Egypt’s ongoing wave of public sector strikes has brought into sharp focus prospects of a nationwide general strike. Spectators, activists and the labour movement have all been asking if Egypt will see a strike of that scale in the near future. A conference on Tuesday night at the Socialist Studies Centre in Giza brought together public sector workers from across the board to discuss the realities on the ground and the steps need to organise any such action.
Coordinated by the Revolutionary Socialists, the conference was led by Haitham Mohamedein, a labour lawyer and activist, and Mostafa Bassouni, labour journalist and member of the Democratic Workers Party (the DWP is still awaiting establishment).
Mohamedein began the meeting by highlighting the recent wave of public sector strikes, which has witnessed unprecedented levels of participation by Egypt's teachers, doctors, workers in the sugar industry and various other factories. Though not highlighted, it is worth noting that Public Transportation Authority workers, who were on a partial strike in Cairo's El-Mazalat awaiting the results of Tuesday's negotiations with the transportation minister, have now launched a general strike. The labour lawyer also presented workers and representatives of different sectors, which were looking to coordinate future strike actions. Among these spokespeople were workers the plastics, steel and sugar industries as well as a worker from the Arab Contractors.
These workers spoke of their attempts at hunger strikes, sit-ins and various other forms of protest that have thus far been largely unheeded by both the Egyptian Trade Union Federation and the Cabinet. They pressed the importance of coordination with the other factories and the urgency of building independent trade unions.
Hala Talaat, a leader in the teachers' strike movement, spoke on behalf of her fellow professionals, who have been on strike since Saturday 17 September. They have been demanding fair wages, the release of a 200 per cent productivity bonus promised to all public sector workers and the discontinuation of merit tests.
According to Talaat, 26 governorates in Egypt are participating in the strike. The South Suez, Beni Suef and Menoufiya governorates have seen full involvement. “We can say that 60 to 70 per cent of teachers in all governorates have take part in the strikes and will continue until all demands are met.”
She stated that the government’s response has been largely apathetic. “They are satisfied with us earning our wages from the pockets of the parents and guardians rather than from the government,” she stated, refereeing to the status quo whereby teachers are forced to supplement their insufficient wages by offering private lessons to students.
Talaat ended her speech by announcing a million-man demonstration on Saturday in front of the Cabinet's offices to push for the teachers' demands, which are primarily: a living wage and the development of teaching standards and ethics “in order that we may help shape future generations who can go on to build a better nation.”
Kamal Khalil, a veteran labour activist and member of the DWP, dove into the subject of general strikes, beginning his words with on a positive note: “I see that the workers are assuredly embarking on the road to a general strike.
“We have the best circumstances for a general strike, as the current wave reaches higher and is more widespread that the wave which began in Mahalla [with the Misr Spinning and Weaving Company] in 2006.”
He derided attempts by what he called “retrogressive forces, liberals, [Prime Minister Essam] Sharaf's Cabinet and the ruling military council” of labelling the strikes as factional. Pointing to the major rallying points of the 18-day uprising, namely “freedom, social justice and the downfall of the regime,” he broke down each point and connected them to the workers' ongoing actions.
“The very fact that workers have stood against the emergency law, the anti-strike law which criminalises workers' protests and have defied the spectre of military trials underscores the political nature of their struggle; can we call these economically or factionally driven actions? No, these are first-rate political motives,” Khalil stressed.
The veteran labour activist then argued that workers' demands for minimum and maximum wages were at the very backbone of calls for social justice, indicating that “the redistribution of wealth in this country” is a primary focus. In his final point by point, he noted that workers attempts at toppling figures of local corruption within factories and in the general unions as a prima facie instance of trying to uproot Mubarak era corruption. He also emphasised that a general strike would only come about through further developments in the structuring and coordination of independent unions.
The next speaker, Mohammed Shafiq, the head of Manshiet El-Bakry Hospital’s independent union, emphasised the need to replicate his hospital’s union, which is the first of its kind. The Manshiet El-Bakry union includes not just doctors but all staff, ranging from technicians to custodial workers.
Doctors have been striking on and off since May 2011, demanding a minimum and maximum wage as well as better working conditions, among other things. The strikes have partially interrupted medical services in many public hospitals and clinics, forcing Sharaf’s Cabinet to call retired to doctors back to work in order to deal with the volume of emergency cases. Currently, only a partial strike is ongoing. Shafiq announced that doctors were calling for a stand on Thursday at 10am in front of the Cabinet’s offices to rally support and press for a government response to their unanswered demands.
Mostafa Bassouni spoke on the scope of the strikes, stating that since the end of Ramadan, more than half a million workers have gone on strike. He also believed that this was the beginning of a general strike to come. “The first sign of the coming general strike is the size of the current wave. The second sign is that workers have been planning these strikes ahead of time – at times weeks in advance. We are no longer just seeing knee jerk strikes,” the labour journalist stated.
He highlighted the collective nature of their demands, as workers from all sectors were demanding a restructured wage system and the removal of corrupt figures, a demand he noted was highly political. The most important reason, however, according to Bassiouni, for a general strike is that the current regime has shown no signs or intentions of responding to workers demands.