Public transport workers protest in Cairo, 14 February 2011. (Matthew Cassel)
CAIRO (IPS) - Before his ouster on Friday, toppled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak had made one of the biggest mistakes of his reign: not learning from the lessons of hundreds of small labor and professional strikes that littered the country since 2005. These were the actual precursors to the 25 January Revolution that end his thirty-year autocratic rule.
“We were lucky that the regime failed in its arrogance and aloofness to draw lessons from the many strikes and protests over the past five years,” said Mohammed Fathy, 46, a labor activist in Mahala, whose bid for office in the government-sponsored General Labor Union was stifled because of his anti-regime views.
“We were even luckier that they didn’t understand that there were genuine economic, professional and labor grievances, especially here in Mahala on 6 April 2008.”
It was on 6 April 2008 that Egypt saw the first example in decades of labor action spilling over into a popular uprising — a mini revolution on the streets of this industrial city that attracted men, women and children.
It was here that labor activists organized two days of massive protests that saw local residents leaving their homes, and pulling down Mubarak’s pictures and posters for the first time since he came to office in 1981.
That signaled the birth of the anti-Mubarak Internet activist group, the April 6 Movement which took its name from that historic day.
Two years later, the group helped organize the events of 25 January 2011. This time, they succeeded in pulling down not only Mubarak’s pictures but Mubarak himself.
Had Mubarak taken note of the labor protests, he may have learned some ways to pre-empt or foil the 25 January Revolution, labor leaders here say.
“The reaction of the Mubarak supporters was that we are just a bunch of kids who can be easily crushed by the police. Their only response was more and more security — nothing political and nothing economic. They didn’t realize how upset the country’s labor force is,” Fathy said.
The country’s labor force is upset indeed — even today, days after Mubarak’s ouster. Years of police harassment, anti-worker policies and poor economic conditions have left a deep scar on the country’s workers who until today feel left out of a rightful place.
Little wonder then that labor protests continue here unabated, prompting the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces that is running the country to issue its fifth communique specifically calling on labor leaders to tone down their protests.
The interim government of Ahmed Shafiq had complained to the Supreme Council that continuing strikes are not helping bring life back to normal in this nation of 85 million.
Almost every sector of the economy — from chemicals production to schools and telecommunications — is being affected.
The Central Bank of Egypt had to give the banking sector an unplanned holiday on Monday, to go with a religious holiday on Tuesday, in a bid to foil growing strikes among bank workers demanding investigation into high payment for top executives.
Even the police are blaming poor pay for corruption within the force, and are protesting for better job benefits.
This wave of post-Mubarak strikes is highlighting a split among labor leaders — between those who want immediate benefits for workers in the heat of the moment and those who want to give the new caretaker government some time to catch its breath, and time to meet labor demands.
“We should give the new rule some time, but fight for rights still,” said Mohamed Mourad, a railway worker and labor activist in Mahala.
Mourad said Mubarak’s fall is meanwhile good news for the country’s disgruntled workforce as it means an end to some of the anti-workers policies.
“With Mubarak gone, his policies that impoverished workers and pulverized independent labor unions will be gone too,” said Mourad as he sipped black tea in his railway office surrounded by several co-workers nodding in support.
Mourad specifically mentioned policies of privatizing state-run companies, tampering with labor union elections and police interference as impediments that will sink with Mubarak.
While this may be true, it still doesn’t offer immediate relief for impatient workers, suppressed and suffering for years.
Here in Mahala the average base salary for textile workers at Egypt for Weaving and Spinning, the largest textile factory in the Middle East with 25,000 workers, is only 600 Egyptian pounds (US $102). Most workers end up working one or more extra jobs.
For that to be corrected, they suggest that the new government work to confiscate billions in dollars in wealth of corrupt members of the former regime and invest that for the benefits of workers.
Mubarak spent heavily on security and that could be trimmed too to re-channel funds for the impoverished workers, according to Hamdi Hussein, a leading labor activist.
Labor leaders say that most strikes and labor protests have three goals: ending corruption at the top management at some companies, increasing the minimum base wage to at least 1,500 Egyptian pounds (255 dollars) and holding free elections for labor unions.
“If those three demands are not meet soon,” said Hussein, who works for the Coordinating Committee for Labor Freedoms and Rights, “workers will continue to act until the revolution means real change for them.”
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