22 January, 2009

Mahalla and the struggle for free unions

As Sarah Carr reported, Mahalla independent union activists ended their sit-in on Saturday, after eight days, without reaching any agreement with the management. They also said they would go on with their plans to establish a free union of the textile workers in Mahalla, in respons to the refusal of the official state-controled union to act on their behalf.

While the Mahalla activists first started to talk openly about forming their own union in December, after the real estate tax collectors formed the first independent union in Egypt since the 50's, the need for a union that genuinly represents the workers and defends their interests has always been at the heart of their struggle.

The strike in Mahalla in December 2006, which help spark a wave of social protests in Egypt, came right after state security services had intervened to exclude thousands of independent and opposition candidates from union elections held in November. And some of those who ended up representing the workers in negotiations during the strike had been thrown out from the local union committee just weeks before. This pattern has been repeated in other places since then, so one might say that the state's attempt to strenghten its control of the official unions backfired by convincing workers all over Egypt of the need for independent organization.

Now, my understanding is that the 22 workers who staged the 8-day sit-in in response do disciplinary measures taken by the management, including wage-cuts and transfers of workers to other branches of the company, are more or less the same as those who negotiated for the workers during the second strike in September 2007. They have constituted the de-facto union leadership in the factory since then, in the eyes of the workers. This means that the disciplinary measures taken by the management should not be seen just as a response to the anti-privatization protest that took place in the factory last October. Instead, that event was probably used as a pretext for eliminating or silencing all the independent union activists (including those who agreed to cancel the strike that was planned for 6 April last year - so giving in to pressure from security and the state union at one point is no guarantee that you won't be a victim of repression later...).

Given the symbolic importance of the Mahalla factory (being the largest factory in the Middle East and also, as Joel Beinin pointed out to me in a recent interview, one of the first to be nationalized by Nasser) and the impact a free union there might have on the rest of the textile industry, the state will do all it can to break all such attempts. The 6 April events also showed that the state is prepared to use violence against industrial workers to a far greater extent than it would against state functionaries, like the tax collectors. This means that if the workers in Mahalla are to succeed, they are going to need need a big portion of support and solidarity from social and political forces within Egypt as well as internationally.

Pic above: Women workers demonstate outside the factory gates on 30 October 2008, protesting alleged plans to privatize the factory and accusing the management of corruption.

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