Politics seeps into labor movement
BY SARAH EL SIRGANY
Cairo: Workers on strike at the Cleopatra Ceramics Factory last Thursday weren’t only demanding their rights, they were also chanting for Egypt’s newly elected Islamist president. For some, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi represents the other side: a man who can defend their interests in the face of a factory owner long associated with the Mubarak regime.
In the Suez and Tenth of Ramadan City facilities, some workers saw their dispute as symbolic of the political struggle gripping the country today. The old regime with its intertwined web of business and politics, represented by factory owner Mohamed Aboul Enein, is now confronting the rising voice of a once marginalized public. During the presidential election runoff, Morsi positioned himself as the revolutionary contender against ex-air force commander Ahmed Shafik, who was reportedly supported by Aboul Enein.
The workers’ chants combined support with appeals for Morsi to intervene to solve the ongoing labor dispute, the most recent episode of which escalated this month, with the Suez strike ending in a violent confrontation with security on July 17.
The strike comes at the heart of a new wave of labor action by workers struggling to capture the attention of a media preoccupied with the confusing political scene and its labyrinthine legal battles. Activist Hossam El-Hamalawy believes that this wave has distinctive features: strikes triggered solely in solidarity with workers in other factories and defined by a rising militancy and recurring political chants.
The scope of the workers’ demands is also widening, lawyer Haitham Mohamadein said.
As soon as Morsi was sworn in, citizens flocked to the presidential palaces with complaints. Some were workers facing problems in their factories.
The onslaught of grievances was not, however, received well by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party. Its prominent members and its official paper accused the workers of conspiring to undermine Morsi during his first days in office.
“The Brotherhood knows the problems suffered by the workers. It should understand that attempts to vilify workers on strike won’t work; it has to find real solutions instead,” the Revolutionary Socialists group said in a statement. The same sentiment was echoed by the Center for Trade Union and Workers’ Services and the Egyptian Democratic Labor Congress.
Before Morsi met with 24 syndicate leaders on July 24, FJP members slammed the plots by remnants of the former regime, emphasizing that the strikes threatened the economy in this delicate moment in Egypt’s history. Their accusations were disturbingly reminiscent of the military council’s reproachful discourse against the labor movement since it assumed power in February 2011.
Several economic analysts partly agree.
“From an economic point of view, [the strikes] are badly timed, as they are likely to make a difficult economic environment even worse. It would be better to postpone the demands [until] a new government is in place and then a vision to articulate priorities and affordability can be announced,” an economist said, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of their work affiliation.
Ragui Assaad, professor at the University of Minnesota and a research fellow at the Cairo-based Economic Research Forum, said focusing on increasing wages at the moment would lower the demand for employment and lead to job losses. Many employers, he continued, have been concerned with preserving jobs during the economic crisis even if it meant lowering wages. Abol Enein said repeatedly that he didn’t fire any of his workers over the past year and a half despite the sluggish market.
Workers on the other hand are frustrated with the way officials and politicians brush aside the urgency of their demands, labeling them as “special interest,” especially as the turbulent transition extends beyond the initial six months promised in February 2011.
Columnist Wael Gamal was critical of the way workers were left at the bottom of the pecking order. These economic concerns are never raised when the debate shifts to the state’s support for businessmen “who make the highest profit margin internationally” and the export subsidies they receive, he wrote.
Finding a voice
The workers’ demands for better wages and working conditions represent the core goals of Egypt’s revolution: dignity and social justice. Their vital role in the uprising in 2011, which tipped the balance prior to Mubarak’s ouster, has been largely ignored or lost in the power struggle with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and amongst political powers. The workers’ role on the political scene has been continuously marginalized. Even the now dissolved parliament featured minimal representation of genuine labor leaders.
Weaving politics with mainly economic demands is not common in Egypt’s labor movement. In the industrial town of Mahalla, which saw a brief revival of strike action in its main textile factory this month, workers insisted their strike was not politicized, even though some would argue that fulfilling their demands will need political work.
A political dimension, however, is gradually finding its way into the labor discourse.
On the one hand, some workers acknowledge that their strikes could be disruptive, but they blame the factory owners for this. “Abol Enein wants to discredit Morsi by stirring up this crisis now,” several Cleopatra workers said last Thursday.
Workers in several factories blame the businessmen for resisting change and preserving the financial and political benefits they secured under the business-friendly policies of Mubarak’s regime and his son Gamal. Workers across several factories claim that their employers are losing advantages such as guaranteeing workers’ votes for the factory owners’ parliamentary bids and protecting industry subsidies that workers claim were usurped by the owners.
“The businessmen want to put the country on hold to secure the [financial] benefits” that were guaranteed by lack of oversight, said Ibrahim Saber, head of the union committee at the Nile Textile Factory in Sadat City.
“We need Morsi to strike the deep state with an iron fist,” said Ahmed Salah, the deputy head of the Cleopatra workers’ union in Suez. Pointing to his bandaged head, he slammed the brutality of the security forces he faced alongside his colleagues.
On the other end of the spectrum are workers and activists that blame Morsi and the Brotherhood, as much as the business owners, for their hardship.
The Revolutionary Socialists group said the limited options at the presidential runoff have fed expectations that Morsi would fulfill the demands of social justice. The group reiterated in numerous statements, filled with scorn for alleged deals between the MB and SCAF, that the Brotherhood are repeating the same “Mubarak rhetoric” when it comes to the labor movement.
“We don’t differentiate between [secular business tycoon Naguib] Sawiris and [Brotherhood deputy and business tycoon Khairat] Al-Shater, or between exploitation in its Islamist form and exploitation in its civil or secular form,” read a statement published on July 8.
“This honeymoon between sectors in the public and the new president won’t last long,” it said.
Joel Beinin, Middle East history professor and the author of numerous books on labor movements, noted several incidents in which the MB worked against the interests of the workers including a draft law in the FJP-dominated parliament that would have allowed only one trade union per enterprise.
The economic policies drafted by the Brotherhood’s business tycoons, Beinin wrote in a paper published by the Carnegie Middle East Center, are “pro-business,” albeit with less corruption.
It’s an idea several workers find hard to swallow. At the Thursday press conference, it took workers a while to respond enthusiastically to Fatma Ramadan of the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions (EFITU) as she explained that it was Morsi that had to prove that his government would serve the interests of the people, not the business elite.
It’s not an impossible feat. The economist who preferred to remain anonymous said the MB could balance economic recovery with a social agenda. “They have the comparative advantage of being well connected at the grass root level and this should help catalyze targeted support and capacity building at the small and micro levels across the country … Ultimately, this strategy will pay off to attract big investors, provided the economy is back on track and sound economic policies are implemented.”
Long term strategy
Some of the activists helping the workers organize and coordinate see this wave of industrial action as an alternative route to the chaotic political scene, where the grassroots are directly involved in the fight for power.
During the staggered parliamentary elections last year, Revolutionary Socialists’ activist El-Hamalawy explained that the group’s decision to boycott the elections was based on a strong wave of labor action in September and October that was creating a viable alternative where the grassroots would be empowered to shape their own future.
It’s still too early to determine how big the current wave is, but the size of the action isn’t the only problem. Activists and analysts noted the lack of solid, nationwide organizational structures that could help this movement materialize into a sustainable entity that can push for policy changes.
The rift here in the visions and paths taken by the labor leaders were exposed through the parliamentary elections. According to Beinin, one side believes in joining the political path to influence legislation; the other believes in focusing effort on building, expanding and reinforcing trade unions across the public and private sectors.
Some of the prominent leaders made it to parliament, mainly EFITU head Kamal Abu Eita, who ran as part of an FJP-led coalition. Others focused on capacity building.
Workers should be “engaged politically” but without alliances with specific parties that could cost them the ability to negotiate with their competitors, argued ERF’s Assaad.
The priority now, he continued, should be given to gaining the autonomy to organize away from state control in addition to expansion through different sectors despite that a draft law proposed early 2011, giving workers the authority to form multiple independent unions, was never ratified.
Beinin emphasized the challenge of drafting a comprehensive economic vision that could fulfill workers’ aspirations.
Activists agree. “The labor battle needs to articulate its political project or it will be a pawn used by different political actors,” Mohamadein said. –The Egypt Monocle