Some 3,000 doctors spilled out of the Doctors’ Union, intensely debating whether to call for a national strike over pay and health funding. In nearby Tahrir Square, the Minister of Labour watched uncomfortably from the stage as thousands of chanting workers surged past him in the swelling May Day rally.
Bus drivers, postal workers, tax collectors and textile workers—all were there with banners proclaiming independent unions.
The spirit of 1 May seemed to have even reached the conscript troops of the old riot police. At the Gabal al-Ahmar camp, they had thrown out their officers and elected a strike committee to negotiate over longer breaks and air conditioning units in barracks.
The revolutionary energy of the popular uprising is turning to the struggle for bread and dignity at work. Workers are up-ending the common-sense hierarchies of the workplace and challenging the logic of capitalism.
Impelled into battle by economic crisis and driven by an emerging consciousness of their own power, workers are enlarging the social soul of the revolution day by day.
The trajectory of the workers’ movement is on the rise, although the number of strikes has dipped from the huge wave that followed Hosni Mubarak’s fall.
There is a marked trend towards the politicisation of workers’ demands. Workers are more frequently calling for reforms that would bring benefits beyond individual workplaces.
Some are demanding the implementation of a national minimum wage of 1,200 Egyptian pounds per month.
University lecturers and students are organising a national campaign of strikes to democratise the universities by enforcing elections for college heads and deans of faculties.
Workers are also building independent unions out of strikes and coordinating strikes through the unions.
This gives them greater opportunities to coordinate and build networks that can turn spontaneous protests into organised collective action.
The model of union organisation that has spread like wildfire is also highly democratic. It relies on elected reps immersed in the day-to-day struggles in the workplace, not well-paid bureaucrats sitting in an air-conditioned office.
But there remain massive contradictions between the workers’ movement’s potential and reality.
One serious obstacle is the relatively small weight of organised workers in a political landscape that contains groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood.
The independent unions are largely organised at a workplace level, and do not yet represent mass organisations on a national scale. The forces of the left are also small, despite gains being made through initiatives like the founding of the Democratic Workers’ Party (see Struggle and solidarity in the streets of Cairo ).
The activists on whom this project depends are vulnerable to repression. Groups of workers are now being targeted under the anti-strike laws.
It will take time to build workers’ organisations-particularly a mass workers’ party which can lead both the social and political struggles from below.
This is an urgent task, as other political forces are stirring up sectarian violence (see right). Yet after the clashes in Imbaba on 8 May there were large united protests between Christians and Muslims. This unity can be an alternative to all those who would rather see workers and poor fight each other than win real social gains.