We can only understand the emergence of independent unions — outside the rule of the state and of the official labor union affiliated with it — in the context of the changes in the Egyptian situation in general and the developments of the labor movement in particular.
In general, official political frameworks failed to contain and tame the Egyptian street. The most influential and active political movements are the ones that do not follow traditional political parties and forces. The Palestinian Intifada Support Movement in the early 2000s, the Anti-Iraqi Invasion Movement in 2003, Kifaya, Youth for Change and the April 6 Movement, in addition to others, were all non-partisan movements. The mechanisms that the regime put in place in the 1970s to take over political life through a seeming pluralism of factions were unable to comprehend the current situation, and political activity appeared outside its framework.
The labor situation was no different. The labor union, which the state established in 1957 and which retained its domination over labor, has failed to contain the labor movement or control it since late 2006. Following the successful strike of the Ghazel Al Mahalla laborers in December 2006, which was countered by the official trade union organization, labor strikes have spread all over Egypt and the union organization has not been able to contain them.
Major changes in the structure of the working class and work relations since the early 1990s have liberated the labor movement from the grip of the official trade union organization.
The organization was established under and remained subject to the state’s dominance over production and distribution processes. The state was the employer and played a social role in employment, teaching, health, housing and services. There was little space left for the unions to negotiate, and the vacuum resulting from the absence of labor organizations established by the workers and representing them was not sensed in terms of trade union action.
Remarkably, the formation of the independent union movement was based on legal references that have been around since the mid-20th century. However, these unions lacked strong labor action that would enable them to escape the dominance of official unions. The emergence of independent unions was just an attempt to create a legal and regulatory framework for an already existing movement.
The first independent union, which was founded by the staff of property taxes, was up and running after a strike in 2007 (the Supreme Strike Committee, which included representatives from different governorates of Egypt). As the official trade union organization was against the strike, the committee was responsible for calling for the strike, organizing it and negotiating with officials on behalf of the workers. The committee played the role of the union fully. It was democratically selected by the workers and represented them. Following the victory of the strike, it was easy for the strike committee to move to a higher stage of organization. It was backed by 40,000 workers and emerged as the first independent union.
Just as strikes have expanded from Mahalla, independent unions have also spread. The establishment of the union of property taxes was followed by that of several other unions. This turned into a widespread phenomenon after the revolution. Independent unions have played an important role since their inception in the organization of the labor movement and the development of related equipment, like facilities and labor sites. However, they have not made the same progress in building a national union organization that develops the relations of workers and improves their working conditions, instead of just working on achieving the demands of each facility, despite the establishment of several independent labor unions.
This is evidenced by the independent trade union movement’s failure to exert pressure and to pass legislation that recognizes its post-revolution existence, despite persistent calls to do so. Add to this its failure to satisfy the most important claim of the labor movement, i.e. the minimum wage, which has been recently adopted by the government without negotiations with the independent trade unions. It was also adopted in a distorted manner that led to more crises.
The independent unions boast about the fact that they have millions of members. However, they have never succeeded in mobilizing large numbers of their members in any effective protest. The marches and protests they have called for thus far have been limited to hundreds.
On the other hand, various independent unions have led powerful and influential strikes, such as the railway strike in April 2013, the metro strike before that and the postal strike more recently.
The independent trade unions seem to be united and steadfast whenever their bases are concerned. However, whenever the spotlight is on their higher bodies, such as the trade unions and public unions, they become bureaucratic and lethargic.
The developments that followed the July 3 events are perhaps a great example. After the overthrow of Mohammed Morsi and the declaration of the “road map,” official and independent labor unions announced their support. More importantly, they announced, either explicitly or implicitly, that they would stop calling for strikes in support of the state in the face of terrorism.
The position of unions had no value in labor circles and labor strikes continued. After their frequency dropped for a certain period, it witnessed a quick rise despite the increasing repression and security prosecution of labor union leaders. A number of postal authorities who were on strike have been recently arrested. Some of those strikes were led by several independent unions, while some of them were not led by independent unions but by workers.
Labor movement and independent unions: headed toward a gap?
The position of the unions, be they independent or official, after July 3 does not pose a threat to the labor movement itself. The impact and severity of this position are rather heavily concentrated on the future of trade unions, especially independent ones. The declaration to halt strikes does not stop them; it only increases the gap between unions and the independent labor movement.
As far as the base is concerned, independent unions are facing direct and daily pressure from workers, which makes them more prone to correct their course and continue the workers' struggle. At the upper levels, these pressures decrease. Thus, those levels are more likely to break away from the daily reality of the workers and drown in bureaucracy. Meanwhile, competition is likely to emerge between the various trade union organizations, and even within the union itself.
Amid the weakness of the fledgling organizational structure of the independent unions and the weakness of the trade union experience, interaction between the base and the upper levels of the trade union organization weakens in turn. One has to make a distinction between independent unions that emerged against the backdrop of the rise of workers' struggle and the official trade union organization that was established by the state.
The organization was willingly established by the state and remained under its auspices. Its role has been closer to a trade union police rather than trade union bureaucracy. Ever since its inception, its role has been to contain and control the labor movement and respond to the authorities rather than to the workers. Therefore, it can by no means be affected by the labor movement.
For their part, independent unions in Egypt were the result of developments that led to the erosion of the governmental control and dominion tools. These very conditions made the government unable to contain the labor movement. Also, independent unions were the product of a powerful labor movement capable of organizing loud protests that contributed to the destabilization of successive governments.
This confirms that the labor movement does not depend on anyone and is capable of offering other organizational alternatives when forced to do so.
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