A small crowd of less than 100 labor leaders and activists were chanting at the top of their lungs outside the cabinet and parliament buildings last Wednesday. They could be heard a couple of blocks away calling for a law guaranteeing the right to form independent unions.
Surrounded by journalists and other unionists and workers, veteran activist Fatma Ramadan stressed that the crowd was also protesting against the harassment and abuse labor leaders face. Whether it’s for organizing strikes or speaking on behalf of other workers, these workers face intimidation and punitive action. “In the past year and half, the number of workers dismissed [for defending their colleagues’ rights] is four times the number dismissed under [ousted president Hosni] Mubarak,” she said.
One of the leaders of the public transport workers strike, Tarek al-Beheiry, was briefly detained last week. He was accused of “instigating a strike.” Striking doesn’t constitute a crime, so far. But the word has become synonyms with selfish and misguided pursuits that lead to the destruction of the state. The workers efforts are often vilified; the consecutive governments that have failed to find genuine solutions to the recurrent strikes are rarely blamed by the public.
Even though protests have markedly increased in the years leading up to and after the uprising, the labor movement has a long way to go, starting with the media portrayal of labor action. Workers are usually criticized for their inability to be patient, and for raising “untimely” demands during a “critical phase.” Whether it’s 2008, 2011, or 2012 after Egypt’s first elected president took office, response to workers and public servants always cites a never ending critical phase.
This embodies the wider challenges facing the labor movement in Egypt, which was reflected in the small number of the protesters on Wednesday. Even though the march coincided with three partial strikes in vital sectors – school teachers, university admin staff and the public transport workers along with over 180 protests in the first half of September – less than a 100 showed up that night, which Ramadan described as a “symbolic” march. The localized nature of labor action is simultaneously seen as a blessing and a curse.
Strikes are often confined to the sector or even the factory/enterprise. Cases of solidarity and networking among workers in different cities or factories are celebrated as success stories. While it helps in focusing efforts towards achievable and immediate goals, this localization contributes to the portrayal of these strikes as detached from the wider interests of the state and the population. Even though demands reflect the needs of almost all citizens – better payment and working conditions and eradicating corruption – such sit-ins and strikes are dismissed as “special interest.” The vilified description suggests the strikers are selfish, uninterested in public welfare and undeserving.
Bringing labor demands under a unified political banner that could influence cross-sector changes seems like a far-fetched dream. A new coalition of established and under-construction parties concerned with labor rights was formed on Wednesday. In order for this to bear fruit, these parties have the hefty task of connecting labor demands with policy, transforming workers into a unified and powerful voting bloc.
The Egyptian Federation for Independent Trade Unions (EFITU) and the Egyptian Democratic Labor Congress, both formed last year, have emerged as alternative umbrellas for new and independent unions. The former claims the membership of 2 million workers. But without a legislation guaranteeing the right to form multiple independent unions, its work is still at risk.
There’s much skepticism when it comes to the Muslim Brotherhood. During the short-lived parliament, Islamist MPs promoted a draft law that would have limited unions to one per enterprise. Emad al-Arabi, member of the EFITU executive committee, expressed concern that the MB was trying to revive the state-controlled labor groups that stifled workers’ demands. “They are trying to revive the dead by bringing back the Egyptian Trade Union Federation which was disbanded via a ruling by the Supreme Constitutional Court,” he said.
At the demonstration on Wednesday, workers from different sectors were exchanging stories about their actions, sharing valuable information about their small-scale strikes and sit-ins.
“We are still in the construction phase,” Ramadan said, explaining that workers and activists like herself need the space to work and build the needed network and union culture. This means no crackdowns on or punitive action against workers.