The road to trade union independence

Haitham Mohamedein, Tuesday 20 Sep 2011

Upcoming trade union elections are as important as parliamentary elections, with the left facing strong competition from the Muslim Brotherhood

Haytham Mouhamadeen
Haytham Mouhamaden

The words "Trade Union" in Egypt automatically bring to mind the following stereotypical image:

On 1 May of each year, the president of the republic, who is also chairman of the ruling party, stands up during official celebrations at the Cairo Conference Centre to give his address on May Day. He repeats the same words on this date of every year over the past 30 years, amid applause and praise from an audience of key state officials, businessmen and trade union members who are all members of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP). After standing ovations for the president’s speech, it is time for the trade union chairman to praise the achievements of his boss and declare his support for him in the name of Egypt’s workers.

This is the image of the General Federation of Trade Unions (GFTU) for millions of Egyptians. This is the legendary entity that for decades has hung over the heads of workers, despite changes in governments and policies since the era of Gamal Abdel-Nasser, then Anwar Al-Sadat, followed by Hosni Mubarak. It finally collapsed under the blows of Egyptian workers on 4 August 2011.

Trade Union dissolved: “The firm grip of the regime over the Egyptian working class”

The General Federation of Trade Unions in Egypt was established in in 1957 upon orders by then President Gamal Abdel-Nasser, to incorporate 23 general syndicates in all economic fields, in production and services, around the country.

During its last cycle, 2006-2011, it included 1,809 shop-floor committees, with membership in the GFTU reaching 3,815,895 of the 15 million wage workers in Egypt.

Since its creation in 1957, the government controlled GFTU has opposed demands by workers and their movements, condemning strikes and sit-ins and informed on labour leaders. The main role of the trade union was to ensure the subservience of labour to government, and later on, private business as well.

Syndicate committees under GFTU are concentrated in the public, public business and government sectors, and are almost non-existent in private sector factories and companies. Meanwhile, there are only 25 syndicate committees in all new industrial zones, and GFTU did not try to form committees in these areas, and even blocked attempts by workers to do so, reporting them to security agencies, to appease business owners.

The dissolved GFTU board included 23 members, 21 of whom were NDP members. Of the 23 chairmen of general unions, 19 were NDP members in the 2006-2011 cycle.

These figures demonstrate the intrinsic relationship between the leadership of GFTU with the regime and its entourage of businessmen. This made GFTU the primary defender of government policies in confrontation with workers. GFTU approved the privatisation of state-owned enterprises which laid off hundreds of thousands of workers because of blatantly corrupt deals and wasted public funds. It also actively participated in the suppression of labour protests against the privatisation process.

2006: the beginning of the end of GFTU

Strikes at Mahalla Textiles

On 7 December 2006, workers at El-Mahalla Textiles went on strike to demand a raise in wages. The factory committee, which was formed after rigged elections, opposed worker demands and condemned the strike. It called on the General Union of Textile Workers to have the leaders of the strike arrested, and the top GFTU leadership took the same position.

At the end of the protest, workers collected 12,000 signatures — more than 50 per cent of union members in the company — to withdraw confidence from the factory committee because of its opposition to the strike. They presented the petition to the general union, but were turned down and were told that the syndicate committee is the “legitimate representative” of workers. This petition was the first attempt by workers to take back their union from state control, and concluded by raising the banners "Fair wages, an independent union".

Employees at the real estate tax authority: second attempt; could succeed

On 3 December 2007, more than 10,000 real estate tax authority employees across the country went on an open strike to demand equal benefits as employees of the Egyptian Tax Agency. During the strike, delegate committees were formed in all governorates to manage the strike.

These committees came together to form a higher committee which negotiated on behalf of striking workers with the government, since GFTU opposed the strike and the workers’ demands. In fact, GFTU head Hussein Megawer came to negotiate with strikers on behalf of the government. On 31 December, the government submitted to the demands of employees and their wages were raised by 32 per cent.

Their awareness raised in the course of the strike action, employees decided after month-long negotiations and action in governorates to transform the strike committees into an independent union, outside the control of the government trade union.

Some 30,000 workers joined the new syndicate and on 20 December 2008, the founding conference for this union was held at the Press Syndicate attended by more than 5,000 delegates. Employees of the tax agency for the first time in decades wrote up their own constitution by penning basic organisational regulations, whereby rank and file members of the union were soverign, able to elect and recall union leaders through democratic means.

In this manner, the workers were able to clench an independent syndicate, but their struggle for fair wages and humane living remained long.

January 25 Revolution: GFTU joins the Battle of the Camel; independent unions join the revolution and declare their solidarity in the heart of Tahrir Square

On 31 January, a few days after the January 25 Revolution began, four independent trade unions declared the creation of the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions in Tahrir Square. These included the unions of real estate taxes, health technicians, pensionors and teachers.

Independent unions confirmed their participation and support of the revolution and its demands, at the centre of which was social justice, especially that labour strikes and protests enabled the revolution further — El-Mahalla uprising on 16 April 2008, was the rehearsal for what occurred on 25 January 2011.

Meanwhile, GFTU leaders led by Megawer were preparing to thwart the revolution and use thugs and GFTU hangers-on to attack the revolutionaries in Tahrir, in what came to be  known as the Battle of the Camel incident on 2 February 2011.

Labour strikes in the third week of the revolution helped bring an end to Mubarak’s reign; he was ousted on 11 February. Strikes have not stopped since, to achieve social justice and removing cronies of the previous regime from institutions, despite media and attacks by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).

As strikes continued, workers began forming tens of independent associations and trade unions in a short time and in strategic sectors, such as public transportation, civil aviation, media, hospitals, and others.

The Ministry of Labour officially recognises independent unions

The Ministry of Labour received an avalanche of requests to sanction the creation of independent unions, despite the incessant war against their leaders led by the corrupt GFTU leadership and governing boards of companies and associations. The new independent trade union leadership was successful in relying on pressure by workers demanding the dissolution of the GFTU and simultaneously creating independent unions, until finally the scales tipped in favour of the independent unions. This caused Minister of Labour Ahmed Al-Boraie to declare the government's recognition of independent unions in an official statement, and the ministry’s commitment to international charters regarding trade union freedoms.

Models of independent unions: public transportation and Manshiyet Al-Bakri

During its first founding conference on 1 April, the independent union of workers at the Public Transportation Authority (PTA) was declared established and was registered on 10 April 2011. Just 20 days later, the independent union took part in May Day celebrations on 1 May in Tahrir Square, declaring an all-out strike at (PTA) and the Greater Cairo Bus Company. The strike began on 2 May demanding better wages and the sacking of the chairman.

The independent hospital workers union at Manshiyet Al-Bakri Hospital brought together doctors, nurses and workers side-by-side in one syndicate, a wholly unprecedented occurance. The union was created on the same day as the public transportation union, and its first decision was to demand the sacking of the hospital director and opening the door for nominations for the post. It informed the ministry and local district of the decision, and four doctors nominated themselves. Direct balloting took place with the participation of everyone to choose their top administrator, under the supervision of members of the independent union for public transportation workers.

Dissolution of the GFTU governing board: a historic turning point in the Egyptian labour movement

On 4 August 2011, the government announced that after many demands and massive labour strikes it will apply court rulings that deemed the results of Labour Union elections for the 2006-2011 cycle as fraudulent. It appointed an administrative committee to oversee the union until the next elections.

At the same time, a dialogue is underway among independent unions (as representatives of workers), the Ministry of Labour (representing the government) and associations of businessmen regarding a draft law for new legislation on trade union freedoms, which the leaders of the deposed GFTU had objected to and even sponsored a strike to protest.

The new law is expected to unequivocally and legally recognise independent unions, while opening the door for free and honest elections for all trade union posts including shop-floor committees within six months after it is issued.

At the same time, 90 representatives of independent unions met at the headquarters of the Bar Association in Cairo on 5 August to celebrate the dissolution of GFTU and to declare the formation of an elected founding assembly for the Egyptian Federation of Independent Unions. Also, to adopt a declaration of principles that were previously approved by some independent unions, including the following important stipulations:

- The independence of trade unions from political parties, the government and civil society groups;

- Rejection of any interference in trade union activities, foreign and other funding; funding for trade unions should only come from membership fees;

- Rejection of the imperialist role of the US in the region, declaration of hostility towards Israel and Zionism, and refusal to deal with any entity or person that normalises relations with [Israel].

The Left and Muslim Brotherhood on the Independent Trade Union Federations’s steering committee

The prime minister issued a decree naming the members of the administrative committee that will oversee the dissolved GFTU until elections take place. They include leading left-wing trade unionists as well as officials from the labour bureau of the Muslim Brotherhood. The government decision also included a few members of GFTU on the committee.

The composition of the committee also reveals potential rivals in the coming trade union elections. Former leaders in the dissolved GFTU or the remnants of the NDP in the labour sector will not abandon their positions easily, and will attempt to recover their positions through elections, with possible support from the government, SCAF, and businessmen who want to stifle the emergent labour movement.

For its part, the Muslim Brotherhood seems to have prioritised entery into labour circles, especially after the major successes of the labour movement in 2006 and 2008 when El-Mahalla uprising demonstrated the ability of workers to effect change. They were assisted in their endeavours by Brotherhood members in parliament who wanted to play a critical role in relaying the demands of workers picketing outside parliament for months. The Muslim Brotherhood primarily did that to win the favour of workers and support for the group in their workplaces, and also to establish a Brotherhood presence among Egyptian labour, which efforts met with a measure of success.

There are reports that preparations are underway at the Muslim Brotherhood labour office to contest the next trade union elections. The group is organising for elections in public and public business sector factories; some of these sites are relatively quiet in terms of protests because workers are older and their work conditions and income are slightly better than private sector factories. These relatively quiet sectors will be the target of the Muslim Brotherhood in the next elections, and the group may feel that these sectors are compatible with the Brotherhood’s conservative character.

It is unlikely that the group will focus on contesting elections in private sector factories in new cities, where workers are living under dire conditions and fierce clashes take place intermittently. Accordingly, it is more likely that the Muslim Brotherhood will stay away from these sectors as well as from civil servants and military production, which represent a resistance bloc for the government.

Until recently, forces on the Left played the major role in supporting labour strikes and propelling the movement of independent trade unions forward, thus winning the trust of members of these unions to some extent, starting in El-Mahalla through to real estate tax employees. The coming trade union elections represent a great challenge for Egypt’s left despite its long history of supporting workers’ rights.

The primary challenge facing the left within the trade union movement, however, will be from the remnants of the NDP, supported by state bodies and business. The second challenge is the superior organisational skill of the Muslim Brotherhood, and their enormous financial capabilities.

Haitham Mohjamedein is a labour lawyer and advisor to several independent trade unions.

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