The Union is a Shield and Our Sword is the Strike: An excerpt from Egypt's Past and Potential: Nationalism, Neoliberalism, and Revolution


Derek Alan Ide I Publication I December 3rd, 2013



The following is an excerpt from Chapter Eight of the forthcoming book, Egypt's Past and Potential: Nationalism, Neoliberalism, and Revolution , by Derek Alan Ide, which is scheduled for publication by the Hampton Institute Press in December of 2013.


Chapter 8 - April 2011 and Beyond: "The Union is a Shield and Our Sword is the Strike"

The tidal wave of labor activity would continue throughout 2011, signifying as Wael Gamal suggested that the people truly did want another wheel of production. This desire expressed itself via two central tenants: social justice, in the form of living wages, improved working conditions, permanent employment, etc., and tathir, the cleansing of public institutions from the old regime. In February and March of 2011, the total number of collective labor actions was already at a record high of 612.[1] In contrast, the number of labor actions for the entire year of 2009 and 2010 were 478 and 530, respectively. In other words, this two month period in 2011 saw 22% more incidents of labor unrest than the entire year of 2009 and a 14% increase over the entire year of 2010. By June, 2011, incidents of labor unrest would reach 956, and by the end of the year nearly 1,400 work stoppages or other labor protests would occur,[2] almost three times the annual amount counted in any year during the previous decade. The number of workers involved in work stoppages and other actions would steadily decrease from April to August, hitting a low point of 76 incidents involving 33,000 workers in July. Still, in total some 280,000 workers engaged in "stopping the wheel of production" between April and August, near the same or less than in February and March. These numbers only paint a partial picture, however, as the consolidation of organizational capacity within and between individual workplaces during this period facilitated the struggle that was to explode in September.[3]


April to August (2011): Obstacles for Egyptian Labor

The battles that preceded the September upsurge, those that took place from April to August, were not unimportant. To take just a few examples, in Sadat City, categorized as a Qualified Industrial Zone, some 50,000 workers are employed in some two hundred firms. Before 2011 there was almost no union representation. Sadat City was the bastion of Ahmad 'Izz's iron and steel magnate and the NDP forcibly maintained a low union presence to attract capital investment. By the end of 2011, twelve new unions and a city-wide labor council appeared in Sadat City, all affiliated with EFITU. These unions formed in the heat of struggle, as hundreds of Ceramics workers, 9,000 Beshay Steel workers, and 5,000 workers at the Mega Textile factory went on strike and won many of their demands. In these months alone, at least 30% of Sadat City workers had engaged in labor activity. In mid-May even contention over control of the professional syndicates was evident, despite being a historic stronghold of the Muslim Brotherhood. Thousands of doctors, who occupy a fundamentally different economic space in Egypt than in places like the United States and who had felt the pinch of economic and educational decline for decades, went on strike. During this process they opened up arguments about the function and role of unions for professionals. Mohammed Shafiq, talking about the June Doctors' syndicate elections after the strike, articulated the changing social reality:

The Independence List put up six candidates for the young doctors' seats on the general council who are elected across the entire country. I was one of them. It is well known that I am a communist. The list got ten thousand votes. I got twelve thousand votes in total. Those extra two thousand votes came from the Brotherhood. I was putting forward the view that the union should be a fighting union, that the union is a shield and our sword is the strike. [4]

Thus, even doctors were beginning to radicalize as hundreds of thousands of workers around them were donning their shields and unsheathing their swords for the first time. Yet, with every step forward there was reaction as well. At Beshay Steel, 1,500 temporary workers lost their jobs due to the strike, even as the others won their demands. At the Mega Textile factory, managers dismissed 43 members from the newly formed union there, and a sit-in was attacked by military police. On June 29, a military court sentenced five workers at Petrojet under Law 34 to one-year prison sentences after workers occupied the public space in front of the ministry for two weeks demanding permanent employment status. These examples from Sadat City and Petrojet highlight the turbulent nature of the labor struggle in Egypt, and the obstacles that workers faced when taking collective action. [5]


The Mass Strike-wave of September: "A Shift from the Defensive to the Offensive"

September would see a drastic turnaround, marking a prodigious augmentation of struggle by Egyptian workers in the form of major strikes in four sectors. Postal workers, teachers, sugar workers, and public transit workers all engaged in coordinated, mass action during September. While there were only 56 recorded incidents of collective action in September, this number is misleading since some 500,000 to 700,000 workers were involved in the highly concentrated sector strikes. Compare this to all of 2008, where only 540,000 workers participated in labor activity, meaning that actions in September 2011 alone met or exceed the number of actions in all of 2008.[6] These four strikes would literally paralyze the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, still ruling Egypt throughout 2011, and set the stage for mass protests in November of that year.

The primary difference between the eclectic explosion of labor activity in February and the immense strike wave in September was the level of organization and coordination involved. In February, labor militancy was largely uncoordinated, spontaneous, and sectional. After years of political and economic repression, coupled with a dearth of independent labor organizations capable of uniting large groups of workers, this level of "many-headed hydra" [7] was apropos to the revolutionary climate as the Mubarak regime collapsed. By September, however, conditions were qualitatively different. Workers had formed dozens of independent unions, many linked together by EFITU, and many more worked in conjunction with other support networks. Despite the severity of the military junta's attacks on labor, which may partially explain the decline activity from March through August, the revolutionary conditions were far more conducive to independent labor organizing than before. Workers seized this opportunity, and the September strike wave marked fundamental shift due to the level of coordination. Of the major strikes which took place in September, the teachers' strike was the largest, with some 250,000 to 500,000 teachers taking part. Another six strikes involved roughly 160,000 workers. [8] The concentration of workers in fewer but significantly larger strikes symbolized the higher level of organization on behalf of Egyptian workers.

The second dominant proclivity that distinguishes September from February is that a prodigious amount of workers were engaged in battles against state institutions and employers in September, while in February workers were more likely to be fighting private employers. In March, over one-third of all workers engaged in collective struggle during March did so at a single workplace, while only fifteen percent engaged in nationally coordinated strikes. In September a complete reversal took place, with three-fourths of workers involved in strikes that took place at the national level. [9] These two factors, the concentration of workers into larger strikes with greater coordination and the shift in targets from private employers to state ones, were also accompanied by the evolution of workers' demands into calls large-scale social changes that extended beyond individual grievances. While examples of this could be seen in February, where generalized political and economic demands were being fused with local requests pertinent to individual workplaces, this phenomenon was significantly more widespread during September. These social demands, beyond the capacity of any individual employer to deliver upon, could be seen in many of the nationwide strikes. Alexander explains that:

Collectively, they articulate one of the organized working class' most significant ideological challenges to neo-liberalism in the current economic crisis. The strikes in Egypt differ from the defensive strikes against austerity measures in Greece and strikes in Britain. The Egyptian strikes, by and large, represent the workers' movement's direct offensive against the "successes" of neo-liberalism, rather than its failure and crisis, with relentless rises in the cost of living actually driving the movement.[10]

Two major components of the demands articulated by workers were the implementation of a minimum wage of 1,200 Egyptian pounds per month and the dissolution and discontinuation of temporary contracts. This last issue was particularly important, as temporary contracts have allowed Egyptian employers to keep wages low and easily dismiss any workers who daring to take action to improve working conditions or wages. Various nationwide strikes adumbrated some variation of this demand calling for the immediate, mass transfer of workers from temporary to permanent employment. Strikes against the privatization of state companies formed another central component of this wave of unrest. Some small-scale victories, such as court decisions to annul the selling-off of a department store and a textile factory, were of enormous significance in terms of refreshing workers hopes that the wave of privatization could not only be stopped, but potentially reversed. These shifts represented what Alexander calls a "shift from the defensive to the offensive." During September, workers began to seriously challenge the despondence caused from decades of rebarbative neoliberalism, articulating their own collective demands for dramatic social change. Even if these demands fell short of calling for a fundamental social transformation of society, a new consciousness had developed in Egyptian workers that would not easily be bottled back up.

This "shift from the defensive to the offensive" could be seen most clearly in the teachers' strike. The strike, the first nationwide teachers' strike since 1951, was coordinated by two new independent unions. The 80,000 strong Independent School Teachers' Union was actually founded in July 2010, before the revolution, and is affiliated with EFITU.[11] The Egyptian Teachers' Federation, based out of Giza, was also a key participant. The official, state-sponsored union associated with the ETUF, which Muslim Brotherhood candidates had just won control of, refused to support the strike. The demands that teachers made were broad and social in nature: the removal of the NDP-affiliated minister of education Ahmed Gamal Eddin Moussa, massive investment in public education equaling 6.5% of GDP, a minimum monthly wage for teachers of at least 1,200 Egyptian pounds, a large-scale school-building program, a reduction in class sizes to no more than 30 (where before 60 or more was common), and permanent contracts for fixed-term and supply teachers.[12] As one teacher explained, "I have been working for 28 years as a teacher, and I earn less than 1000 Egyptian pounds a month. The Education ministry is stuffed full of consultants on huge…earning 100,000 Egyptian pounds while teachers are paid so little." Another participant reinforced this narrative, "I have been working for 16 years, I have a family and children of my own, and I make LE900. Everyone knows that no one in Egypt can live on less than 1200-1500 pounds per month." [13] Hala Talaat, a leading organizer of the Egyptian Teachers' Federation union committee in Giza, maintains that teachers went on strike to "win a decent wage and allow them to live in dignity." She recalls an anecdote from her time in a small town: "A very large number of teachers do all kinds of jobs you would never imagine. For example I was in a town called Al-Fashan which is in Beni Sueif, there was a village there where the teacher used to sell watermelons from a barrow in the summer, because he didn't make enough money from his salary." [14]

Still, the demands of the teachers were not relegated to "narrow" economic demands. On the contrary, many of the demands revolved directly around rebuilding the decrepit and inadequate public education system. In Egypt, like many schools in the Middle East, public schools serve as places where those too poor to afford private institutions are dumped. The teachers' strike was about improving conditions for both students and teachers. While government statistics claim that only 0.6% of teachers responded to the strike, independent analyses from journalists and activists indicated that about 65 to 75% of teachers did not report to their classrooms in various parts of the country. Even without the approval of the ETUF teachers' union, estimates place the number of striking teachers at over 250,000.[15] A solidarity protest by school students in Mahalla al-Kubra, notorious for the massive textile workers struggle of 2008, saw students chanting 'the teachers want the downfall of the minister', while "11 schools shut down in Wadi al-Gadid, 49 in Aswan, 16 in Luxor, 29 in Minya, 26 in Sohag, and all schools shut in Minufiyya governorate." As a report from the Middle East and North Africa Solidarity Network explains, these statistics are not "a complete picture, but they give a sense of how wide the geographical spread of action is across the country."[16] While the MB dominated ETUF teachers' union denounced the strike, so too did Moussa, who denounced strikers in a familiar tone for "prioritizing sectional interests over the national good." [17] The teachers' strike was yet another clear example of the Muslim Brotherhood aligning itself with figures from the old regime.

It was not just teachers that organized large, coordinated protests. In Mahalla, cite of the historic 2006 strike and the bloody battle against the Mubarak regime in 2008, 22,000 workers announced they were beginning an open-ended strike on September 10, demanding increased wages and benefits as well as state investment in the main textile factory there. Thousands of low paid postal workers struck over both economic and political demands, shutting down 50% of Egypt's post offices in ten different governorates and demanding that corrupt officials and overpaid consultants be removed from their positions, and that a 7% annual pay increase be implemented in tandem with inflation. The recently formed Independent Postal Workers' Union was imperative in facilitating this nationwide strike.[18] Tens of thousands of public transport workers, organized by the Independent Public Transport Authority Worker's Union, went on strike as well. Sector-wide sugar refinery strikes were organized by a nascent formation called the Sugar Factories' Front for Change, a coordination committee with the intention of developing an independent union. Pay, work conditions, and the purging of Mubarak regime remnants from company management were the prioritized demands of the thousands of strikers. As Hamalawy explained at the time, "the current mass strikes are political" and not just economic:

While activists are mobilizing thousands in Tahrir to denounce the military tribunals, the workers in the hundreds of thousands are in effect breaking the anti-strike law which refers strikes to military courts. The common denominator between all the strikes, though they still lack a centralized command or coordinating body, is the purging of the company management from corrupt, regime affiliated figures. The strikers are even raising questions about global politics, anti-imperialism and anti-Zionism, during their industrial actions.[19]

Thus, September represented a clear convergence of political and economic demands on a level previously unseen in Egypt. As Hamalawy noted, however, no nationwide coordinating body or centralized nexus connected these strikes. While EFITU was attempting to play that role, its own organizational limitations, external obstacles, and its ambiguous relationship to politics prevented it from fulfilling that function. Therefore, while gains were being made and a new level of consciousness was developing within Egyptian workers, both of these developments remained uneven and inconsistent.


Notes



[1] "Egypt: Strike statistics for 2009-2011," Middle East and North African Solidarity Network.

[2] Beinin, "Workers, Trade Unions and Egypt's Political Future."

[3] Alexander, "The Egyptian workers' movement and the 25 January Revolution."

[4] Mohammed Shafiq, interviewed by Anne Alexander, "The union is a shield and our sword is the strike," Socialist Review, December 2011, http://www.socialistreview.org.uk/article.php?articlenumber=11845.

[5] Beinin, "The Rise of Egypt's Workers."

[6] Anne Alexander, "The Strike Wave and the Crisis of the Egyptian State," Jadaliyya, December 10, 2011, http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/3464/the-strike-wave-and-the-crisis-of-the-egyptian-sta.

[7] For my borrowing of the term, see Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (Beacon Press, 2001).

[8] Alexander, "The Strike Wave and the Crisis of the Egyptian State."

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Tom Dale, "Draft law threatens independent unions, but workers vow to fight," Egypt Independent, March 14, 2012, http://www.egyptindependent.com/news/draft-law-threatens-independent-unions-workers-vow-fight.

[12] "Egypt: Teachers' strike enters third day with strong support," Middle East and North Africa Solidarity Network, September 19, 2011, http://menasolidaritynetwork.com/2011/09/19/egypt-teachers-strike-enters-third-day-with-strong-support/.

[13] Mostafa Ali, "Egypt teachers strike for the first time since 1951," Ahram Online, September 19, 2011, http://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContent/1/64/21568/Egypt/Politics-/Egypt-teachers-strike-for-the-first-time-since-.aspx.

[14] Hala Talaat, "Egypt: Women workers speak out - Teachers' unions build unity from below," Middle East and North Africa Solidarity Network, September 2011, http://menasolidaritynetwork.com/egyptwomen4/.

[15] Alexander, "The Strike Wave and the Crisis of the Egyptian State."

[16] "Egypt: Teachers' strike enters third day with strong support," Middle East and North Africa Solidarity Network.

[17] Ali, "Egypt teachers strike for the first time since 1951."

[18] Mostafa Ali, "Egyptian Postal workers strike a big headache for SCAF," Ahram Online, September 7, 2011, http://english.ahram.org.eg/News/20499.aspx.

[19] "Egypt: Thousands of Sugar Workers on Strike," Middle East and North Africa Solidarity Network, September 17, 2011, http://menasolidaritynetwork.com/2011/09/17/549/.