On Thursday, 24 March, the General Transportation Authority (GTA) declared the formation of a free and independent trade union -- with a membership already 5,000 strong -- during a meeting at the Press Syndicate chaired by, among others, Kamal Abou-Eita, head of the Independent Syndicate for Real Estate Tax Employees, Mostafa Bassiouni, Ad-Dustour’s labour correspondent, and Mohammed Al-Taraboulsi, director of the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) Middle East labour activities.
The formation of the GTA's new union makes it the sixth independent union to be established since 1957. The Independent Syndicate for Real Estate Tax Employees was the first of its kind, coming together in 2009. The others include: the Independent Teacher's Union, the Plumber's Union, the Pensioner's Union and the recently formed Workers of Manshiet Al-Bakri Hospital which includes doctors, nurses and both seasonal and nonseasonal staff. The Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions, consisting of the first four independent unions, was formed on 30 January 2011 in Tahrir Square.
Along with the creation of an independent GTA trade union, the labour leaders set out a list of further demands. First, they demanded the fiscal rights of workers in regard to recompense for work related injures and a salary increase to LE1,200 per month -- at present workers earn anywhere from LE275-600 a month. Secondly, they called for a withdrawal of confidence in the current transportation union. The unionists then called for health insurance coverage for all workers. They also demanded further transparency, with respect to the publication of a monthly balance sheet stating the profits and loses of the union.
GTA workers and unionists have often called for the removal of Salah Farag, the authorities chairman whose earnings, they see, are neither ethical nor fair.
The trade unionists demanded that the GTA be integrated into the Ministry of Transportation as it is currently part of and overseen by the Governorate of Cairo. The unionists unanimously called for the dismantling of the Egyptian Federation of Trade Unions (EFTU) which was formed in 1957 by former president Gamal Abdel Nasser. The founding of the EFTU ushered in an era of state controlled trade unionism, lumping all the country’s workers under a government umbrella and successfully stifling their voice.
Mostafa Bassiouni spoke of the much despised EFTU -- considered by many an instrumental arm in propping up the regime and its' corrupt practices. “The EFTU's [president] Hussein Megawer used to hire out unionists from the federation who would gather at Mostafa Mahmoud Mosque in order to demand the continuation of the regime.”
On 15 February, independent trade unionists peacefully demonstrated outside the state controlled union’s headquarters, denouncing Megawer, an NDP businessman connected to the Mubarak family. When the protesters attempted to enter the building’s lobby they were met by EUTF thugs bearing rocks, sticks, fire extinguishers and glass bottles.
Al-Taraboulsi maintained a focus on the EFTU. He began his speech by stating he didn’t speak the Egyptian dialect but the audience responded telling the Tunisian unionist there is no need to differentiate between Tunisians and Egyptians. The ILO director then looked to the future and focused on the importance of free, independent trade unions in Egypt.
“We don’t want a union that represents the nation via the workers; we want a union that represents the workers in front of the nation,” stated Al-Taraboulsi.
“The ILO is contingent on the independence of all trade unions. The independence of the unions is a first step; it is a foundation that cannot shift no matter the nature of the state, the government or its ruler. Those who are part of the opposition today might find themselves in government tomorrow, however trade unions always remain independent. A union either remains independent, democratic and in pursuit of its rights or else it is of no consequence. “
The latter statement incited rousing applause as the energy of the audience intensified. Every few minutes the workers would jump to their feet, chanting,”Down with, down with Hussein Megawer!”
Bassouni then spoke on the recently decreed anti-protest law which prohibits and criminalises strikes, protests, demonstrations and sit-ins that interrupt business and disrupt the economy: “Today, the workers of the GTA respond to the Cabinet whom we expected good things from and whom have issued a law which pushes us back to the era of dictatorship. A law which even [Hosni] Mubarak couldn’t pass.”
“No can break the symbol of the workers not with a law not with constitutional amendments or with anything. The workers will persist till their demands are met,” stated Bassouni.
The labour journalist then called for a march on Sunday at 6:00pm from the Press Syndicate to the Cabinet building as a show of defiance against Wednesday’s anti-protest decree.
The charismatic Abou Eita took up the microphone and again called for the dismantling of the EFTU, emphasising that “Egypt, to begin with, is a country devoid of proper unions, those that currently exist are just fronts and those that are running them are the enemies of the workers.”
The workers immediately rose up and began chanting: “We won’t bow our heads, we won’t bow our heads. We despise the disgraceful party [a reference to the NDP].”
The theatre was then drowned in the sound of “long live the transport authority’s free union.”