Labor Unions Lead the Charge in Egypt

Egypt’s labor unions deserve some credit.  According to a report presented at a symposium hosted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in February, 2010, there have been more than 3,000 labor protests by Egyptian workers since 2004.  That’s an astounding number. The report declared that this figure “[dwarfs]  Egyptian political protests in both scale and consequence.”

Arguably, the case can be made that Egypt’s current political unrest was inspired and energized by the actions of the country’s labor movement — just as the case can be made that the massive public protests of America’s union activists provided the template for anti-war protests and street theater during the Vietnam war.  Joel Beinin, a Stanford University professor, referred to Egypt’s labor activism as “….the largest social movement in the Arab world since World War II.”

While there are definitely many similarities between labor unions all around the world, it’s difficult and even counterproductive to try and compare, much less equate them.  There are simply too many cultural and political forces at work to draw any meaningful conclusions.

For instance, the largest labor union in the world — the ACFTU (All-China Federation of Trade Unions), with a staggering 134 million members — isn’t even a real labor union, at least not in the sense that the UAW or Teamsters are real unions.  There’s simply too much government control to compare it to an American or European union.

Although significant improvements in workers’ rights have been made in China — especially since 2000 — the ACFTU is still a tool of the government.  Chinese workers are very cautious and deliberate in how they behave.  You can sum up labor’s role in China in one sentence:  The ACFTU has as much freedom and autonomy as the Chinese government is willing to give it at any point in time  No more, no less.

Mexico is another example of how difficult it is to make broad generalizations.  While some of Mexico’s unions are the toughest, boldest, most hardcore found anywhere in the world (when these guys go on strike, they lock the doors and occupy the premises!), others are little more than government-run lackeys, weak and corrupt.

India probably provides the closest non-European comparison to American unions.  India’s unions (e.g., the AITUC — All-India Trade Union Congress) are free, they’re democratic, they’re rowdy, and with all the international investments pouring into the country, they’re on the ascendancy.  In that regard, they’re reminiscent of what the U.S. was like back in the heyday of smokestack industries and organized labor.

Also, India’s labor movement has the additional virtue of being loosely aligned with a fairly healthy Communist party, which means that organized labor in India knows exactly where its ideological roots lie, and doesn’t have to pretend otherwise.

Egyptian labor has its own story.  It was in 1942 that Egypt’s workers won the legal right to form unions, and in 1952 (when the monarchy was overthrown) that the government allowed the formation of larger groups — labor federations.  Eventually the government authorized the formation of a “national confederation of labor,” which unions with a minimum of 1,000 members could join.

Today, approximately 28-percent of the Egyptian workforce is unionized, with the majority of those members employed in the public sector.  (Union membership in the U.S. stands at 12.4-percent).

Despite the difficulty of making cross-cultural comparisons, one thing is undeniably true:  union workers everywhere in the world have the same basic concerns and priorities.  They’re all trying to improve their economic lives, and they all recognize the importance of being organized.  Indeed, the hundreds of thousands of people clogging the streets of Cairo show how contagious that kind of solidarity can be.
Now if we could only get 200,000 American union members to follow Egypt’s lead.  If we could get 200,000 American workers to demonstrate publicly — say by shutting down Wall Street on May 1 (May Day) in protest of U.S. trade policies — we would receive full coverage on Al Jazeera.  How cool would that be?

David Macaray is a playwright and author, whose latest book is How to Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows: Weird Adventures in India: Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims When the Peace Corps was New. Everything you ever wanted to know about India but were afraid to ask. He can be reached at: Read other articles by David.

5 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. jayn0t said on February 3rd, 2011 at 10:38am #

    Macaray confuses workers with unions: “Egypt’s labor unions deserve some credit… more than 3,000 labor protests by Egyptian workers”. But the ‘labor movement’ isn’t the same thing as ‘the movement of labor’. In the countries I’m familiar with, workers start a strike, unions try to call it off, and if they fail to stop it, make it official instead, and take it over. Egypt may be different, but I’d like to see the evidence.

  2. jayn0t said on February 3rd, 2011 at 12:31pm #

    David Macaray has kindly replied: `I appreciate you taking time to write, but I don’t quite understand what you’re getting at. When you say “workers start a strike….”, do you mean non-union workers? Surely you aren’t suggesting that a bunch of disgruntled workers is better equipped to get results than a organized and disciplined group. And if they’re already union workers, how does the union “make it official”?`

    The workers I’m referring to are members of unions. They start a ‘wildcat’ strike because the union bureaucracy is slow to respond to management actions. The union tells them to call it off, but it starts to spread. The union then makes in official, and starts holding back the struggle. For example, saying they can extend action to other workers via official bodies. A good example of this process was the coalminers’ strike in Britain in 1984/5. The union leader pretended to call for solidarity via the Trades Union Congress, which he knew would be completely ineffective. The miners lost.

  3. jayn0t said on February 3rd, 2011 at 4:24pm #

    AGNostic – thanks for the succinct summary! I’ve had a good discussion with Macaray – he’s a nice fellow, but definitely a traditional labor movement type – now is not the time for this particular debate – I don’t think unions are the main obstacles in Egypt right now!

  4. Susan Rosenthal said on February 6th, 2011 at 10:17am #

    Where are the strikes in support of the revolution? Where is the general strike that was proposed?

    Unions that refuse to fight the political (class) war, lose the economic battle.

    The democratic revolution that is challenging Mubarak’s regime must be echoed in a democratic revolution for rank-and-file control of the unions and for class solidarity.

    I haven’t seen any coverage of workplace actions in Egypt – does anyone know of any?

  5. Deadbeat said on February 6th, 2011 at 2:08pm #

    I agree with Ms. Rosenthal about the lack of coverage of the role of unions in this struggle. I’ve been watching Press TV and I haven’t seen coverage of unions there either. This is not to say they hasn’t been coverage. I’ve not watch 24/7. But during the time I’ve watch it I haven’t seen any analysts who are identified as union members or leaders. Perhaps Al Jazeera. I have heard commentary saying that unions were involved. There also been coverage saying that the people themselves have organized themselves to function in a democratic manner in order to support the demonstrations.

    It may be good to some extent so that the “leaders” are not identified. Identifying the leaders seems to be an key issue listening to the MSM. I think the Egyptian people are just fed up with the repression and humiliation across the board so these pent up feeling and desire for self-determination was likely to explode.

    I guess the other question is why are there not general strikes in the West in solidarity with the Egyptian people. We seem to be getting from “Left” analysts fear and cynicism instead.