A new workers’ movement: the strike wave of 2007

Issue: 118
Posted: 31 March 08

Mustafa Bassiouny and Omar Said

The beginning of the 1990s saw Hosni Mubarak start to implement World Bank and IMF policies, including a “structural adjustment programme”, privatisation and attacks on workers’ rights.1 The old centres of the working class, such as Mahalla, Kafr al-Dawwar and Helwan, bore the brunt of the state’s assault, which combined promises of early retirement packages for large numbers of workers with lay-offs, the forced transfer of workers from one workplace to another and the building of new industrial sites.

In these new industrial areas, such as 10th Ramadan City, 6th October City and Sadat City, enterprises employed hundreds of workers, but without any form of workers’ organisation worth mentioning. Yet even trade unionists from the state-run unions, who did no more than implement government policy, struck roots for the workers’ movement. Workers’ protests at this stage were characterised by their isolation from each other and the very limited nature of the demands they raised. (The exception was the sit-in by asbestos workers in the Aura Misr factory on 20 November 2004, which continued at the company’s headquarters for nearly eight months.)

These small scale protests continued until 4 December 2006, when workers at Misr Spinning in Mahalla al-Kubra threatened a strike and demanded a two-month profit sharing bonus. When their threat met with no response, 24,000 workers began a strike on 7 December, demonstrating that the voice of the workers in Egypt’s industrial heartlands could still be heard. The strike triggered a wave of workers’ protests across Egypt, crossing different sectors of the economy and industries—from Mahalla to Kafr al-Dawwar to Shibin al-Kum; from spinning and weaving to cement, to the railways, the metro and public transport workers. The Mahalla workers withdrew confidence from their union committee and resigned in droves from the General Federation of Textile Workers’ Unions: 5,000 tore up their membership cards in March 2007. Tens of thousands took part in a militant demonstration on 1 July 2007. On 23 September the Mahalla workers made good their threat to strike for a second time. This time the strike lasted six days and provided rich lessons in the art of working class struggle—in solidarity, in negotiation, in organisation. It ended with a victory for the workers: the resignation of the entire board of directors at the company’s annual general meeting in November 2007.

From 7 December 2006 to 23 September 2007 more than 650 workers’ protests took place across Egypt, a large proportion of which were strikes. This nine-month period saw 198,414 workers take strike action. The figures demonstrate that the current workers’ movement is not a one-off event. On the contrary, the period of silence preceding it was like the calm before the storm, a storm that is developing workers’ demands, unifying them and raising winds of solidarity.

A new workers’ movement

The three-day Mahalla workers’ strike of December 2006 can be seen as a major turning point in the history of the Egyptian workers’ movement. It is possible to talk of the periods “before the Mahalla strike” and “after the Mahalla strike”. This is not because of the size of the strike, although it was very large, nor does it owe its importance to its impact on the media or even to the fact that it triggered the biggest wave of strikes since the 1940s. It lies in the fact that the workers’ movement after December 2006 bore the imprint of the Mahalla strike in several key ways.

For a long period the workers’ movement, particularly in the public sector, relied on the weapon of the work-in, which meant that workers stayed in their workplaces after working hours without stopping production. This method of protest reflected the impact of the Nasserist regime’s propaganda, which claimed that the public sector belonged to the people, that raising production meant raising living standards and that workers were partners in the public sector, rather than just wage earners. During many work-ins in the 1970s and 1980s production actually rose. For instance, in the steel workers’ protest of August 1989 average production rose by
15 percent. The rapid response of the state to end workers’ protests also prevented work-ins developing into strikes. In fact, when it came to halting the production process, it was the state rather than workers that acted by cutting off the workplace’s electricity, water or gas supply.

Structural adjustment has cost many workers their jobs and has given employers far greater freedom. However, it has also destroyed many illusions in the public sector and increased workers’ anger. Now workers are confronting their enemies directly, having rediscovered their most important weapon—the strike.

In the past workers’ protests were generally short in duration. Sometimes the only news of a new protest would be the report of its suppression. The majority of workers’ protests lasted less than 24 hours. For instance, the sit-in at the Helwan steel works in 1989 began in the afternoon and ended at dawn the next day. It was the violent intervention of the security forces that ended workers’ protests before they could spread, particularly in large industrial areas such as Helwan, Kafr al-Dawwar, Mahalla and Shubra. The very short duration of protests curtailed opportunities for the movement to develop workers’ consciousness and organisation, as well as preventing them from triggering a solidarity movement or copycat strikes in other workplaces.

But in the workers’ movement of 2007 strikes tended to last days, sometimes weeks and occasionally months. The Mahalla workers’ protest of December 2006 lasted three days, and was preceded by three days of protests during which workers refused to cash their pay cheques; the second Mahalla strike of September 2007 lasted six days. The Kafr al-Dawwar strike in February 2007 also lasted days, and a strike by workers in the Abu-Makaram textile company in Sadat City lasted about three weeks. A strike lasting several days opens up wide horizons for the workers’ movement to develop. The longer the strike goes on, the greater demands it makes of the strikers and those occupying the workplace—it forces workers to develop mechanisms to stay overnight, provide daily meals and protect the workplace.

As workers stay on strike for days on end, so others begin to raise their own demands in different sectors of the economy. This is what happened in the aftermath of the Mahalla strike of December 2006, when workers across the entire public textile sector started demanding the same concessions as the Mahalla workers. This movement led to a chain reaction across different economic sectors.

In the past the state dealt with protests through violent and sometimes bloody interventions by the security forces. Security forces have even fired live ammunition at workers engaged in peaceful work-ins, as happened in Kafr al-Dawwar in 1984. The most recent major workers’ protest that the state repressed by force was the work-in at Kafr al-Dawwar in 1994. Although in most cases the authorities broke workers’ protests by force, they also conceded to the workers’ demands and in many cases gave them a paid holiday in order to calm things down. The decision to repress workers’ protests was not motivated by economic considerations linked to lost production. Rather it was prompted by security and political factors on the grounds that workers’ protests challenged the state’s role as employer.

In contrast, the strike by Mahalla workers in December 2006 was not put down by force, despite threats of violence. This exception quickly became the rule. Although 2007 was a year with an extremely high number of strikes, not one was violently repressed by the authorities. The state’s intervention was largely limited to psychological pressure and threats.

There has been no democratic transformation of the state—workers are confronting the same regime as in the 1980s. The shadow of repression hung over events of 2007, and the signs of tyranny are still visible. But changes in objective circumstances do account for the authorities’ failure to use the same degree of repression against strikers. One change is the economic transformation that the regime itself began. One of the effects of the structural adjustment programme was to assert the primacy of economic processes—the realisation of profit through mechanisms of production and distribution—above the state’s political and security considerations. This stood in contradiction with the methods the state had used to deal with workers’ protests. In particular, responding to workers’ demands and giving them paid holidays helped preserve the state’s hegemony, but ignored the economic dimension completely. Other factors also lie behind the state’s failure to use violent repression. For instance, the regime fears international criticism, and the growth of the media means it is unable to hide events.

The Labour Law of 2003 was the first to give Egyptian workers the right to strike. Of course this text is meaningless as it is accompanied by restrictions that make it all but impossible to actually exercise this right, such as the need for two thirds of the national union federation executive to authorise the strike. Despite the near impossibility of conducting a legal strike, 2007 saw a new development—negotiations to end strikes. One of the most powerful examples was during the September 2007 Mahalla strike, when a delegation composed of the textile workers’ union federation president and the company chief executive went to Mahalla to negotiate with a delegation of strikers, which did not include a single member of the official union committee. These negotiations went on for more than four hours before reaching an agreement. Such scenes were repeated over and over again in the public and private sectors, and among civil servants.

Even in sectors of the economy designated “strategic”, where organising strikes is banned, workers have been able to impose their will by taking strike action. This has happened in the railways, the metro, hospitals, ambulances, the postal system, military factories and public transport.

Direct negotiations with striking workers are a significant step forward. Such experiences illustrate the point made by the textile workers’ leader Taha Sa’ad Uthman,2 who said, “The law is like a spider’s web. It traps the weak, but the strong tear it apart.”

Negotiations are also important because they force workers to move beyond the generalised anger that motivated them to strike towards a more specific organisational division of labour. Negotiations in this situation are not an alternative to the workers’ action, but a part of it, since the negotiators must take their lead from the workers. The Mahalla workers realised this in September 2007. During negotiations the number of strikers involved in the sit-in in the factory increased and their chants grew stronger in order to make sure that the negotiators knew the strength of their resolve.

One important feature of the strike movement is the wide participation of women workers. This is not a new feature of the workers’ movement, as women workers played a prominent role in workers’ protests in Mahalla in the 1980s and in light transport in Helwan. However, women workers in the recent strikes have played an even more prominent role. It was women workers in Mahalla who started the strike in December 2006 and who played a central role in consolidating it. In the Mansura-Espana factory the majority of the workforce are women and they continued the strike and the sit-in, and slept over in the factory despite facing criticism for doing so. Likewise, many of the workers at South Cairo and Giza Grain Mills and North Cairo mills are women. Women played a prominent role in strikes in the Hennawi tobacco factory in Damanhur and a leading role in the movement of the property tax collectors.

The strike movement that began at Mahalla in December 2006 spread in an unprecedented manner. It went from the public sector to the private, to the civil service, from the old industrial areas to the new towns, in all provinces. It went from the textile sector to engineering, to chemicals, to building and construction, to transport and to services. The strikes also had a wide impact, reaching sectors that do not have a culture of protest, such teachers, doctors and civil servants, and even to slum dwellers such as those from Qala’at al-Kabsh. The strike wave succeeded in generalising a culture of protest.

One of the important new features that appeared in the strikes of 2007 is the high level of organisation and the low level of spontaneity. In the past workers’ strikes exploded in many circumstances as a direct reaction to a particular decision. However, in many cases in 2007 workers announced the date of a strike several days in advance, as happened in Mahalla in September 2007, and in the Italian Cement Group. Announcing the strike in advance and preparing for it not only makes the strike stronger and more effective, but also reflects workers’ confidence in themselves, and their degree of consciousness and organisation.

Economic and union demands, political results

The most important specific factors shaping workers’ demands are the different conditions in the public sector, the private sector, the civil service and the post-privatisation sector. In the public sector state ownership is a double-edged sword, as in many cases the state is making efforts to increase the losses of this sector to prepare the ground for privatisation. At the same time the state, in its capacity as employer, will always be under more pressure to apply the law than the private sector, and this creates comparatively more favourable working conditions for workers, in terms of payment of social and health insurance, and the regulation of working hours.

Since the state is the employer, resistance becomes extremely difficult, but this has not prevented the outbreak of big protests, such as the strike by drivers on the railways and the underground, or the sit-in by workers in the Suez container port. Another example is the strike by 55,000 property tax collectors, which began on 21 October, and which highlighted the terrible situation in the civil service, where salaries for most only reach 250 to 300 Egyptian pounds per month.3

There has been no period in the history of the Egyptian workers’ movement where we have seen such a diversity of workers’ demands. In some cases it has been about payment of benefits or incentives, at others about the withdrawal of confidence from the union, or demands to establish union committees. In the old industrial workplaces, where union committees are controlled by the regime, workers passed resolutions of no confidence. In the new industrial cities, by contrast, workers took strike action to demand the establishment of a union committee. In these areas union organisation is very weak. For example in 10th Ramadan City, there are fewer than 24 union committees covering 1,450 workplaces. Such demands mark a shift in the consciousness of these workers, most of whom are young people who were brought up far from the old working class areas with their strong traditions of trade unionism and struggle.

Workers’ demands did not stop at this level, but in some cases developed into solidarity demands, as happened in the South Cairo and Giza Grain Mills during June 2007. When the company announced the summary dismissal of one of the workers’ leaders, the workers threatened an open-ended sit-in at the company’s headquarters until the company withdrew the decision. In the same company workers took action in solidarity with workers in Mahalla on 23 September on the first day of the strike there.

Despite this, in the majority of cases, the demands were of a narrow economic nature, such as the call for increased incentives. This reflects a number of historic factors, the most basic of which are the militarisation of the union movement after July 1952 and the repression of workers’ protest. This cut the workers’ movement off from its natural path of development after the high levels of consciousness during the struggles of the 1930s and 1940s. Workers are also under constant threat of unemployment, or of being transferred onto temporary contracts, and face continual pressure to increase their hours of work. All of this has naturally led to a degree of backwardness in workers’ consciousness, which is reflected in workers’ struggles. To say this is not to deny that the struggles of the past year were important developments in the workers’ movement. Small demands will not develop overnight into general demands. They have to take their natural course.

The general conditions of the working class, its most basic needs and problems, shape the specific economic demands of workers, whether for an increase in wages to offset rising prices, the payment in cash of monthly social security allowances or the improvement of workplace health provision. These are campaigns in the interests of the working class as whole. In some cases we find expressions of this process. For example, union committees from the cement works in Suez, Tura, Helwan, Al-Qitamiyya and the head office of the Italian Cement company campaigned against the company’s policy of forcing workers to take early retirement. The committees were successful and were able to organise a number of protests that forced the company to make 500 temporary workers permanent.

There are numerous examples that confirm that the continuation of the strike movement, and the winning of the early battles, led to workers developing further demands. However, there were limitations, as this evolution was still restricted to developing demands at workplace level, rather than generalising to demands that addressed the situation of the working class as a whole. One exception was the Mahalla workers who, in the last days of their strike, called for the convention of the National Wages Council.

It is also crucial to note workers’ success in enforcing their demands. In the aftermath of the Mahalla strike of December 2006, following a series of strikes across the textile sector, the state was forced to put aside a portion of the proceeds of the sale of the Bank of Alexandria in order to cover the debts of the public sector textile companies, demonstrating that at a time when the government is pushing towards privatisation, workers’ strikes can defend the public sector.

After the strikes of the first half of 2007 the government began to talk increasingly about convening the National Wages Council to discuss raising the national minimum wage. The end of 2007 also saw the state go back on its intention to pass new laws which would impact upon workers, under pressure from the social movement of the previous year.

The workers’ movement and the trade unions

The stance of the Mahalla union committee, which opposed the strike, is consistent with the role played by the official union movement since its foundation in 1957. During a strike by rail workers in 1976 the president of the General Federation of Railworkers said of the strikers, “They should be beaten around the head with iron fists.” In 2007 the official unions campaigned remorselessly against the strikers, failing to offer any solidarity or support whatsoever. In a small number of cases the official trade union committees did stand with the workers—including the committee in the Mansura-Espana factory, in the Al-Tub al-Ramly factory, and those in the cement works belonging to the Italian Cement Group (Tura, Helwan, Suez and al-Qitamiyya)—but these were exceptions.

The question arises, why has the workers’ movement not been able to create alternative union organisations? It is easier for the workers’ movement to fill a gap where there are no existing union organisations than it is to displace existing bureaucratic unions that are opposed to the workers’ movement. The workers’ movement has passed through different stages. In the first quarter of the 20th century and in the 1940s it built independent unions when there were none. However, during the 1970s and 1980s massive workers’ protests did not lead to the development of genuine workers’ unions.

The presence of a bureaucratic union structure has not been the only obstacle to the development of unions in Egypt. Labour relations and the social system in Egypt have also played a role. Labour relations in Egypt have been relatively stable for a long period under the dominance of the public sector. The lack of pressure to fill the vacuum created by the absence of an independent, democratic trade union movement is also related to the social role of the state, which significantly reduced the impact of wage cuts and rising prices on workers. Although their wages were modest, workers were nevertheless able to buy subsidised goods, and benefit from low-cost housing and free education for their children.

Since the beginning of the 1990s things have begun to change. On the one hand, the state has rapidly reduced its social role, in addition to reducing subsidies on basic commodities, education, health and housing, leaving workers with no alternative but to demand wage rises to raise their living standards. On the other hand, stable labour relations have been replaced by market relations, particularly after the implementation of Law 203 of 1991, which laid the legal foundations for privatisation and aimed to sell off the majority of public sector workplaces and reduce the number of public sector workers by 1.3 million to around 0.5 million, while increasing the workforce in the private sector to 1.5 million.

Despite this, conditions in the public sector remain relatively better than the private sector. According to the Central Agency for Population, Mobilisation and Statistics (CAPMAS), the average weekly wage in the private sector is 175 Egyptian pounds, or 600 Egyptian pounds per month. However, this average hides massive variations from workplace to workplace as this is also gross pay before deductions for insurance. Workers’ take-home pay in private sector companies in the new towns is on average 300 Egyptian pounds per month.4 Private sector pay is also relatively reduced once longer working hours are taken into consideration. According to CAPMAS, the average working week in the private sector is 57 hours. In reality, large numbers of private sector workers work 12 hours per day. Private sector workers have no real protection against dismissal, greatly reduced access to health and safety, and occupational health.

As for the last of the relatively secure sectors of work, the civil service, a new law is being drafted, the Law of General Employment, with which the state is attempting to attack the job security of six million government employees by generalising a system of causal contracts.

These changes in labour relations in Egypt made the issue of the vacuum in the union movement and the hegemony of the bureaucracy more of an acute problem than before. There have been some very significant developments, even if they are only in the initial stages, including the demand to set up union committees in the private sector, for example in Eldorado Ceramics in Suez, the Swiss Cable Company in 10th Ramadan City, Electrometer Company in 6th October City, National Steel Company in 6th October City, Atal Steel Company in Suez, and Ayyad and Sons Steelworks in Helwan. Employers have put up stiff resistance to these attempts, often sacking activists who try to found unions. Such attempts by workers to organise are a sign of growing workers’ consciousness in the private sector. The search for alternatives to the state-run unions can also be seen in the activism of union and worker organisations such as the Trade Union Services Centre, and the Trade Union Freedoms and Rights Coordination Committee, and Workers for Change. These organisations have attracted leading worker activists and aim to offer support to the workers’ movement in the shape of legal, media and cultural support, although they do not present themselves as alternatives to the existing trade union organisation.

There is a great need for independent, democratic unions in Egypt. The workers’ movement is only just beginning to grapple with this problem, and the doors have been opened for a wide ranging struggle with the existing state-run unions. Many questions have been raised about the future of trade unionism in Egypt, questions which only the workers’ movement itself can answer.


Notes

1: This is a translation and adaption of a pamphlet published by the Centre for Socialist Studies in Cairo, December 2007, Raiyyat al-idirab fi sama’ masr: haraka ‘ummaliyya gadida 2007. Mustafa Bassiouny and Omar Said are journalists working for the independent press, Bassiouny for Al-Dustur and Said for Al-Badil. Translation by Anne Alexander.

2: Taha Sa’ad Uthman was active in the unions during the 1930s and 1940s.

3: Equivalent to about £23 to £27. The tax collectors’ strike won bonuses equivalent to four months’ pay, and several other demands. See Baheyya’s blog for more on the strike and Kamal Abu-Eita, one of its key organisers: http://baheyya.blogspot.com/2008/01/organiser.html

4: About £27 a month.