hamalawy reports that the compromise was initially accepted by the Workers’ Coordination Committee (established for the strikes) and many socialist activists involved, but workers chose to reject  the compromise, insisting on the complete overhaul of the FUC. A strike leader told el-Hamalawy that “news of the compromise had reached Mahalla already… as (the labor leaders) were heading back from Cairo in the buses. The workers at the factory said ahha (Egyptian colloquial for ‘screw this shit’ –HH). When they arrived in the factory, each went to his floor shop and told the rest what happened, there were angry shouts. The proposal was rejected.” 11,700 workers struck and occupied the Kafr el-Dawwar textile factory; they were locked inside the factory by State Security, who denied them access to food and prevented journalists from entering. The workers refused to break strike, were thrown bread by rope from outside supporters, and ultimately won nearly all of their demands: a raise in their meal allowance, payment of a 21-day bonus, an end to promotion freezes, and improved health and safety provisions. They also won payment for the days they were on strike. Egypt’s workers are not just asking for what is owed them with these strikes; they are demanding a complete upheaval of the country’s approach to labor.    
     While the Western media has been uncritically spitting out news of Mubarak’s plans to hand his position over to his son Gamal, it has completely ignored this extraordinary working class uprising; the only coverage thus far in the U.S. was a February article in the San Francisco Chronicle. Three months ago American investors were licking their lips at the thought of unregulated trade in Egypt, but they must now be shaking in their well-heeled shoes at the thought of what the nation’s workers are capable of. If what we are now witnessing in Egypt continues full force, it could inspire an increased resistance to free-market capitalism and exploitation not just in the Middle East, but in all countries facing the devastating impact to workers’ rights that such policies bring. The U.S. labor movement, with bureaucratic, ineffective unions of its own, should also take note of this struggle. American workers have for years been woefully passive as companies relocate overseas and union officials wring their hands and shrug; they play into xenophobia and racism, blaming fellow workers in other countries rather than the institutions responsible. The American working class can learn a valuable lesson through solidarity with Egypt’s striking workers: neither the government nor the unions will protect your rights; you must unite and demand them. Ahha! We will not compromise.

Artificial Silk Factory and El-Beda Factory, 9,000 strike.
Demand unpaid 45-day bonus.
Cairo Poultry Company, 3,000 strike
Strike over unpaid bonuses, lack of compensation for bird flu risk.
Ghazl Shebeen el-Koum Textile Factory 3,000 occupy factory, 4,000 strike.
 Strike for 45-day bonus. 4,000 workers employed by factory; not a single strike-breaker. 
Ghazl el-Mahalla Spinning and Weaving Co., 27,000 strike.
Demand, and receive, 45-day bonus. Call for impeachment of union officials; reject “compromise” plan. Incite many of the strikes that follow.
Ghazl Meit Ghamr Textile Factory, 1,900 strike.
Call for an end to “witch-hunting” of organizers after seventeen workers are fired. Demand re-election of Factory Union Committee, non-renewal of contracts with “consultants” who have failed to improve working conditions, improved medical care.
Helwan and Tora cement plants, 3,000 occupy company headquarters.
Demand 45-day bonus.
Kafr el-Dawwar textile factory, 11,700 occupy factory.
Strike for share of revenue from privatization, improved medical care, end to promotion freeze, 45-day bonus. Union official refers to strikers as “terrorists”! State Security attempted to starve workers out of factory; workers did not back down and bread was thrown by ropes from outside supporters. Won raise of meal allowance from LE32 to LE45 monthly (back-paid 7 months), 21-day bonus, end to promotion freeze, pay for days on strike, new company ambulance and overview of health and safety provisions. 
 Misr Shebin al-Kom Spinning and Weaving Co., 3,000 occupy factory; 42,000 strike.
Strike for promised 140-day bonus, prior to privatization by IndoRama. 100 workers on hunger strike.
Samanoud Textile Factory, 13,000 strike.
Demand increase of monthly food allowance to LE43, demand bonus. Management capitulates after just two hours. 
Three Nile Delta textile factories, 21,000 strike.
Strike for better pay and promotions.


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