Strikes on back-to-school days: Labour movement hits harder

Yassin Gaber, Marwa Hussein, Sunday 18 Sep 2011

Sunday witnesses a new wave of strikes, marked by an unprecedented level of coordination and the harmonisation of demands, pushing forward Egypt's nascent labour movement

Teachers took to the street (Photo by: Mai Shaheen)

A real show of power will manifest on Sunday, as a collective strike by teachers, university professors, public transportation workers and post office employees commences. Out of the relative dormancy that marked the month of Ramadan, a strident wave of strikes, spanning the past two weeks, has given new energy to Egypt's burgeoning labour movement.

An increasing level of coordination between certain groups, notably among the teachers, post offices workers and workers within the textile industry, and the congruous nature of their demands have raised questions among many spectators as well as active members within the movement on the prospects of a general strike. With nationwide calls for strike action on Sunday, the rising tide of labour shows no signs of ebbing soon.

The recent wave of strikes, largely concentrated in the public sector, has challenged the broken promises and inaction of Prime Minister Essam Sharaf's Cabinet. In the first week of September, 22,000 workers at Misr Spinning and Weaving Company, the largest plant (in terms of number of workers) in the Egyptian textile industry located in the Nile Delta city of El-Mahalla El-Kobra, announced an open-ended strike but called it off after successful negotiations with Minister of Manpower Ahmed El-Borai. The workers agreed with the minister that their monthly incentives would be raised to 200 per cent - a key demand among public sector workers.

Furthermore, postal workers across the country also went on strike demanding higher minimum wages and monthly incentives. The workers of the Egyptian Postal Services Authority (EPSA), like many public sector workers, also called for a cleansing of key administrative posts, as yet, occupied by bureaucrats in place from ousted president Hosni Mubarak's tenure. The scope of the nationwide wave has galvanised, among others, teachers, doctors, university professors, civil aviation employees and public transport workers into action. Like the Mahalla textile workers, the postal service and civil aviation employees have suspended their strikes after government promises that their demands would be implemented.

The government's track record on the matter, however, has been unimpressive, to say the least. Many activists and observers alike are blaming the dozens of broken promises and missed deadlines on the part of the government for the recent spike in labour activism following the relative lull witnessed in August during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

Ali Fatouh, head of the Independent Union of Public Transportation Authority Workers, believes the upward trend in the labour movement is largely due to these flimsy guarantees, but also to a lack of even-handedness.

"The government said it will raise the monthly incentive bonus to 200 per cent for public employees but then it didn’t apply the decision to some sectors, like ours, and the teachers; and for no reason” he states.

The employees of PTA called off a strike in late August after the head of the authority decreed that the incentives would be paid. Yet, the incentives were never paid. The PTA's planned strike will coincide with the first day of the academic year: a day in which any traffic and transportation disruptions could prove to be a significant point of pressure.

"The strike can be only suspended if the government sets a fixed date for the payment of the promised bonus. Otherwise, the strike will take place,” said Ali Fatouh.

The Independent Teachers Syndicate released a statement last week, restating their demands: firstly, the resignation of Education Minister Ahmed Gamal Eddin Moussa, an increase in salaries and the securing of employees' tenure. The teachers' nationwide strike would also coincide with the start of the academic term – again proving highly disruptive.

The Children of the Earth for Human Rights (CEHR), an Egyptian NGO, counted 65 labour protests in August versus 75 in July and 97 in June.

After helping drive Mubarak from power, workers hungry for change conducted as many protests in the span of 20 days in 2011 as they managed to in the whole of 2010. In February alone, Egypt witnessed 168 sit-in, 77 strikes, 51 demonstrations, 48 protests and 27 gatherings as well as the dismissal of 4,200 workers.

After a relative slow down, the movement is gaining momentum again. The protests not only increased in number, but in scale as well, with signs of coordination between workers in different geographical locations, if not also in different sectors.

Hisham Fouad of the CEHR believes that a general strike is the “natural development of what is happening right now. But in months to come. Not now.” The strikes are centred on two basic demands: setting new minimum and maximum wages and securing workers' tenure.

The current situation arises, according to Fouad, from inadequate government responsiveness as well as a general de-politicisation of the labour movement by the majority of the opposition, both liberal and reactionary. The government response has been characterised by “a series of postponements, government games, which are anchored firmly in the characterisation of these strikes as factional, and if all else fails, the joker card is used – the anti-strike law which criminalises workplace protest,” argues Fouad.

Liberals and reactionaries as well, he states, have distanced themselves from labour activism by adopting similar viewpoints. Saber Barakat, a former trade unionist and an activist, sees as well the distance between the labour movement and the political movement that is striking the country, but he believes it the result of the lack of organisation in both sides due to a long legacy of ban and restriction.

Workers and labour activists face several risks which are exacerbated by their contentious roles and their political marginalisation. “The government won’t watch silently, it will interfere and try to enforce laws like the anti-protest law, the emergency law and use it to arrest the leaders of the movement, ”says Hisham Fouad.

The weight of the government's reactions, thus far, has been on a relatively limited scale. In fact, it was not until July that the movement witnessed the first ruling by a military court against five workers for protesting with their co-workers in front of the oil ministry. The head of the PTA sued Ali Fatouh accusing him of incitement to strike. But the court acquitted Fatouh. It is also worthy to note that the much reviled anti-strike law, passed in March, has seen little application. Industrial protests continue, yet the largely criticised law does little more than loom in the background.

Gains, however, have been made in the arena of unionists' rights. A new legislation on trade union freedoms has been approved by Egypt's Cabinet and is currently awaiting its final passage. It should eliminate many of the constraints imposed on workers' unions under Law No 35 (1976) and should also allow, for the first time since the 1950s, trade union pluralism. The law, however, won’t do more than give legal coverage to what happens on the ground. There are now around 150 independent unions in Egypt, only three of which were formed before the revolution.

For Saber Barakat, who forms part of the recently-appointed steering committee for the Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF), the strength the movement is gaining is a result of better organisation. There are now about 140 independent unions which interact – even if their influence is not always evident. Some interactions are broader than others.

The interaction between the old unions and the newly created independent ones, in places where the two coexist, differs from one sector and case to another. In the case of the Mahalla textile workers and tourism workers, the steering committee managed to unite both the old union with the new one, amplifying their collective voice and focusing on their common demands. In the case of the EPSA, members of the old union are completely allied with the administration, refusing to cooperate with the newly formed independent union. 

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