This past spring, Western and Egyptian media alike attributed the explosive Tahrir Square protests to organizing by middle-class movements of students and intellectuals, battling for political freedom and armed with social media. This popular narrative holds that it was only when young people ignited a popular uprising that Egyptian workers shut down the country’s ports and public services in solidarity. But history indicates the opposite, that years of labor organizing laid the groundwork for today’s protests and will determine whether working Egyptians have a stake in the state that is emerging.
Between 1998 and the present, Egyptian workers engaged in nearly four thousand unsanctioned industrial actions. Structural readjustment from World Bank and International Monetary Fund loans in the early 1990s had led to inflation; the industrial sector downsized, and a concurrent reduction in wages raised workers’ rancor and erupted in strikes and local protests. The April 6 movement, a middle-class youth movement that was pivotal in organizing this year’s anti-Mubarak protests, takes its name from a planned labor strike in 2008 in the industrial city of el-Mahallah that was prevented by security forces. While there has been creative give and take among student and labor organizers, foreign reporters have missed the class politics within the protest, focusing instead on the international implications of Hosni Mubarak’s ouster. A different sort of internationalism has persisted among unionists from Cairo to Wisconsin, as they celebrated labor’s central role in the overthrow of a despot. A wide array of democracy activists has since successfully pressured the interim government to reject IMF funding and to dissolve the governing local councils, widely seen as tools of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party.
Still, it is increasingly evident that the new military government is about as interested in independent trade unions as was Mubarak. In June, two members of the independent teachers union, Hamala Korany and Atef Al-Gazar, were arrested during a protest demanding permanent jobs for teachers. They faced a jail sentence of one year. Union lawyers were able to get the charges dropped. State media reported June 19 that the army fired live ammunition into the air as it faced off against a group of striking Suez Canal support workers in a failed attempt the break the stoppage, which began after the Suez Canal Authority refused to implement a pledge to raise wages by 40 percent. And in the industrial Sadat City, plant workers at the Turkish-owned Mega-Textile company explained that a strike in April demanding new labor protections resulted in the assault of at least one female worker by a manager. The world may celebrate a victory of people over power in February, but labor’s revolution in Egypt is just beginning.
AT THE forefront of that revolution stands Kamal Abbas, the general coordinator of the Center for Trade Unions and Worker Services, which aids independent unions. He gets up from our interview to take a phone call and after a few moments, his dry and tempered demeanor changes to one of screaming anger. One of the center’s staffers explains that he has just received word of a recurring problem: the Egyptian Trade Union Federation is spreading rumors that independent unions cannot represent Egyptian workers.
The Egyptian Trade Union Federation was founded under Gamal Abdel Nasser as the official state-controlled labor federation. Until just before Mubarak’s fall, it was the only worker organization recognized by employers. (As this article goes to press, state media report that the interim government has dissolved the federation’s executive board.) To any educated observer of labor, this group is no union at all, not least because the Ministry of Manpower and Migration has the sole mandate to change the federation’s constitution and dictate the form of union elections. Abbas claims that nearly thirty new independent unions in Egypt have emerged since Mubarak’s ouster and some have already been able to win wage concessions through shop-floor actions and direct negotiations with government officials. Meanwhile, the state-controlled union’s main campaign is to quash its new competition.
CTUWS, in response, has redoubled its organizing efforts. Abbas is the coordinator of the center’s campaign to organize independent unions from an office in the working-class neighborhood of Helwan in South Cairo. He became famous in the trade union movement for leading a steel strike in 1989 that was violently put down, and during Murbarak’s rule, the CTUWS operated illegally in a nondescript apartment building. The government denied it NGO status, and the police forced its shuttering in 2007 (it reopened at a different office). Now, with offices in the industrial cities of el-Mahallah, Sadat City, and the Tenth of Ramadan City, CTUWS is able to assist new unions with legal aid, logistical support, and organizing muscle, largely through encouraging rank-and-file activists to invite their friends to union meetings. When asked if the CTUWS and other unions use social media to organize, one campaign organizer said that one-on-one organizing is their most effective tactic and access to television news was crucial.
Before Mubarak’s ouster, Abbas says, businesses succeeded in scaring workers away from independent organizing associations, using methods not too different from union-busting bosses in the United States: agitators could be fired, placed in work locations far from their homes, or demoted. But now, he claims, workers have seen that by taking risks, they can reap political rewards, and there is a newfound vigor and defiance. “The workers have the spirit of the revolution,” he says.
CTUWS’s focus on growth rather than demands makes some sense. The government still prefers to deal with the state-controlled union, and Abbas explained that the current military council has urged new unions not to demonstrate or engage in any more strikes. CTUWS has a working relationship with the Ministry of Manpower, but red tape unrolls infinitely. In order for workers to start a new union, its organizers must register with the ministry. But when workers apply, several activists explained, government representatives will delay the process by saying that they have run out of the necessary papers and the applicants should come back in a few days. And on and on. None of this runs afoul of Egypt’s labor laws, which have not been changed since Mubarak’s ouster, and give few rights of appeal. For Abbas, political reform simply cannot be priority number one. “That’s not the first step right now,” he said. “We concentrate on creating independent unions.”
Abdel Hafiez Tayel directs the Egyptian Center for Education Rights, an activist organization dedicated to pressuring the government into investing more into the education system. He is holding court at a favorite coffeehouse in downtown Cairo, not far from the hotel where ECER just announced its report on the dismal state of Egypt’s education system. The report showed that the current budget in Egypt calls for spending $757 US annually to educate one student, compared to $8,000 US in Saudi Arabia and $11,000 US in Israel.
THE STRUGGLE between independent unions and state-controlled unions has played out against this desperate background. Surrounded by teachers who helped form the new independent educators’ union, Tayel is leading a discussion about the educational apparatus Mubarak left behind and the cronies who still run it. It isn’t just the Ministry of Education that’s the problem, but the state-controlled teachers union. As teacher Mohammed Masri explained, the minister receives the demands of the independent union and passes it on to the official syndicate, aligned with ETUF. The state-controlled union then publicly states that it is demanding more than the independent one, thus giving the false impression that it is somehow more militant. But teachers said members don’t realize any benefits at the end of the day. At the same time, added Ayman Al-Bialy, the independent union’s vice president, the ministry “accuses us of not understanding the nature of our work.”
A rookie teacher in Egypt can earn as little as $15 per month, according to the union (“At least we can suffer,” Tayel joked). More than 300,000 teachers nationwide are employed on a temporary basis and thus have no job security or health insurance. Under both Sadat and Mubarak, fees for public education were introduced and private education became more prevalent. According to Tayel’s group, the public education system under Mubarak deteriorated to the point that the curriculum doesn’t prepare students for a university education.
The class consequences are dire, these teachers argue. Middle-class families spend all of their savings on extra tutoring for their children; usually that tutor is an underpaid public school teacher who needs the side gig to make ends meet. Meanwhile, these families are left with no reserve cash as they age. The pursuit of social mobility has left entrenched poverty in its wake.
Vocational schools also lag behind those in other Middle Eastern countries, Tayel said, echoing the center’s report. Students are working on obsolete equipment; no graduate comes out of these institutions with mastery in a trade. He doesn’t think this is an accident. “They need cheap labor,” he said of the government and manufacturers. “It’s easier to rule uneducated people. The goal of the NDP was that Egyptians should be ignorant.”
Sabbah Shaben, a representative for the independent union in the eastern section of Cairo and a vocational-school teacher, recalled that members recently came to the ministry with a proposal: Vocational schools could build partnerships with companies that have manufacturing plants in Egypt. These companies could then put money into modern school equipment and advanced training for students, and in exchange, these graduates would be better prepared for employment. It was a win-win by the union’s measure. “But it was all in vain,” Shaben said, noting that the minister wouldn’t listen. Tayel believed this was a part of a long tradition of keeping Egyptian workers under-educated.
Bialy claimed that despite the requirement for teachers to join the state union, more and more are signing up with his group. Tayel remained skeptical, claiming that Egyptians are fatigued from decades of institutional corruption. “Egyptians don’t trust organizations,” he said. “They hear our name and think, ‘Oh, business as usual.’”
Tayel has an answer, and he believes it starts with fusing the interests of the new union with new parent and student advocacy groups that have grown since the January 25 uprising. By working in coordination with the newly emerging student committees, he believes that unions can make it clear that they will advocate for better wages, but that the group’s final goals aren’t just about self-interest. Teachers, like students, want to bring Egyptian education into the twenty-first century. “We must be partners,” he said.
THE SLOW struggle that is education organizing is reflected in every sector of unionization work. In Sadat City, home to foreign and domestically controlled plants for textiles, carpets, chemicals, steel and glass manufacturing, twenty thousand workers have felt little change since Mubarak’s overthrow. Female textile workers report that they are paid as little as 450 Egyptian pounds a month, the equivalent of $75 US. Because many workers are not on long-term contracts, they are not subject to the minimum-wage requirements, about $118 per month for public-sector workers. Some workers note that plant owners will employ supervisors from their home countries, such as Turkey or India, to do the same work as an Egyptian, but for three times the pay. The same old labor code and government apparatus rule the workplace. The ruling military council, Abbas said, discourages the unions from taking action, as it still has a large stake in economic affairs.
ONE DAY in June, a delegation of American union officials mingled with members of these nascent independent industrial unions. While the Americans showered them with admiration for their industrial defiance and their role in the January 25 movement, the Egyptian rank-and-file members’ questions exuded gloom about their prospects. Why, they asked, had their strikes not been successful to raising pay? How, they asked, could they push for better working standards when the labor code since Mubarak’s ouster has remained relatively unchanged? And what could these American unions do to aid their movement?
American unions offered plenty of advice, though much of it stemmed from what they have done wrong. Bill Fletcher, Jr., the field services and education director of the American Federation of Government Employees, pointed to Egyptian unions’ organization by trade or by industry. Some unionists see the benefit of this: workers of the same group will more likely stay united. But historically, Fletcher noted, these divisions are commonly exploited. Fletcher and the other Americans talked about how legally weak their own unions have become in the last thirty years, noting that Egyptian labor’s current place on the margins of political power is an ideal spot to build a new political model for a workers’ movement. American labor has seen its share of setbacks in recent years, and the visitors seemed as hungry for the hope and vigor of Egyptian organizers as the Egyptians were for American experience. “We are here,” Fletcher said, “to learn from you.”
The pressure for a speedier and complete transition to democracy dominates the headlines. Youth activists have camped out in Tahrir Square resulting in violent clashes. During one incident in Tahrir Square in June, police fired tear gas canisters in rock-throwing crowds, injuring hundreds. The youth said they were targeting the police because they had earlier tried to break up a protest by the families of those killed during the January 25 uprising. Asked why they were purposely using their tear gas canisters to inflict harm, one police officer said, “They’re throwing rocks at us, so we’re fighting back,” as he picked up a stone and hurled it.
And even while socialist parties demand more rights for workers, and unions attend these demonstrations, it is clear that workers on their own are forming a different movement that keeps their energy not in the square but in the workplace. Just as the protesters want to oust the stale leaders in government offices, workers want to do the same in the industrial sector. It might not be what seduces foreign reporters, but it is just as central to the ongoing Egyptian Revolution.
Ari Paul is a journalist based in New York and has reported for the Nation, the American Prospect, Free Speech Radio News, and other outlets.