Egypt: Germs of the mass strike

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In WR 302 we reported on the wave of strikes which swept numerous sectors in Egypt at the beginning of the year: in cement and poultry plants, in mines, on the buses and on the railways, in the sanitation sector, and above all in the textile industry, workers have been out on a series of illegal strikes against rapidly declining real wages and cuts in benefits. The militant, spontaneous character of these struggles can be glimpsed in this description of how, in December last year, the struggle broke out at the big Mahalla al-Kubra’s Misr Spinning and Weaving complex north of Cairo, which was the epicentre of the movement. The extract is from ‘Egyptian textile workers confront the new economic order ’ by Joel Beinin and Hossam el-Hamalawy, published in Middle East Report Online and libcom.org, and based on interviews with two workers at the plant, Muhammed ‘Attar and Sayyid Habib.

“The 24,000 workers at Mahalla al-Kubra’s Misr Spinning and Weaving complex were thrilled to receive news on March 3, 2006 that Prime Minister Ahmad Nazif had decreed an increase in the annual bonus given to all public-sector manufacturing workers, from a constant 100 Egyptian pounds ($17) to a two-month salary bonus. The last time annual bonuses were raised was in 1984 -- from 75 to 100 pounds.

"We read the decree, and started spreading awareness about it in the factory,” said ‘Attar. ‘Ironically, even the pro-government labour union officials were also publicizing the news as one of their achievements’. He continued: ‘December [when annual bonuses are paid] came, and everyone was anxious. We discovered we’d been ripped off. They only offered us the same old 100 pounds. Actually, 89 pounds, to be more precise, since there are deductions [for taxes].’

A fighting spirit was in the air. Over the following two days, groups of workers refused to accept their salaries in protest. Then, on December 7, thousands of workers from the morning shift started assembling in Mahalla’s Tal‘at Harb Square, facing the entrance to the mill. The pace of factory work was already slowing, but production ground to a halt when around 3,000 female garment workers left their stations, and marched over to the spinning and weaving sections, where their male colleagues had not yet stopped their machines. The female workers stormed in chanting: ‘Where are the men? Here are the women!’ Ashamed, the men joined the strike.

Around 10,000 workers gathered in the square, shouting ‘Two months! Two months!’ to assert their claim to the bonuses they had been promised. Black-clad riot police were quickly deployed around the factory and throughout the town, but they did not act to quell the protest. ‘They were shocked by our numbers’, ‘Attar said. ‘They were hoping we’d fizzle out by the night or the following day’. With the encouragement of state security, management offered a bonus of 21 days’ pay. But, as ‘Attar laughingly recalled, ‘The women [workers] almost tore apart every representative from the management who came to negotiate’.

As night fell, said Sayyid Habib, the men found it ‘very difficult to convince the women to go home. They wanted to stay and sleep over. It took us hours to convince them to go home to their families, and return the following day’. Grinning broadly, ‘Attar added, ‘The women were more militant than the men. They were subject to security intimidation and threats, but they held out’.

Before dawn prayers, riot police rushed in the mill compound’s gates. Seventy workers, including ‘Attar and Habib, were sleeping inside the mill, where they had locked themselves in. ‘The state security officers told us we were few, and had better get out’, said ‘Attar. ‘But they did not know how many of us were inside. We lied and told them we were thousands’. ‘Attar and Habib hastily wakened their comrades and together the workers began banging loudly on iron barrels. ‘We woke up everyone in the company and town. Our mobile phones ran out of credit as we were calling our families and friends outside, asking them to open their windows and let security know they were watching. We called all the workers we knew to tell them to hurry up to the factory’.

By then, police had cut off water and power to the mill. State agents scurried to the train stations to tell workers coming from out of town that the factory had been closed down due to an electrical malfunction. The ruse failed.

‘More than 20,000 workers showed up’, said ‘Attar. ‘We had a massive demonstration, and staged mock funerals for our bosses. The women brought us food and cigarettes and joined the march. Security did not dare to step in. Elementary school pupils and students from the nearby high schools took to the streets in support of the strikers’. On the fourth day of the mill occupation, panicking government officials offered a 45-day bonus and gave assurances the company would not be privatized. The strike was suspended, with the government-controlled trade union federation humiliated by the success of the Misr Spinning and Weaving workers’ unauthorized action”.

The victory at Mahalla inspired a number of other sectors to enter into struggle, and the movement has far from abated. In April the conflict between the Mahalla workers and the state again came to the surface. The workers decided to send a large delegation to Cairo to negotiate (!) with the head of the General Federation of Trade Unions over wage demands and to proceed with the impeachment of the Mahalla factory union committee for supporting the bosses during the December strike. The response of the state security forces was to put the factory under siege. In turn, the workers went on strike in protest and two other large textile factories declared their solidarity with Mahalla– Ghazl Shebeen and Kafr el-Dawwar. The statement from the latter was particularly lucid:

Kafr el-Dawwar workers are in the same trench as Ghazl el-Mahalla

“We the textile workers of Kafr el-Dawwar declare our full solidarity with you, to achieve your just demands, which are the same as ours. We strongly denounce the security crackdown which prevented the (Mahalla) workers delegation from travelling to stage a sit-in at the General Federation of Trade Unions’ HQ in Cairo. We also condemn Said el-Gohary’s statement to Al-Masry Al-Youm last Sunday, where he described your move as ‘nonsense’. We follow with concern what is happening to you, and declare our solidarity with the garment-making workers’ strike the day before yesterday, and with the partial strike in the silk factory.

We like to you know, we the workers of Kafr el-Dawwar and you the workers of Mahalla are walking on the same path, and have one enemy. We support your movement, because we have the same demands. Since the end of our strike in the first week of February, our Factory Union Committee has not moved to achieve our demands that instigated our strike. Our Factory Union Committee has harmed our interests … We express our support for your demand to reform the salaries. We, just like you, await the end of April to see if the Minister of Labour will implement our demands in that regards or not. We do not put much hope on the Minister, though, as we haven’t seen any move by her or the Factory Union Committee. We will depend only on our selves to achieve our demands.

Thus, we stress that:

1. We are sailing with you on the same boat, and will embark together on the same journey

2. We are declaring our full solidarity with your demands, and assert that we are ready to stage solidarity action, if you decide to take industrial action.

3. We will move to inform the workers of Artificial Silk, El-Beida Dyes, and Misr Chemicals of your struggle, and create bridges to expand the solidarity front. All workers are brothers during times of struggle.

4. We have to create a wide front to settle our battle with the government unions. We have to overthrow those unions now, not tomorrow”. (Translation from the Arabawy website and first published in English on libcom.org )

This is an exemplary statement because it shows the fundamental basis of all genuine class solidarity across divisions of trade and enterprise – awareness of belonging to the same class and of fighting the same enemy. It is also strikingly clear about the need to struggle against the state unions.

Struggles also broke out elsewhere during this period: rubbish collectors in Giza stormed company offices in protest at non-payment of wages; 2,700 textile workers in Monofiya occupied a textile mill; 4,000 textile workers in Alexandria came out on strike for a second time after management tried to deduct pay for the previous strike. These were also illegal, unofficial strikes.

There have also been other attempts to crush the movement by force. Security police closed down or threatened to close down the ‘Centres for Trade Unions and Workers Services’ in Nagas Hammadi, Helwan and Mahalla. The centres are accused of fomenting “a culture of strikes”.

The existence of these centres indicates that are clearly efforts going on to build new unions. Inevitably, in a country like Egypt, where workers have only experienced trade unions that act openly as shopfloor police, the most militant workers will be susceptible to the idea that the answer to their problems lies in the creation of truly ‘independent’ unions, in a similar way to the Polish workers in 1980-81. But what emerges very clearly from the way the strike was organised at Mahalla (through spontaneous marches, massive delegations and meetings at the factory gates), is the fact that the workers are strongest when they take directly matters into their own hands rather than handing over their power to a new union apparatus.

In Egypt, the germs of the mass strike can already be detected – not only in the workers’ capacity for mass, spontaneous action, but also in the high level of class awareness expressed in the Kafr el-Dawwar statement.

As yet there is no conscious connection between these events and other struggles in different parts of the imperialist divide in the Middle East: in Israel among dockers, public employees, and, most recently, among school teachers striking for wage rises, and students who have been confronting the police in demonstrations against hikes in tuition fees; in Iran where on May Day thousands of workers disrupted official government rallies by chanting anti-government slogans or took part in unauthorised rallies and faced severe police repression. But the simultaneity of these movements spring from the same source – capital’s drive to reduce the working class to poverty all over the world. In this sense they contain the germs of the future internationalist unity of the working class across the walls of nationalism, religion, and imperialist war. Amos, 1/5/7

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