10 August, 2009

Egypt's State-Controlled Unions Under Pressure

The state-controlled trade union federation has been coming under increasing pressure lately, as the wave of wildcat strikes continues - especially in the textile sector - and different groups of workers and state employees attempt to organize independently. The isolation of the state-controlled unions is underlined by two important developments, unfolding as I'm writing this (check out Hossam Al-Hamalawy's blogg for updates): First, the threat by the tax collectors' independent union to go on national strike on Tuesday to defend their union, secondly the refusal of the workers at Tanta Flax and Oils to suspend their strike (which just entered its third month) despite orders to do so from the state-controlled union

Since I'm not in Egypt I can't report on these events directly, but perhaps some (very brief) history would be in place - for those not familiar with the background of the Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) and its relation to the state. 

As Egypt emerged from the post-WWII economic crisis, strike wave and struggle for national liberation, a vibrant trade union movement had developed. In the early 50's experienced unionists and political activists on the left sought to establish a national federation of trade unions - but their founding conference was banned by the Free Officers after the coup of July 1952. Instead, the federation was founded only in 1957 under the tutelage of the new regime.

During the Nasser era, workers were granted a number of benefits, with one of the most important probably being the strenghtening of employment security, but faced new restrictions on the right to strike and organize independently. This "social contract," as some social scientists would call it, was broken - or made irrelavant - in the 70's. As the neo-liberal wave hit Egypt and Sadat introduced his "intifah" policies, the rapidly increasing gulf between working people and more affluent classes led to an upsurge of the left and a new wave of wildcat strikes around the years 1974 and 1975. 

One of the results of this upsurge of the left and the workers movement was that more than 4000 "leftists" - including both socialists or communists and Nasserists - were elected to positions within the unions in 1976. Many of them were dedicated to strenghtening the independence of the trade union federation, but more importantly they - and many non-ideological unionists - were hard opponents of the politics of liberalization and privatization, which was then only starting to take shape. (I recommend Marsha Pripstein Posusney's Labour and the State in Egypt for a detailed analysis of this period).

The regime responded to this upsurge of workers' militancy and leftist politics in two ways. First, Sadat encouraged islamic movements on the universities (some of which would later turn into militant jihadist groups) to counter the left. Second, the regime cracked down on the radical elements of the trade union movement. The bread riots in January 1977, a spontaneous revolt led by workers and the urban poor against an IMF-sponsored decision to cut bread subsidies, was used as a pretext to arrest hundreds of leftists and radical workers. 

New laws passsed during this period introduced  hard labour as punishment for striking workers and imposed hard restrictions on who could enter trade union elections - anyone considered a member of a group that opposed the "divine laws" of the state was banned. As a consequence, only a little more than a hundred "leftists" won positions in the unions in the 1979 elections - and many of them were jailed in the continued crackdown on the left and labour movement in the following years. In this way, the unions were purged from virtually anyone considered a radical - from communists to non-ideological but comitted unionists - paving the way for the continued push towards economic restructuring along neo-liberal free market-principles.

It should be noted that during the repression of the left during the 70's, some "leftists" decided to break with their past to avoid arrest and save their careers. While some did this out of fear, the more opportunistic ones even joined the NDP. Among the latter we find Aisha abdel Hady, a former member of the socialist Tagammu party that "switched sides" in order to climb through the trade union structure and eventually become minister of manpower - a position she has recently used to denounce strikes as being "incited by the Muslim Brootherhood" and attack the independent press for giving them coverage...

This is something to bear in mind whenever anyone says that Egyptian workers are only raising economic demands and don't care about politics. With the authoritarian state excerting such efforts to manipulate and control the unions - by suspending all resemblance of internal democracy - the line between economic and political demands grows very thin. Any worker raising his or her voice against bad working conditions of low salaries is also engaging in a political act. And when workers feel betrayed by their unions, their anger is quickly directed against the state - since the difference between them is almost non-existent anyway. And when they eventually try and form their own unions that truly represent them, they do so fully aware that the regime will perceive this a serious political challenge that has to be crushed.

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