Egyptian labor: “The link between the struggle of the workers and the struggle for democracy is absolutely crucial”

Posted March 4, 2011

These remarks were delivered to a recent meeting of the Solidarity National Committee to introduce a discussion on the Egyptian labor movement.

Egyptian labor confronts neoliberalism

This presentation could go back centuries because Egyptian labor history is so rich. I’m going to do a quick run through of some points which relate to the current labor uprisings. In a certain sense, what’s been going on with the Egyptian workers movement over the past month or so is a reaction to developments that have been building up for three and a half decades within Egypt.

These developments go all the way back to 1974 when Anwar el-Sadat started an assault on the so-called Arab Socialist state welfare policies of the Nasser period. This is the program that he referred to as the “open door policy.” Sadat negotiated with the IMF and World Bank and eliminated subsidies for foods and created huge openings for foreign investments, and joint ventures. That proceeded apace until 1991 when Mubarak unleashed a much more aggressive assault on labor through economic reform and structural adjustment programs that he instituted in coordination with the IMF. This undertook the privatization of more than 300 publicly- owned firms. The issue that came up with privatization is that these firms all had payrolls that, from a capitalist standpoint, were padded. You wouldn’t make profit as a private corporation with such large payrolls. So rather than simply do wholesale layoffs they offered generous retirement funds of about the equivalent of $10,000, which is enough for an Egyptian worker to buy a small business and survive. The state could afford to pay for this at the time.

The Global Recession begins

But then as the global recession began – and it began in the less developed countries several years earlier than it began in the United States – they decided they couldn’t do that anymore. Mubarak made two important changes that are important background to recent developments. The first, in 2003, they passed the Unified Labor Law. That does important things. It solidifies under Egyptian law the total control by the Egyptian Trade Union Federation over all Egyptian unions and establishes this as the only legal union federation. This is a state-controlled union federation. The head of the ETUF would sometimes double as the minister of labor for Egypt and all members of the leadership body were handpicked by members of Mubarak’s New Democratic Party.

The second thing it does is create a category of worker who is a worker on a fixed-term contract. This basically means that they don’t have permanent employment but are there for a set amount of time. In many cases this means that their terms are constantly renewed and they are in fact full time permanent workers, sort of the way corporations here sometimes hire temp workers and just keep them on as temp workers over and over again.

What’s important about that is not just that they don’t receive benefits but that they are legally barred from joining the union, even the ETUF. Then Mubarak realizes that he has to go for a much bigger assault on labor and he dissolves the cabinet, reshuffles the cabinet – this is the government which was overthrown just a few weeks ago. He actually dissolved it, at the end of January. What that cabinet does is start to introduce layoffs in order to privatize these firms.

So for the next five years, a whole wave of strikes start to break out. There are different estimates out there, probably something like three thousand strikes took place over that five year period involving over two million workers. Almost all of these strikes were wildcats and were opposed by the ETUF.

There were many efforts in the course of this to form independent unions. In the private sector these efforts didn’t succeed in the sense that they didn’t establish unions that were recognized by the employers. In the private sector, especially, you should understand that the heart of this labor protest is in the area of Mahalla (north of Cairo, near both the Nile River and the Mediterranean Sea). Mahalla is the center of Egyptian textile workers and there are hundreds of small, medium and even some large sized plants. The largest is the Misr Spinning and Weaving Plant which also has one of the most militant histories of strike activity including a major, major strike that was just won this past week.

As I said, there were all kinds of efforts to win unions for these plants which are really kind of semi-private, semi-public. They have private management but the army still has the ultimate say on labor-management relations and policy within them.

Gender dynamics of the strikes

One thing that’s interesting that we should try to understand is the gender dynamics of these strikes, especially among the cotton and spinning workers. One thing that happened as a result of Sadat’s rollback of Nasser’s limited agrarian reform is that a lot of women from rural areas started moving to town to get jobs in small to medium sized factories. And in the cotton and spinning industries the factories are gender segregated – of course that is for right-wing and chauvinistic reasons. However, it has an interesting effect. It puts women in factory work, together, in such a way that there are no men around all day long. These women develop a culture of starting to socialize their complaints, have dialogs without any men there telling them “shut up, this is not your place.”

They begin to organize, and they become among the most militant of the factory workers in Mahalla because of this. They start to take up issues which are not just workplace issues but issues of sexual harassment. We’ve been hearing in the media about some of the widespread sexual harassment which is a huge issue in Egypt and many of these same women start raising demands about the right to file a complaint against people who grope them on the street and have the police do something – because generally speaking it gets filed and nothing is done. But sexual harassment is a form of labor discipline in these factories as well. Typically plant managers deal with women who are organizing in the plant by sexually assaulting them in an effort to discourage further organizing. The issues get mixed.

Strike waves and independent unions

Historically speaking, the one group of workers in Egypt who were successful prior to the current upsurge in organizing an independent union and breaking from the ETUF were the property tax collectors. There are about 65,000 of these people in Egypt. Understand that their social power is quite strong. This is a corrupt, military dictatorship which does not just mean you have a general in charge, you have a half a million strong army whose income is based in the semi-private, semi-public sector. Part of the income they get is from these tax collections all around the country. So when these tax collectors went on strike it meant that one of the state’s main sources of revenue was being choked off. The other thing that gave them strength was that they were not privatized at all. They were totally public sector. They were not dealing with an employer who had to look at whether their firm could survive if they gave into some of the workers’ wage demands. So they were successful both in their strikes back in 2007 and in forming an independent union which got legal recognition and was the only one to do so. They got that by going out on strike several times.

There were other public sector workers who tried it, one in a category that doesn’t really exist here but the closest way to describe it would be public school clerical workers. The labor system is different in the public schools there than it is here. There is a whole sector of clerical staff that runs the examination system. When they go on strike it means that students can’t take any kind of exams that would be required for graduation. So they are basically able to shut down the school system. They tried many times but did not succeed in getting recognition.

Out of that period of 2007-2008 came an effort among the Mahalla textile workers to organize a much larger strike set for April 2008. They wanted to demand a minimum wage. This was essentially a political strike even though it was over an economic issue – they were challenging the state, not just demanding an increase for themselves. They were going on strike, or planned to go on strike, to demand a nationwide increase in the minimum wage for everybody. The strike didn’t actually happen and there are disputes as to why. Joel Beinen’s argument is that the military sent police agents into the factories, shut the factories down in Mahalla to prevent it from happening. There are other accounts as to why it didn’t happen. But there was a strike solidarity committee formed out of this called the April 6 Movement that came to play a key role in organizing the protests in January and February.

A couple things are important to understand. The labor upsurge of the last three days of Mubarak’s reign played a big role in forcing him to finally step down. The massive pro-democracy movement, that very broad pro-democracy movement, plays a role in helping to open a space for these strikes to happen after a year or so in which strike activity had been on the downturn since 2009. Some of these strikes are simply workers who feel emboldened to protest and so they go on strike for immediate issues in their workplace. Some take up the larger issues of “Mubarak Must Go” but not all of them did.

The continuing struggle

What’s key to understand, though, is that the level of working-class activity of those last three days of Mubarak didn’t end with Mubarak leaving. The strikes and struggle for independent worker rights continued. The property tax collectors’ union launched an initiative to form a much larger, independent union. Here you have a statement from Kamal Abu Aita. Jane Slaughter interviewed him for Labor Notesnot too long ago. He basically calls for an independent union but also raises some of the larger political issues. I’ll give you a couple of the phrases:

“The British and American governments make a lot of noise about democracy and stopping the violence but the bullets which are killing us are made in the USA. This message must get out. The regime cut off our communication, but workers solidarity is stronger. It shows that we can make a more humane future together.”

So, this is not explicitly socialist, but it is very, very revolutionary. And it does see workers’ mobilization as the key. Now they claim to have about two million members – this is an organization that formed a couple of years ago. So, obviously, exciting stuff.

Most recently, just this past week, those same Misr Spinning and Weaving workers went on strike and again their demands were both immediate and also larger political demands. They went on strike, the army kept telling them to get back to work, they didn’t listen, finally the army came in on February 19 – just a few days ago – and came to a settlement with them. The settlement was, first, the army agreed to fire their boss. That was one of their top demands, that their boss be fired. Again, it goes past narrow demands to the idea of who should be controlling this factory. They got a 25% pay increase, and they got paid for the days they were on strike!

Then, they issued this declaration. This is from the largest factory in Egypt: “We, the 24,000 striking workers of the Misr Spinning and Weaving Company in Mahalla, on February 16 2011, declare that we refuse to continue being forced to be members of the governmental trade union federation. Hence we demand that the company administration stop deducting from our salaries subscriptions [that’s dues check-off] that are paid to the General Union of Spinning and Textile Workers [which is a member of the ETUF]. We the workers of Misr Spinning and Weaving are hereby joining the new independent federation of trade unions created on January 30.” So, this is still going on – and there was another, the workers at Ghazl, another factory near Misr, went on strike on Thursday.

I think a couple of things. First, the link between the struggle of the workers and the struggle for democracy is absolutely crucial. The purpose of that dictatorship was to keep the workers movement under control and to keep it subordinate to the state. We should not be trying to separate or downplay what some might call “bourgeois democracy.” This is absolutely crucial for a workers movement to regenerate in Egypt.

As far as I can see, I don’t get the sense that any of the socialist left is that well rooted in these rank and file worker rebellions that have developed. What this movement needs, it seems to me, is time. You have a whole new generation of worker activists who are learning about their own collective power and drawing all kinds of political conclusions. The struggle to keep that space open and prevent the repression that the military is, at every minute of every hour planning and plotting to re-institute, is going to be crucial.

Concluding remarks

One thing this whole Middle East crisis raises for us is a call for us to re-evaluate the whole concept and terminology that people have been using here of “bourgeois democracy”, the whole notion that there is some kind of basic interest that capital has in even formal democracy. I think that’s historically wrong. If you want to talk about 1848, and draw that lesson, that’s not what their basic interest is. There is no group in the United States that got even the right to vote without struggling against the state for decades to get it. And that’s true in England too, and it happened a couple hundred years after the transition to capitalism.

Why is that relevant? It’s not just a theoretical point. It’s relevant to Egypt because I just don’t see any evidence of an independent capitalist class that wants to see some kind of neoliberal transformation where you have a multiparty system without the rule of the army. I don’t see any evidence at all. It didn’t come out in the street protests if it exists.

The main agency of the neoliberalism in Egypt was the Mubarak regime. It is the military. And it’s not at all clear that you could ease the military out of power without a revolutionary assault against it. I don’t see a model – some people have pointed to Turkey as a model – I don’t see a model where the military survives as a corrupt system of patronage and privilege combined with joint ventures with international capital. I don’t seem them able to maintain that in a multiparty system. I think the prospects for democracy come from these little events where the military says go back to work and the workers say no. The military says to the youth and middle class protestors, go back home and the protestors say no. Then the army is afraid to give the command to do anything about it because they don’t know if the soldiers will obey the command.

So you have this very tense situation and there are a lot of ways it could go, a lot of scenarios. One scenario is the military figures out a way to re-install the military dictatorship. That’s probably the most likely and worrisome of all the scenarios. Now, related to that, one thought I’ve been having over the past couple weeks I’ve been thinking about this presentation is that people on our side, in my opinion, are very very fortunate that there is no Soviet Union right now. There is no legacy of Stalinism there to step in. Because what that means is, you have the possibility for some of these working class activists who are clearly interested in revolutionary ideas to be in a position to think, “well, what do we do now?” without this terrible model that says “what you do is you seize power and establish a one party state and totally discredit the name of socialism to everybody both in your country and around the world.”

And that gets back to what I’m saying – it’s going to take time. We don’t know where it’s going and there are all kinds of possibilities that aren’t foreseeable right now as far as where it’s going to go. But I think what we’ll need to be looking for is to try make these ties – and Labor Notes is already doing it – with these independent trade unionists. And there are a lot of people who Erin was referring to who are already in touch with Labor Notes, they are already being interviewed for articles, I suspect some of them will probably be at the next Labor Notes conference, they’ve already sent messages to Madison, one of them sent pizzas to Madison. So the fact that these two revolts are going on at the same time means that there’s this incredibly practical form of real internationalism that we haven’t seen within the lifetime of anybody in this room.

We haven’t seen this kind of actual working-class solidarity where workers in different parts of the world are communicated with each other. That’s different. We’ve seen what the Left used to call internationalism, which is support for struggles in different countries. That’s not the same thing. Because we are in this post-1989 period we are talking to people who are trying to reinvent what it means to be a revolutionary socialist now. Is there actually something you can do in Egypt other than keep struggling and hope that struggles break out elsewhere so there’s something to relate to? It’s not at all clear. But where we are at.