Wave of strikes: Egypt Labour fights back, Capital draws a line

Mostafa Ali , Tuesday 31 Jul 2012

While workers’ struggles have won concessions in latest wave of strikes, both capital and government, with political advantages over labour, remain intransigent in the face of demands that challenge the neo-liberal status quo

Cairo bus drivers strike in fall of 2011 (Photo: Mai Shaheen)

A wave of renewed workers struggles – including a number of strikes in key industrial sectors – hit Egypt in the days that followed the election of Mohamed Morsi as president of the country in June.

The timing of the strikes reflected the fact that millions of poor and working Egyptians hold high expectations that Mohamed Morsi – who defeated Mubarak-era General Ahmed Shafiq – will fulfill his pledge to fight the January 25 Revolution goals of ‘Bread, Freedom and Social Justice.’

In fact, strikes, sit-ins and workers protests fell in the months of April and May, according to the labour rights research center, Walad-Al-Ard. Workers were waiting out the intense presidential race, which dominated the country’s political scene, to see which president they might be able to pressure for demands.

In the month of Morsi’s election, two major workers struggles exploded, forcing themselves into the public discourse and all media outlets.

In Mahalla Al-Kubra, the historic citadel of Egypt’s textile industry, which still employs 20% of all industrial workers, 24,000 public sector workers went on strike on June 15th – for the first time since 2011. They put forward a host of grievances with regard to wages, benefits, medical care, and a demand to fire the CEO of the holding company.

Secondly, less than four days after Morsi was inaugurated, 1,500 Ceramica Cleopatra workers took their one-year long battle against Mubarak-era businessman tycoon Mohamed Abul Enein from Suez, to the presidential palace in Cairo. At the doors of the presidential palace, they demanded the government force Abul Enein to meet the terms of prior agreements, the last of which was brokered in the spring granting the workers concessions on profit-sharing, wages and work conditions.

Small strikes, different issues, same fight

Meanwhile, tens of smaller workers sitـins and strikes, which have been a stable feature since the fall of Mubarak, are floating in the background of the Mahalla and Ceramica work stoppages.

These smaller actions by groups of workers whose numbers vary from tens to hundreds can be broadly divided into four general categories.

1) Strikes by government workers/clerks to achieve better wages and working conditions by switching affiliation from one ministry to another.

The recent strike by the staff at the Real Estate Notary Agency for higher salaries and against continued affiliation to the ministry of justice is an example of this type of struggle, which has mushroomed across various state administrative agencies since the fall of Mubarak.

2) Workers protests in various state agencies or state-owned companies to gain promised wage increases that could allow them to reach an LE700 minimum wage. The government conceded this minimum wage in 2011, but habitually fails to deliver on time if at all.

3) Widespread struggles by temporary workers to win full-time and permanent status after languishing for years under conditions of low wages and job insecurity.

The plight of temporary workers at the Torah Cement Company in Helwan, south of Cairo, is a case in point. The company employs 1,200 workers and was 80% privatised in 2005. Hundreds of Torah’s workers have worked in the company for as long as 17 years under temporary contracts.

In early July, the temporary workers occupied the factory to demand permanent contracts. The strikers kept the machines running – from 11 to 25 July, but then to force the owners to listen, they pulled the plug on production lines, thus cutting off 30% of the cement supply to the Egyptian market.

4) Struggles to force private capital including foreign investors to respect labour laws and basic workers rights, as minimal as they are in Egypt.

For example, in the industrial city of Kafr Al-Dawar in the northeast Delta, hundreds of workers have been fighting to force the management of Tetco to reopen the factory. The Turkish-owned textile company closed the factory in the spring in order to avoid paying years-overdue bonuses and profits to the workers.

The workers are also demanding that the management recognise their elected union and rescind their decision to terminate nine of its leaders. Tetco workers tried to take their grievances to the Turkish Consulate in Alexandria, as well as the Ministry of Labour Power but to no avail.

Meanwhile, Tetco management refuses to restart operations until workers sign addendums to previously signed contracts stipulating the company owes them practically nothing. At this point, representatives of the ministry recommend workers sign the addendums to at least regain their jobs while local Brotherhood members of the dissolved parliament informed locked out workers that there is no one to pressure because the investor is a foreign body.

Despite all the variations and gradations in workers demands, all recent workplace actions from the largest to the smallest, and whether in the public or private sectors, share two common interrelated features:

1) They stem almost universally from the inability or unwillingness of employers to concede or deliver promised reforms on longstanding grievances that date back to the year, or even years, before the outbreak of the January 25th Revolution.

2) Most labour protests put forward demands that aimed to pressure successive post-Mubarak governments from Essam Sharaf to El-Ganzouri to at least partially revise the free market neo liberal policies of the Mubarak era. These are policies that rely on high levels of exploitation of labour by curbing wages and job security.

Neoliberals: 'The government and employers are one hand'

Both governments since the ouster of Mubarak have acquiesced, under pressure from workers, and granted some reforms. These touch on the issue of wages, (such as 15 per cent annual bonuses at the beginning of fiscal years), and the question of job security of a small portion of temporary labour (conceding full-time status to clerks in the administrative section of the state machinery).

However, all of them have refused to deviate in principle from an overall commitment to neoliberalism. They therefore show more intransigence towards any demands which challenge the heart of a free market approach. The mentality of that approach today centres on the idea of ‘austerity is the solution to crisis’ (read, stay away from raising taxes on the rich and make the workers tighten their belts and pay for the economic crisis).

This intransigence on the part of employers towards workers’ demands (which is not necessarily a result of the financial inability of employers to dash out money for this or that demand) means bosses always take a number of hardline positions on certain issues.

These are issues that are important to labour but threaten the neoliberal consensus among both politicians (liberal or Islamist) and employers: no granting of permanent status universally to temporary workers, no commitment to free healthcare for all, no progressive tax system, no discussion of a living wage, and, of course, no serious attempt to implement the LE700 minimum wage in the 19 million workers strong private sector.

Given this overall context, the Mahalla and Ceramica Cleopatra disputes, despite their high profile status, represent the norm in the current labour/capital standoff set of relations, and not unique cases.

Both the Mahalla and Ceramica Cleopatra workers, like most strikers and labour protesters elsewhere, were not attempting to gain radical new ground. They were simply acting on a heightened level of expectations of a better life after the fall of Mubarak, and restating to bosses their insistence on the fulfillment of past promises and the implementation of tangible economic reforms to improve their standard of living.

This refusal on the part of government and employers of the attempts of workers to challenge the logic of neoliberalism has been reflected in a slow and partial shift in tactics by bosses. They went from quickly granting demands in order to placate labour (for example by sending army officers in the first half of 2011 to speedily impose undesired settlements on capital in labour disputes to end strikes as fast as possible) to outright rejection of demands, ignoring promises made, dragging out strikes, the use of physical power (either by the state or hired goons) to discourage workers from fighting in the first place and to crush strikes when they do happen.

In the case of the Ceramica Cleopatra dispute, for example, despite signing agreements to meet workers demands on more than one occasion over the past year, Abul Enein sensed no actual will from the state to force him to comply. And so, he regularly informed workers at the conclusion of every round of negotiations that he would cede nothing of what was just agreed upon, before his signature on the settlement papers was even dry.

The management of Torah Cement, meanwhile, hired armed goons to terrorise the strikers and attempted to force open the factory in mid-July.

At a strike at the textile factory of Sanoli in the city of Mahalla, the company encouraged armed thugs to open fire on strikers killing one of the labourers, Ahmad Hosni.

Back in Suez, during the last strike at Ceramica Cleopatra, the government sent central security forces to use tear gas to disperse the workers who had stormed the governorate headquarters.

Labour's political challenges, prospects

On 11 February, when a small group of activists made an online call for workers to carry out a general strike against military rule, the Egyptian working class unanimously boycotted the plea, sending it to a humiliating defeat.

Back in the winter, most workers wanted to give the newly-elected parliament the chance to enact reforms to improve health coverage, union rights legislation, higher wages and salaries, and grant permanent status to temporary labour.

However, the now-dismantled parliament failed to act on most major causes of concern to workers.

Labour activist Fatma Ramadan, the vice president of the Independent Trade Union Federation, pointed out that the Islamist-led parliament failed to even produce a draft-law that could honour worker’s rights to form unions.

Disappointed by parliament, workers braced for the election of a president who could deliver on longstanding grievances.

Many workers who flocked to the presidential palace in Cairo in the aftermath of Morsi’s election to hand in grievances to the Brotherhood-man boasted publicly that they voted for him, not a Mubarak-man, believing he might listen.

Ramadan points out that the road workers would have to travel in order to force Morsi to respect their agenda will be no rosier than the dead-end parliament road. And this is because the president’s own program avoids clear answers key issues such as temporary labour or labour’s right to organize. It insists on neo-liberal commitments to improve opportunities for businessmen.

The likely adherence of Morsi’s newly-appointed Hisham Qandil cabinet to the policies of the free market – at the expense of labour’s wages and security – will most certainly dash the hopes many have in Morsi’s reform credentials. It will also push struggling workers to search for political alternatives.

On the anniversary of the international workers’ holiday on 1 May, labour activist and analyst Hisham Fouad pointed out that while economic conditions and high expectations propel workers to struggle, labour will face real challenges to assert its interests at the current moment.

Two key shortcomings in the labour movement partially tie labour’s hands.

The first problem is structural weaknesses in union organisation that prevent workers from waging effective battles against employers.

For one, the movement is divided between three competing, and mutually hostile federations: an official labor federation, the General Federation of Egypt Workers, which is still under the control of conservative Mubarak era labour bearucrats; the Democratic Federation of Egypt workers (DFE), which is centrist in approach; and the Federation of Independent Unions (FIU), which organises newly unionised sections of labour.

The competition between these federations over membership is currently paralysing one of the most militant sections of the working class, the bus drivers in Cairo, as union leaders quibble over whether to maintain affiliation in the FIU or join the DFE.

The second problem is the failure of workers after the fall of Mubarak to form a labour party that could articulate a program that defends the general interests of labour. A party would provide them with an organ through which to press their demands in the political arena.

This failure means that workers have little or no voice at all in parliament, cabinets or the constitution-drafting process, and, therefore, cannot challenge the continued monopoly of businessmen on political life.

Despite these weaknesses – or perhaps to overcome them – workers in some sectors revived old-style labour solidarity to wage more effective battles against employers.

For example, the Mahalla workers were aided in their last strike against the government by support from all seven major public sector textile companies. They struck to support Mahalla’s demands, specifically the removal of the CEO of their mother-holding company.

Similarly, Ceramica Cleopatra in Suez counted in their fight against Abul Enein on a sympathy strike by colleagues in the company’s branches in Ain-Sokhna and 10th of Ramadan.

And the Torah Cement labour strike could not be broken by the employer or hired thugs because of solidarity of permanent workers with the demands of temporary contract labourers.

Labour’s persistence in pursuing high expectations meant that Mahalla workers, Ceramica and Torah cement laborers extracted some concessions through strikes. However, capital’s policy of intransigence in the face of threats from below to the free market dogma meant that the government refused to dump the CEO in the Mahalla case and Abul Enein refused to pay up the huge sums he owes to workers in the latest signed settlement.

More intense battles are likely to erupt between labour and capital – both state and private – in the months to come.

Labour will have to overcome political and organisational weaknesses if it is to stand a chance against an employing class leaning on a state apparatus designed to force workers into submission to the terms capital sets. It is a class that is now counting on a business-friendly Brotherhood led government to facilitate a return of business as normal.

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