Egyptian political activists often joke that their country has only five organized groups: the state’s civil and military bureaucracy, Sufi orders, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Orthodox Church, and the Ahly football club. But a new group might be added to that list soon. With rising labor militancy, the Egyptian workers are increasingly searching for their own free unions to institutionally address their deteriorating economic conditions.
Disillusioned with the 52-year-old, state-controlled Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) and facing unemployment due to the government’s privatization plans and the global economic crisis, calls for establishing independent trade unions to defend workers’ rights are finding even greater resonance.
Following the December 2008 founding of the General Union of Real Estate Tax Authority Employees (RETA), several industrial and service sectors’ workers and employees have voiced similar intentions.
"We are currently studying means for the establishment of independent union committees, and we are determined to end our memberships in the Egyptian Trade Union Federation. We hope to realize these goals by utilizing all the legal and constitutional channels available to us," said Ali Fattouh, a strike leader and driver at the Public Transport Authority (PTA), in an interview with Al-Masry Al-Youm.
Fattouh’s remarks came few days after a two-day strike by about half of the PTA’s 48,000 drivers, fare-collectors and mechanics in August protesting their low wages, unpaid insurance, and harassment by traffic police. PTA workers renewed calls for a strike last week, saying the government has failed to follow through on commitments made in negotiations that ended the August strike.
Plans for creating independent trade unions have also been circulating among Egypt’s school teachers, university professors, Education Ministry administrators, postal workers, pensioners, and air traffic controllers.
“The RETA set the example for other workers and civil servants to follow. It’s indeed the single most important independent political project in 2009," said Khaled Ali, head of the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights.
Once a far-fetched idea only discussed behind closed doors in Egyptian leftist parties’ and NGOs’ headquarters, independent trade unionism has gained momentum with Ghazl el-Mahalla Textile Company workers, who launched a series of massive strikes and sit-ins from 2006 to 2008.
In addition to demanding better payment, bonuses, and industrial safety, a few thousand of the 27,000 Ghazl el-Mahalla workers resigned en masse from the ETUF and begun discussing setting up an independent trade union for textile workers.
Independent observers have long accused the officials in ETUF and its affiliated factory union committee of venality, siding with the management during strikes, and fraud within union elections.
“Like the parliament and the government which have gradually turned into puppets in the hands of businessmen, the ETUF has been pulled by the same strings," Kamal Abu Eita, president of RETA told Al-Masry Al-Youm.
In December 2007, thousands of property tax collectors staged an 11-day sit-in outside the Finance Ministry in downtown Cairo demanding a raise in their salaries. Although the strike was opposed by the General Union of Bank, Insurance and Finance Employees, part of the ETUF, the government conceded to the demands of real estate tax employees by awarding them pay rises of over 325 per cent.
Along with a handful of strike leaders, Abu Eita managed to collect more than 37,000 signatures of the nearly 45,000 property tax employees to form Egypt’s first independent union since 1957.
“Establishing a free union is a natural right granted by the Egyptian constitution and the various international labor treaties which have been ratified by the government," Abu Eita said, referring to Article 56 of the Egyptian constitution, which guarantees the creation of syndicates and unions on a democratic basis and the International Labor Organization Convention 87 on freedom of association.
Abu Eita’s move to establish an independent union has met considerable challenges, especially from the state-controlled ETUF officials, who blame him with attempting to “politicize" the labor movement and bring about its eventual disintegration.
Makram Labib, head of the state-backed real estate union committee in Daqahliya Governorate, accused Abu Eita of mixing politics with trade unionism. “I gradually sensed that he was trying to transform the real estate tax authority into a political platform," said Labib, who was another strike leader organizing the December 2007 sit-in.
“As long as our economic demands were fulfilled by the government, calling for the establishment of an independent union is highly unrealistic when the country heads towards the 2010 parliamentary election, which could be followed by a possible transfer of presidential powers," Labib said, apparently referring to Abu Eita’s declared opposition to a transfer of power from President Hosni Mubarak to his son Gamal.
Abu Eita, a member of the opposition Nasserist Karamah party and an activist in the Egyptian Movement for Change (Kifaya), strongly dismissed the accusation. “Our initial intent was to protest the fact that the majority of union committee officials including [head of ETUF] Hussein Megawar are actually members in the ruling National Democratic Party, therefore we could not have tolerated the idea of mixing our struggle with the agenda of other political parties. It’s purely about our own rights," Abu Eita said.
Labor experts believe that workers’ struggles have been steadily shifting from narrow economic demands, like better wages, benefits and insurance, to the more political question of defining their relation to the state vis-à-vis the ETUF. Many, however, underscore the influence of political parties in shaping the workers’ agenda.
“Workers are extremely suspicious of political parties trying to take advantage of their own causes, so they always strive to deliberately distance themselves from them," said Khaled Ali.
“There is also a tactical dimension to trying to avoid the wrath of the government and its security apparatus."
A senior leader within RETA said that members of the union debated whether to participate in a national strike which was called for by some cyber-activists last April to demand better work conditions. “There was an almost unanimous decision to stay away from the strike to escape any accusations of mixing politics with trade unionism," the RETA leader told Al-Masry Al-Youm on condition of anonymity.
Fearing a domino effect that could trigger aspirations for independence among Egypt’s nearly four million public sector workers, the ETUF launched a counter-strategy to tighten its grip on property tax collectors.
Three weeks ago, the North Giza prosecutor’s office interrogated Abu Eita for trying “to spread false information about the ETUF" and “addressing the public in the name of a trade union without the right to do so," both of which are misdemeanors carrying sentences of imprisonment for up to six months or a fine of LE 100.
The case against Abu Eita was filed by Farouq Shehata, president of the state-backed General Union of Bank, Insurance and Finance Employees (UBIFE), who accused Abu Eita of illegally representing the property tax collectors.
Attempts to weaken the RETA went further when Megawar decided last month to form a special logistical committee to study the necessary legal procedures to establish a new trade union for all employees working in the Finance Ministry, including the property tax collectors.
According to the ETUF’s critics, Megawar’s plan was intended to de-legitimate RETA, utilizing specific articles within Law 35/1976 which prohibits multiple union memberships.
Article 19 of the law states that no "union committee member is not allowed to join more than one general trade union, even if he practices other professions."
Six months after RETA members presented their required foundation documents to the Ministry of Manpower and Immigration, the government’s administrative body responsible for authorizing the establishment of trade unions, they still lack legal authorization.
On 15 September, 49 Egyptian rights groups demanded that the ministry recognize RETA as a legal body. “The ministry’s deliberate denial of RETA’s right to exist represents an unjustified burden that forces it to concentrate on establishing its legitimacy rather than defending its members’ interests," said the groups.
Legalizing RETA will not only shield it against the state’s intervention, but is also a conditional requirement for it to open a bank account through which membership fees can be collected.
Rahma Refaet, the program director of the Center for Trade Union and Workers’ Services, argued that the government lacks a coherent strategy for dealing with the challenge imposed by RETA in particular and the entire labor movement in general. “Cracking down on workers by means of arrest, intimidation, suspension from work could be highly risky and expensive," Refaet said.
“With Egypt’s rising economic liberalization and integration into the global market, some politicians within the NDP have started to realize the importance of creating a mechanism for collective labor bargaining."
Refaet clarified that the workers’ distrust of their undemocratic and unrepresentative union committees usually leaves them with the option of going into strike as their first and only negotiation venue.
Estimates of financial losses incurred during work stoppages, sit-ins and strikes are not available, but with over 1600 incidents of labor protest that took place since 2006, it’s reasonable to assume that they exceeded hundreds of millions of Egyptian pounds.
With Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif’s plan to privatize government-owned industries and distribute stock in them to citizens for free—a move many believe is a hoax to do away with more than 100 public sector companies—labor’s desire for independent trade unions is not expected to wane.
“If socialism cannot be built in one country, a truly independent trade unionism cannot survive in only one sector," Abu Eita emphasized.
“The continuation of selling public sector factories, the rising inflation, and the inefficiency of ETUF, are but factors which will perpetuate the workers’ struggle in Egypt."
*Additional reporting by Jano Charbel.