The week in strikes: who did not work in Egypt and what did they win?

Mostafa Ali, Monday 26 Sep 2011

A remarkable week in Egypt ended with teachers refusing to teach, doctors only tending to emergency cases and Cairo transport workers leaving the famous red buses idle, as pressure builds on the government

Teachers strike، Menoufiya - Delta (Photo by Mai Shaheen)

Hundreds of thousands of public sector workers have shaken Egypt with a barrage of strikes over the last week.

Workers who have taken strike action are raising various types of grievances depending on the conditions of their respective professions, but all seem to insist on one common demand: Prime Minister Essam Sharaf must finally honour his months-old promise to raise minimum wage for all government employees to LE 700.

Some strikers have suspended actions after Sharaf or his ministers promised to rapidly resolve workers’ grievances. Others groups to whom Sharaf has failed to give any comforting promises push on with their strikes.

Three main groups of workers are leading the strike movement, and continue to make headlines in all major media outlets. In all three cases, Sharaf has said that his government simply does not have the resources to meet workers' demands.

Ahram Online here documents the main demands of each group of workers, the estimated levels of participation in work stoppages and assesses the current state of each struggle.

Group 1: Teachers

Estimated number of teachers in Egypt: 1.5 million

Teachers began their strike on Saturday, 17 September in a number of governorates, spreading the strike to Cairo and Alexandria the following day.

Teachers’ key demands:

- Government to release full 200 per cent increase in minimum salaries in order to reach LE 700

- Sharaf to dismiss minister of education for his failure to acknowledge teachers’ grievances and repeated offensive comments

- Sharaf to honour long-standing decisions to promote 600,000 teachers into higher tiers with higher salaries

- Government to grant permanent contracts for tens of thousands of teachers working under temporary contracts

Current situation:

- The strike was called for by the Independent Teachers Union. Participation in the strike varied from one governorate to another. Government figures suggested single digits for the percentage of teachers who stopped work, but as the week progressed, independent sources estimated that more than 50 per cent of Egypt’s 1.5 million educators took part in the action.

- On Saturday, 24 September, thousands of teachers from across the nation descended on the cabinet headquarters in downtown Cairo to pressure Sharaf.

- The government promised to settle most issues if teachers called off the strike.

- On Saturday night, dozens of teachers attempted to set up tents in front of cabinet headquarters in order to start an open-ended sit-in, but police broke up the attempt using force.

- In a statement it issued on Saturday evening, the Independent Teachers Union and other rank-and-file groups suspended the strike, gave Sharaf a week to fulfill new promises, and threatened to come back out in a week if he failed to do so

- A minority of teachers continue striking in disparate parts of country.

Group 2: Cairo public bus drivers, mechanics and ticket collectors

Estimated total numbers: 45,000

The strike began on Saturday, 17 September and hit all 25 main bus depots in the Greater Cairo area at one point or another during the week.

Drivers’ key demands:

- Government to apply 200 per cent increase in minimum salaries promised to all government workers to Cairo transport workers.

- Sharaf to guarantee transport workers end of tenure bonus – 100 months’ salary

- Government to modernise bus fleet in order to improve services to public

- Government to release uniforms it promised to drivers and ticket collectors

Current situation:

- The strike was called and organized by the Independent Union of Transport Workers.

- Drivers organised a number of street protests at the cabinet throughout the week.

- In the middle of the week, the government negotiated with strikers and said it was ready to consider their demands.

- Head of government transport agency labelled striking drivers as thugs on national television

- Union digs in its heels

- Some Cairo transport workers join teachers at Saturday protest at cabinet headquarters

- On Sunday, 17 September workers briefly go on hunger strike but later call it off.

- Strike continues with no buses running in Cairo, and passengers use private microbuses to reach destination

- Union now wants head of government’s transport agency to resign.

Group 3: Government doctors

Estimated numbers of doctors in public health service: 100,000

The strike began on Saturday, 10 September.

Doctors’ key demands:

- Government to release full 200 per cent increase in minimum salaries in order to reach LE 700

- Government to raise the healthcare budget from 3 per cent of the state budget to 15 per cent

- Government to improve security at hospitals to stop repeated attacks by criminals on staff

Current situation:

- The strike was called for and organised by rank-and-file groups “The Coalition of Young Doctors” and “Doctors Without Rights”

- Doctors stopped work in non-emergency units in hospitals in various governorates.

- The strike has affected normal functioning in many hospitals around the country.

- The strike is strongest in places like Suez, Ismailia and Gharbiya (100 per cent participation) and has recently gained strength in Alexandria (70 per cent participation), but is weaker in the capital.

- The current minister of health, a doctor and a former striker, says he is personally sympathetic to doctors but government refuses to concede to the main demands.

- Doctors organise sizeable rallies and marches on cabinet.

- Some governors threaten to apply newly revamped emergency laws against the strikers.

- The strike continues.

Meanwhile, in other strike news this past week:

- Medical specialists carried out a nationwide one-day strike on Sunday, 25 September to pressure Sharaf to listen to demands, and have threatened an open-ended general strike set for next week if government fails to concede.

- Workers at phone company Egyptian Communications say that they have set 30 September as a date a for strike against the government.

- Four thousand workers at Ain Sokhna port (Egypt’s only privately-owned seaport) struck on 21 September against Dubai-based owner DP, and after four days won a near complete victory.

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