27 January, 2009

Another train strike

For the second time in less than a week, trains stopped moving at Cairo Station in Ramses just before noon today. This time it was the signal operators who went on national strike, bringing train traffic to a halt all over Egypt. Their main demand was to receive wages equal to those of the drivers. The strike was suspended after about three hours, apparently after the workers received a (informal) promise that at least some of their demands would be realized within 48 hours. Meanwhile, the train drivers are already waiting impatiently for a decision to be made on their promised bonuses before the end of the month.

As a delegation of signal operators and union officials were negotiating with the deputy manager of the Egyptian Railways Association, a group of drivers, conductors and others were having an intense discussion in the drivers rest-house next to the tracks. It was quite hard for me to follow, but it was revolving around the problem of how to achieve unity among the various groups of railway workers.

While drivers, conductors, maintenance workers, and now signal operators have all taken separate industrial action during the last two years, they have not been able to present a united front towards the management. This is in part because their financial situation is very different - many drivers earn between 700-1700 pounds a month, while maintenance workers can earn less than 200 - but also because the different nature of their demands: drivers for example have asked for an increase in the kilometre allowance, which does not apply to signal operators or maintenance workers. Differences like these are constantly exploited by the management and exacerbated by the general ineffectiveness of the state-controlled union.

One thing that do unite the workers is their mistrust of the state union. One driver I spoke to was very critical of the union, saying it is "only talking, nothing else. We have heard the same promises for months now, but nothing ever happens."

At one point during the discussion, one of the drivers identified a man present as a plain-clothes police agent and abruptly (but non-violently) deported him outside the rest-house, shouting: "Get out! And I never want to see a policeman here again!"

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