Egypt’s independent unions are part of a wider demand for democratisation
There wasn’t much love lost this Valentine’s Day when independent trade unionists demonstrated outside the headquarters of the discredited official, state-run Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF). But this was more important than revenge for the ETUF’s call to workers to support President Mubarak and resist the Egyptian revolution. It was a sign that ordinary Egyptians want far, far more than just a new elite to replace the former regime. Egyptian workers want better wages, more rights, and a say over how their unions and their country are run, as their statement issued on Sunday shows.
My earlier post highlighted the difference between Tunisia – where the trade union federation was at the forefront of the struggle for democracy and left the first post-Ben Ali government when they decided it did not represent sufficient change – and Egypt, where the state-run ETUF had to be side-stepped by forming new, independent trade unions. As Eric Lee and Benjamin Weinthal argue on the Guardian website, the creation of independent unions in Egypt echoes the formation of Solidarnosc in Poland thirty years ago. They are also right that the mainstream western media has been too keen to portray the Egyptian revolution as one made in their own – professional – image, when in fact workers and their work-related concerns about jobs, wages and respect have been key to much of the protest.
More worrying are the indications that the new military rulers of Egypyt are considering cracking down on these new independent unions. If that happened, then the situation would be more like Iraq, where the invading forces scrapped almost all of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorial laws except the restrictions on free trade unionism which remain to this day and have done so much to restrict the development of a democratic, non-sectarian civil society in that country (those laws remain in force to this day, except in Iraqi Kurdistan). But, to date, the army has only appealed for strikers – including the police, as happened in Tunisia – to return to work, and the independent unions are keen not to provoke tougher action by exaggerating the army’s approach.