Yesterday marked the one-year anniversary of the Egyptian real estate tax-collectors’ December 2007 strike for higher wages — which they won. The tax-collectors’ victory has been almost unmatched by other workers’ actions, over the past few years, in terms of numbers mobilized, gains secured, and sympathy generated from different segments of the Egyptian intelligentsia, media, and general public. The tax-collectors walked off the job on Dec. 3rd of last year, demanding wage parity with their counterparts in the Ministry of Finance. After a two-week strike and sustained negotiations, the Higher Committee for the Strike reached a deal with Egyptian Finance Minister Butros Ghali, guaranteeing for the workers a 325% wage increase.
Since 2004, Egypt has been rocked by the largest wave of worker actions that the country has seen in the postwar period. In this stretch of time, over 1.2 million workers have participated in strikes, factory occupations, sit-ins, and demonstrations. Many of these collective actions have been spontaneously organized, spread across industrial, manufacturing, and service sectors. The 2006 textile worker strike at Misr Spinning and Weaving Company, in Ghazl al-Mahalla, represented another significant victory in Egypt’s largest public industrial enterprise.
The back-story to these mobilizations is the neoliberalization of Egypt’s economy, beginning in the late 1970s under former President Anwar Sadat, but accelerating over the past two decades, especially in the wake of a structural adjustment agreement concluded with the IMF and World Bank in 1991. As a result, hundreds of firms have been privatized and thousands of jobs lost, while poverty, unemployment, and depressed wages have become deeply entrenched. These deteriorating economic conditions, compounded with the general rise in living costs, especially food prices, have been a source of widespread social distress which has fueled protests and other forms of collective dissent.
The latest upswing of worker protest has been active on two fronts: defending workers against the pressures of privatization and neoliberal policies; and fighting to establish structures for labor organizing that are independent from the state. An unfortunate and enduring legacy of Nasser’s state socialism has been the centralization of trade union activity under the wing of the state, with the establishment of the Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) in 1957. A 1976 law reaffirmed the power the ETUF, allowing its control over union elections and prohibiting the formation of independent unions. The ETUF has local union committees in all public sector and some private sector enterprises. Its highest official positions (i.e. the Federation board and the national union leadership) are dominated by regime loyalists, and the ETUF’s top man, Hussein Megawer, is a ruling party member and parliamentary bloc leader. Union elections have been notoriously rigged. And while ETUF-sanctioned strikes have been legalized for the past 5 years, the Federation has usually worked to undermine worker protests in the various sectors where they occurred.
Privatization has slowly eroded the ETUF’s membership, as many new private companies are exempted from labor laws relating to union organizing. Therefore, many private sector workers are not unionized, the ETUF remaining the sole legal body for the defense of worker rights and interests.
Today, the tax-collectors are undertaking one of the most successful campaigns for union independence. Instead of dissolving itself after the 2007 victory, the Strike Committee continued to organize, do outreach to rank-and-file workers, and coordinate with active committee members in other towns and cities across Egypt. The committee has consequently become a de facto independent workers organization in every way but name. Their campaign is achieving remarkable success: the number of signatories to their call for a free union has reached 25,000 — almost half of the real estate tax-collector workforce. Why the struggle for union democracy has found a locus among this particular group of civil servants is still a mystery, but it is certain that their success has been the result of grassroots organizing, inter-city coordination, and the clarity of their political demands.
Efforts to free worker organizing from the grips of the state are not new in Egypt. They go back at least to the late 1980s and have been bolstered by the creation of labor NGOs, most notably the Center for Trade Union and Worker Services (formed in 1990) and the Coordinating Committee for Trade Union and Workers Freedoms (formed in 2001). Both were established to serve a range of functions including monitoring trade union elections, litigation programs, publishing, and political campaigning. Together, these two organizations will be launching a campaign for a Free Trade Union.
Hosni Mubarak’s regime appears determined to continue pushing forward its neoliberal economic agenda, having recently proposed a controversial scheme of voucher privatization, much like those implemented in the transition economies of Russia and Eastern Europe in the 1990s. As the effects of the current economic crisis extend into the third world, liquidity shortages and drops in world trade are projected to slow down Egyptian exports, which rely primarily on American and European markets and imports of key commodities. This will have a damaging impact on job security, wages, and living standards, for which Egyptian workers will be the first to pay the price. Independent and democratic structures to defend the rights and collective securities of workers and ensure a dignified living standard for them will be crucial. A victory for trade union independence will be an important milestone in this direction, and the struggle for it deserves the support of all who stand in solidarity with working-class people in the region.