Showing both support for Egyptian protestors and discontent with the Obama administration’s cautious policy, about 100 Egyptian-Americans and representatives of the AFL-CIO and U.S. unions demonstrated at the White House Tuesday evening.
It was part of an international day of protests called by the International Trade Union Confederation — the main global organization of national union federations. And it just happened to coincide with an outbreak of strikes, protests and other actions by workers in Egypt that may launch a new, more powerful protest against both Mubarak’s government and the poverty and repression of most Egyptian workers.
On Tuesday, more so than on Wednesday, a wide cross-section of workers went on strike, in most cases for better pay and conditions at work, including the ouster of heads of government departments. But quite often they also demanded the right to form independent unions and supported the Tahrir Square protestors and their demand that Mubarak and his allies step down from power.
Striking workers — besides about 20,000 factory workers, according to Al Jazeera — included bus drivers, railroad workers, nurses, doctors, Suez canal workers, steelworkers, teachers, and sanitation workers, among others.
Long before the protests erupted, the AFL-CIO had been working with a tiny, emerging movement of workers, led by a union of tax collectors, to form unions independent of the Egyptian Trade Union Federation, which the government controls. Last year the AFL-CIO gave its annual George Meany-Lane Kirkland award to that emerging movement.
International solidarity, limited though it may sometimes seem, has made a difference to these unions and could prove important in the immediate future as the crisis comes to a head. In The Guardian, Eric Lee and Benjamin Weinthal wrote that Egyptian non-govenrmental organizations like the Center for Trade Union and Worker services and international support have been important in recent years, as well as the last few weeks:
Groups such as the CTUWS in turn enlisted the support of trade unions in other countries, and that support was invaluable – particularly in persuading the government to ease up on repression.
Those links with the international trade union movement have proven critical in recent days as well. When the Mubarak regime tried to cut off Egypt from the internet, CTUWS activists were able to phone in their daily communiques to the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Centre in Washington. The messages were transcribed, translated from the Arabic, and passed on to the wider trade union world using websites such as LabourStart.
Catherine Feingold, director of the AFL-CIO international department, talked on Wednesday evening with Working In These Times about workers’ new role in the Egyptian protests and what the U.S. labor movement is doing to support them. Here’s an edited transcript…
Feingold: Yesterday and today were pretty big days. Now we’re seeing many, many more workers doing work actions, strikes in all the various sectors, railway, bus, state-run electrcity, the Suez canal. Workers see this new space to be able to come forward and ask for things they haven’t been able to ask for for years, like higher wages and improved working conditions. So these past couple days have been pretty exciting on the worker font.
There were initial actions yesterday… Some of the workers have been saying if we don’t get [our demands], we’ll join everyone down on the square. That’s their bargaining chip.
[Earlier] some of the independent unions had gotten together and announced a new federation. But we didn’t see immediate actions. The pressure from the anti-government protests is creating a space for workers to go on strike, beginning yesterday [Tuesday].
Under the ETUF [Egyptian Trade Union Federation], unions were government-controlled, and there was very little space for workers.
Last year we awarded the George Meany-Lane Kirkland award to the independent labor movement in Egypt. They’ve been involved in creating this new federation. The tax collectors and a few smaller independent unions came together, and it’s still in formation.
The ETUF actually came out in support of Mubarak, trying to keep control for Mubarak. They’ve basically shown their true colors.
Q: Have there been any work actions from workers in the ETUF unions?
Feingold: Absolutely, but these workers from ETUF sectors are now demanding real representation. I don’t think they ever saw the ETUF as anything except a government body to repress workers. So at last they’re seeking real representation. These are independent worker committees, coming together to take advantage of the spaces open right now.
Q: Were they previously operating underground?
Feingold: There are [strikes in] many sectors — beverage, Suez canal, museum workers, nurses walked out — and the doctors walked out in solidarity in one place. So I think these are very new worker committees coming together, demanding improvement.
Until now the independent unions were very small, 50,000 or maybe 60,000 members. The ETUF was the behemoth. The independent unions were working hard on labor law reform. That was the struggle before these protests developed, and the ETUF was doing everything to block it. So there hasn’t been space for independent organizing. They’ve been repressed by the government.
Q: What has been the relationship of the U.S. labor movement to unions and worker centers in Egypt?
Feingold: Basically we’ve been in solidarity with the independent unions, like the tax collectors union last year. Very important: This is their movement. They’ve been doing this for years. This is all their work.
They were very strategic. If you look at their history, they tried to take advantage of spaces, like when the ILO [International Labor Organization] mission visited Egypt. They knew if they didn’t try to register their union when a high-level ILO delegation was there, it would never be heard of in the rest of the world.
Q: Are the independent unions aligned with any political movement?
Feingold: The unions we gave the award, before the protest, were not aligned with a political party, and from reports we’re getting, the ones coming out now are not supported by any political party. These are just workers saying we’ve had enough. About 40 percent of the country lives on less than $2 a day, and they’re hearing how much money Mubarak has robbed from the country, and they want better conditions.
Q: Is the demand of strikers and the new labor movement also for Mubarak to step down?
Feingold: Absolutely. In some of the state run agencies — most of them run by Mubarak friends — part of the demands has been for directors of these agencies, who have been repressing workers, to leave. There’s definitely an underlying message that we want change. We want Mubarak and his ronies out.
Q: What’s your assessment of how the Obama administration has handled the situation? Do you think they’ve been in sync with workers’ demands?
Feingold: No, I don’t think they’ve been in sync with workers. The administration has a real internal conflict over what to do, and we’ve seen that play out before us. For Egyptian workers, who do not follow every movement in the State Dept, they don’t see that the U.S. government has come out [for them]. They see the tanks sent by the United States surrounding them. They don’t see that the U.S. is there for the workers.
By sending a message that Mubarak should stay until September when there’s a transition, that does not respond to what the workers are asking for right now. People do not trust that if you wait until September things will be any different. If anything it puts into jeopardy the brave people who have stepped forward to do this. What do you do if you wait until September with Mubarak in power? The workers’ movements do not see that the U.S. government is on their side.
Q: So are you trying to deliver that message to the administration?
Feingold: Yes, indeed. The Solidarity Center folks have been briefing the administration, letting them know what’s going on with labor and the strikes. [Before the strikes, AFL-CIO] President Trumka had sent a letter to [Secretary of State Hilary] Clinton urging her to be on the right side of history, to side with the workers and the people of Egypt.
Q: What do you hear of the impact of Egyptian actions on labor movements in other Arab countries?
Feingold: Solidarity Center has been receiving messages from Iraq, from partners throughout the region. It’s reverberating throughout the region and the world. They’re waiting to see what happens in Egypt.
Q: The U.S. labor movement has historically been close to the Israeli labor movement. Does that affect relations with emerging independent Arab movements?
Feingold: No, not in the least. The position of the global labor movement [ITUC], passed a week ago, is to continue to work toward peace. Supporting workers’ movements in Egypt does not play into politics around Histadrut [the Israeli labor federation], and does not affect our long-term relationship with the Israeli labor movement.
In Egypt, there are State Department geopolitical concerns, but our focus has been on exercise of workers’ fundamental rights. This is why we’re giving support to the free workers’ movement.
Q: Have you heard of any arrests of union activists or attempts to crack down on strike activity?
Feingold: Obviously protestors who are urging labor strikes have been given warnings by vice-president Suleiman that civil strife is very dangerous for society. At the beginning, before the strikes, when the unions announced the beginning of the new federation, the authorities occupied their offices.
After the protests started, many businesses closed. Many of these strikes have occurred after businesses re-opened, and people went back to work.
Q: What do you anticipate will happen next? Are the strikes likely to spread? Will strikers join with protestors in the squares?
Feingold: Yes, absolutely. They’re using the square as a symbolic place, saying if we don’t get this, we’re headed to the square. This is a sign, as the protestors say, that the Mubarak regime has meant nothing but poverty and repression for workers. They’re finally saying they’ve had enough. It will only get worse.
We’re hearing of 8,000 farmers protesting over bread shortages. As they continue to try to repress protestors, the protestors will rise up. They’ve been living under poverty and harsh conditions for a long time, and they see this as an opportunity for real change. My prediction is that protests will continue. Every day we hear that life is returning to normal in Egypt, but life has not gone back to normal.
Q: What can the U.S. and international labor movements do?
Feingold: Our role is to take the lead from our partners, who we worked with before the protests, and we will continue to support them in their new federation, not just the U.S. labor movement but the global labor movement.
If there’s going to be a transformation where workers can exercise their fundamental rights and put actual labor law reform on the books, we’re going to take our cue from these workers.
David Moberg, a former senior editor of In These Times, was on staff with the magazine from when it began publishing in 1976 until his passing in July 2022. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.