Struggles in Egypt: The mirage of ‘independent unions’

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During October workers' struggles continued in Egypt. This year, according to one source, there have been 580 ‘industrial actions' in the nine months to the end of September. This compares to 222 strikes recorded in the whole of 2006. The strikes continue to be as inspiring as during last December's strike wave (see WR 302 , 304 , 308 ). Workers in state-owned industries have found themselves coming up against the state as employer, but also against the state-run unions. In an article in Middle East Report Online Joel Beinin writes that "Opposition to the regime takes the form of opposition to the Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF), which, though nominally an umbrella group representing all of the country's organized workers, is in fact an arm of the state. The Mahalla workers renewed their call for impeaching the local union committee, which reports to the ETUF and has sided with the regime and company management throughout 2006 and 2007. Fourteen thousand Mahalla workers signed petitions in support of this demand in March. ETUF representatives were less than useless in the September strike. The head of the local factory committee resigned after he was beaten by workers and taken to the hospital. ETUF secretary-general Husayn Mugawir announced that he would not visit Mahalla until the crisis was resolved."

In opposition to this state of affairs Muhammad al-‘Attar, a strike leader who was imprisoned at one point, told the Daily News Egypt (27/9/7) "We want a change in the structure and hierarchy of the union system in this country.... The way unions in this country are organised is completely wrong, from top to bottom. It is organised to make it look like our representatives have been elected, when really they are appointed by the government."

Elsewhere around the world there are demands for, and the growth of ‘independent' unions. For example in South Africa the government is made up of the ANC, the South African Communist Party and the COSATU union federation. It should come as no surprise that there are more ‘militant' ‘independent' unions that are fiercely critical of COSATU and how its government role prevents it from acting properly on behalf of workers. In the US leftists want unions that don't support the Democratic Party.

In Palestine there are four different union federations, three controlled by Fatah and one by Hamas. Appointments to union positions are made on a political basis, and there is currently a campaign for unions that are independent of the political factions and the Palestine Authority.

In Venezuela, for 40 years before Hugo Chavez came to power in 1998, the trade union tops were explicitly part of the state. Trade unionists are currently arguing as to whether there's a need for trade union organisation that's independent of the Chavist apparatus.

In Iran, Vietnam, Cambodia, China and Algeria, and in many other countries where either unions are closely identified with the state or ‘alternative' unions are illegal, there are ‘independent' unions or at least campaigns for ‘real' unions that will represent workers' interests.

Illusions fomented by militant rhetoric

There are many political currents that are sympathetic to this demand for ‘independent' unions. In the leftist mainstream there is the Socialist Workers Party which sums up its basic position in saying "No matter how left wing union officials or union policies may be, the need regularly arises for independent rank and file organisation within and across the unions". But there are also many anarchist currents that are sympathetic to the idea of unions that have distanced themselves from the state.

The SWP says it doesn't matter how left wing official union policies are. This is true, but the SWP don't tell us the reason. The  official policies of a union don't matter because its function remains the same regardless of whether it proclaims its loyalty to the state or breathes the rhetoric of militancy or even revolution. Unions have become an integral part of capitalism. They try to control the working class, to sabotage its struggles, or divert it into dead-ends that don't challenge the capitalist state. Indeed, far from defending the interests of the working class, unions have become part of the capitalist state, or, in the most radical instances, an ‘alternative' adjunct to the state.

So, when the SWP sees the need for something ‘independent', that exists ‘within and across the unions', it only amounts to a plea for differently structured unions, not for a change in their function, which, as they almost admit, is not possible, no matter how left wing their policies are. The only difference in a union that has a more democratic constitution or a more ‘militant' or ‘independent' reputation is that workers will have more illusions in it.

In their struggles workers need to create their own fighting organisations that correspond to the need for the extension and unification of working class struggle. Just because there are unions that brandish oppositional rhetoric and insist on their autonomy doesn't change their basic function. And just because some unions are harassed and repressed by many regimes today doesn't make them friends of the working class. What were organisations of the working class in the 19th century, when it was possible to wrest reforms from a still-developing capitalism, have become organisations of the ruling class in the period of capitalist decay, when the overall trend is towards the deterioration of the conditions of work and life of the working class.

Going back to the article on Egypt, it describes the union as having "sided with the regime and company management throughout 2006 and 2007." It's as though there was something exceptional in this and that, as Muhammad al-‘Attar suggested, a change in structure and hierarchy could rectify the anomaly. In fact, far from being an anomaly, unions, in one way or another, now always end up on the opposite side to workers. Some unions are obviously state-run, but workers shouldn't be deceived into thinking that the ‘independent alternative' serves the bourgeoisie any the less.

Remember Solidarnosc

The most dramatic example of an independent (and large-scale) union is Solidarnosc which emerged in Poland in 1980-81. The working class in a massive wave of strikes created a number of organs as part of its struggle. Committees were set up that acted in accordance to the needs of the struggle, responsive to workers' demands, with recallable delegates and a drive to the extension of the struggle across the whole country. Workers were understandably suspicious of the blatantly state unions; indeed that was one element in the dynamic toward the self-organisation of their struggle. However, there were also widespread illusions in the possibility of ‘independent' unions that would function differently from the Stalinist unions they had become used to. The growth of Solidarnosc gradually meant the decline of the struggle, as Walesa and Co transformed it from a workers' mass strike into a movement for the reform of Polish capitalism. Solidarnosc had already effectively broken the struggle before the imposition of martial rule in December 1981. For Walesa to later become Polish president was entirely in keeping with his earlier role. Brazilian President Lula's career also started in militant trade unionism (see WR 28).

This is the fate of all ‘independent' unions. Because they are formed in the framework of capitalist social relations they act to perpetuate the exploitation of labour by capital, regardless of the intentions of those who create them. In contrast, strike committees, assemblies, councils, and other bodies that are thrown up by the working class during its struggle have the potential to defend workers' interests, not just the re-arrangement of exploitation. When you look at the workers' councils that were created in the revolutions in Russia in 1905 and 1917, you can see the creation of organs capable of destroying the capitalist state and laying the basis for a classless society based on relations of solidarity. No union can ever pose anything other than the restructuring of capitalism. Car 31/10/07

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