20 January, 2009

Train drivers strike - labour negotiations in a police state...

All train traffic in and out of Cairo was stopped for 5 hours today as drivers went on strike, demanding the pay raise that was promised to them in November, after they threatened to strike. Negotiations took place between the head of the Railway Drivers League and the management, who offered to pay half of the promised increase starting from July this year, and the rest only from January 2010. Most of the drivers took this offer as an insult, and refused to end the strike despite attempts from the state-controlled union to persuade them to accept the offer.

"I'm not going home, I'm sleeping here on the ground," one of the drivers said.
"What are we going to eat until July?" another asked.
"How many million pounds does one train engine cost, and how much do a driver cost?" a third wanted to know (the lowest paid drivers have a base salary of less than 200 Egyptian pounds after years of service.)

At this point, after 4 hours, various security officials started to intervene in the negotiations, trying to persuade the workers to end their action. Plainclothes security agents were also harassing journalists, and one violently confiscated the camera of a journalist from al-badeel (it was returned later). Under increased pressure from security, the drivers cleared the tracks which they had been blocking for 5 hours, while negotiations continued for another 20 minutes inside the driver's rest house. The end result was that there will be a new meeting between the workers and the management in ten days.

This is the usual story in Egypt: it doesn't matter how legitimate your demands are, either way you'll sooner or later end up negotiating with some branch of the police state. And previous experiences of the railway workers show they have good reason to fear the consequences of challenging the regime. A strike in July 1986 was met with violent repression, over 200 workers was arrested and sent to state security courts which are supposed to deal only with charges of terrorism. After a long solidarity campaign involving leftist groups and the Lawyers' Syndicate, the workers were declared innocent on the grounds that the right to strike is granted to them in international agreements ratified by Egypt (a verdict that I believe is quite unique in Egypt). Needless to say this did not lead to any permanent change in the regime's hostility towards strikes or independent unionism.

Pics below: 1) Driver trying to follow the chaotic negotiations in the packed rest-house through the window. 2) Striking drivers gave a tour of a debilitated train engine which they described as one of "the better ones," to give an idea of their working conditions.

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