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Striking Egyptian Workers Fuel the Uprising After 10 Years of Labor Organizing

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Egypt’s pro-democracy uprising is surging after striking workers joined in the protests nationwide. Thousands of Egyptian workers walked off the job Wednesday demanding better wages and benefits. Strikes were reported in Cairo, Alexandria, Luxor and the Suez Canal. We speak to Stanford University Professor Joel Beinin, who, as the former director of Middle East Studies at the American University in Cairo, has closely studied the Egyptian labor movement for years. “This is huge, because there has been for the last 10 years an enormous wave of labor protests in Egypt,” Beinin says. “In the last few days what you’ve seen is tens of thousands of workers linking their economic demands to the political demand that the Mubarak regime step aside.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Pressure is intensifying on President Hosni Mubarak to resign as thousands of Egyptian workers went on strike across the country Wednesday demanding better wages and benefits. The strikes expanded earlier today when bus drivers in Cairo walked off the job. Thousands of doctors and nurses are also joining the protest. On Wednesday, strikes were reported in Cairo, Alexandria, Luxor, Mahalla, and perhaps most significantly, the Suez Canal — the key waterway connecting the Red Sea with the eastern Mediterranean, as well as Egypt’s second largest source of revenue. Reports indicate as many as 6,000 canal workers downed their tools on Wednesday.

STRIKING CANAL WORKER: [translated] I’ve been working here for five years, and I’m still working casual. There is no annual or permanent contract. We are demanding equal rights, because there is a group of new employees who had been signed on a permanent contract as soon as they arrived. We are demanding our rights now.

JUAN GONZALEZ: While the Suez Canal remains open, a larger strike could disrupt international oil supplies. Many of the striking workers have expressed anger over reports that the Mubarak family is worth as much as $70 billion while about 40 percent of the country’s 80 million people live below or near the poverty line of $2 a day.

AMY GOODMAN: Our first guest has closely studied the Egyptian labor movement for years. Joel Beinin is the professor of Middle East history at Stanford University, former director of Middle East Studies at the American University in Cairo. He authored a report for the Solidarity Center titled “Justice for All: The Struggle for Worker Rights in Egypt.”

Professor Beinin, why don’t you talk about the significance of what is unfolding as we speak, the major labor strikes that are rippling through Egypt?

JOEL BEININ: This is huge, because there has been for the last 10 years an enormous wave of labor protests in Egypt that’s included over two billion people participating in perhaps 3,300 strikes, sit-ins and other forms of protest. So that has been the background to this whole revolutionary upsurge of the last several weeks. Up until now, there has been relatively a low level of worker participation as workers — not as individuals, of course; people participated in various demonstrations — but there’s been very low level of worker participation in the movement. But in the last few days what you’ve seen is tens of thousands of workers linking their economic demands to the political demand that the Mubarak regime step aside. And this means that what had been perceived as a gap between the mostly economic demands that were raised over the last decade and the political demands that were raised by the intelligentsia, that gap has been closed, and now these things are fused together.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Joel Beinin, as Sharif Abdel Kouddous mentioned to us last week, the April 6 Movement, the youth movement that really initiated a lot of these protests, took its name from a key strike that occurred on April 6, 2008. Could you talk about that strike, that labor strike, and its significance in terms of the modern Egyptian labor movement?

JOEL BEININ: There’s a lot of confusion about that event. I was actually there on the spot. The strike didn’t happen. What happened was the textile workers of Mahalla al-Kubra — there are about 22,000 of them, it’s the largest single enterprise in Egypt — were running a campaign to raise the national monthly minimum wage to 1,200 Egyptian pounds a month. That campaign is still in place. And they called for a general strike of workers on April 6, 2008, to support that demand. The security forces occupied their factory for three days before April 6th. Using a combination of coercion and cooptation, they made sure that the strike didn’t happen. Instead, what happened was a more or less spontaneous demonstration of mainly women and children protesting in the main square of Mahalla al-Kubra about the high price of food and especially subsidized bread, which is the key consumption item for a great majority of Egyptians. The protest was greeted with a hail of rocks by uniformed security people, just as we have seen in the days after January 25th in Tahrir Square. But there was no actual strike in Mahalla al-Kubra.

There were only few strikes elsewhere in Egypt. There were larger-than-usual demonstrations in Cairo, but not exceeding 2,000 people. So, broadly speaking, this was a failure. But it was a failure on the way to what now appears to be a greater success. This was the first time in recent years that workers tried to organize something nationwide with a political component to it. Raising the minimum wage is not simply an economic demand, it’s a political demand, because it is in opposition to the whole neoliberal economic restructuring project that has been proceeding very rapidly in Egypt, especially since the government that was recently deposed was installed in July 2004.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Professor Joel Beinin at Stanford, formerly at the American University in Cairo, author of several books on Egypt. He’s an expert on the labor movement. Let’s talk Suez, Professor Beinin. The significance of thousands of workers there and what the Suez Canal means?

JOEL BEININ: The Suez Canal obviously is one of the most strategic sites in Egypt. The British occupied Egypt in 1882 in order to secure the Suez Canal, so there’s a long history of Western intervention in Egypt over the Suez Canal. The workers in Suez, and the city of Suez in particular, have probably been the most militant in confronting the Mubarak regime since this revolutionary upsurge began on January 25th. On January 25th, there were two deaths in Suez. The protests were extremely militant there, attacking the local headquarters of the National Democratic Party, attacking the police station.

The fact that the Suez Canal workers are going on strike means that one of the most important economic institutions of the country is being idled. It’s a huge blow to the continued viability of the Egyptian economy under the Mubarak regime. It will, if it continues, put tremendous pressure on them. It’s not only the Suez Canal workers, although they are probably, in Suez, the most important single group, but there are also Suez steelworkers at Suez Canal who have gone on strike and ship repair workers and textile workers around the city of Suez, because there’s a special industrial zone there. So, Suez, in particular, has emerged as one of the most militant sites of confrontation in this last period.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Professor Beinin, you have talked about the Egyptian labor movement of the last few years as being the most important social movement in the modern Arab world. It’s especially unusual because the unions themselves are sort of like on the Mexican model, basically largely controlled by the government to a large extent. Could you talk about how this dynamic between the official organized unions and the sort of independent labor movement that has arisen, how that developed?

JOEL BEININ: The Egyptian Trade Union Federation was established in 1957 under the Nasser regime, and since then it has been essentially an arm of the state. And it has not participated at all in the labor upsurge of the last decade. In fact, most often it’s acted in opposition to it. So, over the last 10 years or more, workers have — when they have gone on strike or otherwise taken collective action, they have either elected strike committees, as happened in Mahalla al-Kubra, the big textile center in the Delta, or local union committees have split and some members of them have supported insurgent workers, some members of them — some members have stayed with the official trade union structure, in other cases spontaneous leaderships have emerged in the course of the struggle. But in no case have strikes or sit-ins or any other kind of collective action over the last decade been led by the official trade union structures.

So that has meant that in a few cases where workers were especially strong, independent trade unions have been formed for the first time in Egypt since the monarchy was overthrown in 1952. The biggest and most important of these was the real estate tax assessors’ union, which, after an 11-day sit-in in front of the Ministry of Finance began — first of all, won the strike, won a 325 percent wage increase, and then began to organize an independent trade union which now includes 35,000 tax assessors, Now, they are civil servants, they’re not properly workers, but all sorts of people like that are unionized in Egypt. Then, more recently, in December 2010, medical technicians formed an independent trade union. Then, on January 30th, just a few days after the initial demonstration of January 25th, these two independent trade unions and representatives from about a dozen major industrial areas — Mahalla in the Delta, Helwan south of Cairo, and several others — came together and announced in a press conference that they are organizing an Independent Trade Union Federation.

So, I wrote in the Foreign Policy blog that I thought that this was a revolutionary action, because this is illegal. The Egyptian law requires that every union that is formed affiliate with the Egyptian Trade Union Federation via the appropriate national sector union. So if you’re a steelworker, you belong to the National Union of Steelworkers, which is affiliated with the Egyptian Trade Union Federation. When I wrote that, I was really being optimistic, in the sense of, yes, it is revolutionary because it’s illegal, because it puts forward an aspiration for independence of workers beyond the strictures of the Mubarak regime, but I didn’t at that point expect what’s actually happened now, which is very, very clearly a revolutionary upsurge in a much more concrete way.

AMY GOODMAN: And we’re going to go to Cairo in just a minute to hear what’s just happening on the ground. But Professor Beinin, we want to ask you to stay with us. He is professor of Middle East history at Stanford University, former director of Middle East Studies at the American University in Cairo. This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we’ll also be joined by Democracy Now! senior producer Sharif Abdel Kouddous. He’s just come from thousands of doctors marching in the streets of Cairo, joining with the tens of thousands of others who remain there. Stay with us.

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