On Wednesday 2 March, 2011, the newly formed Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions held a labour conference to announce and discuss the demands of the workers and their unions. The conference which was dubbed “What Workers Want from the Revolution” took place at 5:00pm in the Journalists’ Syndicate.
Independent trade union representatives and labour leaders gathered as leaflets, newspapers and statements were passed around, all outlining and championing the workers’ struggles. The conference effectively launched Egypt’s first independent trade union federation since 1957 when former president Gamal Abdel Nasser ushered in an era of state controlled trade unionism, bringing all workers under the umbrella of the government-run Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF).
The Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions was formed during a meeting in Tahrir Square on 30 January 2011, in the spirit of the 25 January protests, among union representatives and leaders.
Labour-leader Kamal Abu Eita began the evening when he declared the official inauguration of the independent federation and the fall of the pro-government ETUF. The leader’s message was immediately met with cheers as the crowd of workers who had gathered around the podium began chanting, “Oh Megawer, come on! Clear out!” Soon the conference room transformed into a full-on protest as workers shouted, “Long live the work force” and “Egypt, oh mother! Your workers are here! We will sacrifice our lives for you!”
Abu Eita announced that the new federation’s main call was for all workers to pull out of the ETUF and any affiliated organisations and unions. He called for workers to join new, independent unions.
Leaders from the four organizations, which together forged the new independent federation, were introduced and then given time to air their grievances and state their demands. Ahmed El-Sayyed, chairmen of the Health Professionals Union, was seated along with Salah Abdel Salam, chairman of the Real Estate Taxes Union, El-Badry Farghali, chairman of Pension’s Union and Mohamed Balah, a member of the Independent Teacher's Union.
Farghali and his fellow labour leaders emphasised many of the same points. The charismatic chairman of the Pension’s Union passionately argued that the worker’s movement was for all of Egypt, for the 80 million people. He stirred up excitement when he said the “ETUF have sold us out… we need to rebuild the system and step away from existing corruption.”
Ahmed El-Sayyed pressed many of the same points, stressing that, “Our revolution isn’t over. We must fight the injustice and the corruption.”
The atmosphere was lively as the conference’s tone wavered between talk of past suppression and hardship to talk of present and future triumphs. Salah Abdel Salam explained how the Real Estate Tax Union came to be formed: “We needed to get out of the ETUF’s shadow which had unjustly treated us and deprived us of our rights for decades...We staged a true, true sit-in in front of the ministry of finance so we could take back our rights. This sit-in was in 2007... and it was the Real Estate Tax Union which hammered the first nail in the coffin of Mubarak’s regime. We slept in the streets for 13 days because you won’t get your rights unless you sit-in.”
Abdel Salam attacked Egypt’s labour and trade union laws which “denied us the right to strike, protest or establish our own independent unions.” He then assured those present that independent mobilisation and unionisation will help the worker’s realise their goal of a steady minimum wage.
Kamal Abbas of the Centre for Trade Union and Worker Services gave an electrifying speech in which he said: “The ETUF is in front of us and Hussein Megawer is still sitting inside and he’s still trying to speak on behalf of the workers of Egypt. They gave a statement after their conference yesterday announcing that they accepted the right for us to form our own unions. Come now, come now, brother! This is too little too late. It is we who now say that we don’t accept your right to exist from this day forward!
“This federation collapsed along with the collapse of the regime.”
He then demanded that all papers and documents in the ETUF be protected so that those charged with corruption can be appropriately tried.
In line with the evening’s theme, Abu Eita encouraged all those present to unionise independently: “You don't have to ask, or wait, for the approval of Megawer's federation to establish an independent union in your workplace." He explained that all one needs are the appropriate documents and number of signatures.