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Vol. 78/No. 6      February 17, 2014

Egypt: workers discuss fight for unions,
political rights
(lead article)
MAHALLA, Egypt — Three years after the overthrow of the hated Hosni Mubarak dictatorship, working people here are discussing and debating how to advance the struggle for unions and workers’ rights in face of sharply deteriorating economic conditions and government moves to narrow political space.

Workers here have been a prominent force in social struggles, from the strikes of textile workers in 2006, to the mobilizations in Tahrir Square that led to the ouster of the Mubarak regime in January 2011, through the toppling of the Muslim Brotherhood government of President Mohammed Morsi in June last year. As a result, working people throughout the country have gained more confidence to act politically, fight for unions and press their demands.

“There are more trade union rights on paper today than there were in 2011,” Kamal Fayoumy, one of the central leaders of the independent union of textile workers at Mahalla Spinning and Weaving, told the Militant. “At the same time, the capitalists have become more savage, so our rights have to be constantly fought for.”

Since 2011 all the governments have sided with the bosses against the workers. “The Muslim Brotherhood were just as much a party of capitalism as Mubarak’s National Party — it’s two sides of the same coin,” said Fayoumy.

“Under Mubarak we had a union movement that was not defending the workers,” said Hisham El-Karim, president of the independent transport workers union for the Western Province, which includes the main industrial cities of Tanta and Mahalla. “Unions were just a tool in the hands of the rulers so the government could advertise to the world ‘look, we have freedoms, we have labor organizations, invest here.’

“But these unions undermined what the labor movement is about, the defense of all workers. They instead concentrated power in the hands of a few individuals.”

Battle for ‘independent’ unions

The battle for what are called “independent” unions is a big part of what workers are fighting for throughout Egypt. Most workplaces remain saddled, at least officially, with the old Mubarak-installed union structure. All kinds of benefits are tied up with a worker being a member of those unions — pensions, health care, unemployment insurance.

At the Mahalla mill workers have been trying to get their union recognized by the government since 2007. Meanwhile, they have led numerous strikes and demonstrated that most of the factory workers are with them.

“One of the main things independent unions are challenging is the government’s plans to privatize state-owned enterprises and the layoffs that come with that,” Fayoumy said. “The general economic situation has gotten far worse since 2011 as a number of plants have been sold off by the government and then shut down by the new owners.

“The new bosses have consolidated and shut factories to make more profit. Workers have pressed to renationalize these factories and even won some court cases, but the government does nothing to change the situation.”

Independent unions are also being fought for among construction workers. Unlike factory workers, “construction workers are employed by many bosses on a casual basis,” said Mahmod Salameh, a leader of the independent construction union from Ismailiya, in an interview in Cairo. “Work can be slow for weeks, so workers will travel to other areas and it will be hard to organize.”

While laid off factory workers receive some health care and other benefits and are eligible for unemployment insurance, this is not the case for construction workers, according to Mohammed Mowafy, a carpenter from the Maadi neighborhood in Cairo.

Mowafy is for unions setting up funds that workers contribute to, and that they can use to claim unemployment benefits or pensions. He also sees a role for unions in running hospitals that can provide care for construction workers, who have no rights to workers compensation from employers if they are hurt on the job.

“There are two concepts on how to build construction unions,” said Salameh. “Some of us are organizing along craft lines while others are organizing across craft lines. Our federation is trying both. In the unions we are a part of, we are organizing members across craft lines. Anyone in construction, in any of the trades can join. This, we think, makes us stronger.”

Central role of textile workers

Both Salameh and Mowafy spoke about the central role of the textile workers in broader social struggles, including the overthrow of Mubarak. “Mahalla has been like a citadel for the working class in Egypt, an example to others about uncompromising struggle against the bosses and against dictators,” Mowafy said.

“This has also made the Mahalla workers a target for those in power,” added Salameh. “They would like to wear down the workers there. The textile bosses are not hiring, not replacing old machinery or making other investments in plant equipment.”

In January 2014 the interim government held a vote on a new constitution, which paves the way for new elections for president and a legislative body. The government and the military that stands behind it are promoting army chief Gen. Abdel-Fatah el-Sissi for president.

“Today in Egypt many people hope that things can be sorted out by an individual like Sissi,” Mowafy said.

“A minority voted in the recent constitutional referendum, which shows many workers are not taken in by the false promises of the government,” said Fayoumy.

“We are confident that if workers don’t see progress there will be more struggle, no matter who is elected president. The workers will be more decisive in the next round, and there can be more connections with the youth who have been in the streets over the past three years.

“This can happen if the young people turn to the workers and see the power of the working-class struggle, and begin connecting their aspirations with the demands of working people,” Fayoumy said.

“We want to learn about the struggles of workers in other countries.” said Fayoumy, who added that the last time socialist workers from the U.S. were in Mahalla in 2011 he spoke with one who was also a textile worker.

“I still remember her. She destroyed my image of workers in the United States. She explained that textile workers suffer similar exploitation like we do here, and that workers there are hurt on the job. Capitalism is the enemy of working people worldwide. It is not just an Egyptian problem.”
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