The political conflict in Egypt quickly turned to the trade union movement. On May 10, the representatives of trade union organizations in Cairo met and declared their support for Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in the presidential election. On the same day, representatives from those same organizations met in Alexandria with government and business representatives and signed a document pledging to suspend labor strikes and protests until the “road map” is completed.
The two events brought back to mind the state’s control over trade unions. The unions’ subordination to the state lasted from 1957 to 2008, when the first trade union independent from the official labor union was established.
What happened on May 10 was not surprising. After President Mohammed Morsi was ousted on July 3, 2013, the trade unions issued statements supporting the “road map” while other unions called for an end to the strikes.
It was remarkable that those calls were followed by major labor strikes, which eventually led to the overthrow of the government of Hazem el-Biblawi, noting that most of these protests were not organized by the unions or their leaders. Some of those protests were led by trade union committees at the base, and other protests were not led by any union leader at all.
This means that no party can control the labor movement. The irony is that the unions that signed the Alexandria document have been unable, during the last period, to achieve any real gains for the workers through negotiations with the government or businessmen. They failed to raise the minimum wage, improve worker relations or stop the prosecution of striking workers. Those unions have not succeeded in carrying out their mission to support the workers, therefore they opted to support the state and its presidential candidate.
There are now three prominent trade unions in Egypt: the Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF), which was established by a decision from late President Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1957 and remained associated with the state; the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions (EFITU), which was founded in Tahrir Square on Jan. 30, 2011, during the revolution against the regime of Hosni Mubarak; the Democratic Union of Egyptian Workers (DUEW), which was established after the defection of a number of trade unions from the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions in 2012.
Despite the continual conflict between the three unions and their competition for worker representation, they agreed to support Sisi and to stop the strikes to support the “road map.”
But this attitude provoked a crisis in the trade union movement, especially the independent unions. Union committees affiliated with the EFITU and DUEW issued statements refusing to endorse Sisi and rejecting the Alexandria document, which they called the “document of shame.”
Abdel Monem al-Gamal, the head of the ETUF-affiliated General Union for Construction and Timber, told As-Safir, “The initiative to stop the strikes was not our first. We launched a previous initiative during the era of the military council, and we launched a second initiative in Morsi’s era. This is our third initiative. I wished that the document included clear solutions to the issues of workers, not just [calls to] suspend the strikes. Also, the government should have been a partner in the document, not only a sponsor, because the government is an employer.”
About the ability of the official union to suspend the strikes, Gamal said, “We are only responsible for the workers that are members of the ETUF. Strikes that may occur in facilities that don’t follow our union are not our responsibility.”
About supporting Sisi, Gamal said, "Sisi’s popularity among the workers is [high]. And we have expressed that popularity by supporting him. The workers want security and the resumption of work and life, and they see that Sisi is capable of that. … Some oppose our pro-Sisi stance of course, but they are a minority. … It is enough that supporting Sisi has gathered the opponents of union work for the first time. That could unify the trade unions."
Some think the trade union movement decided to support Sisi because they wanted to move closer to the rule. In this context, Hoda Kamal, a member of the EFITU executive office, wondered in her interview with As-Safir, “How can representatives of the workers respond to the firing of tear gas cartridges on the strikes and the arrest of striking workers by [signing] a document pledging to suspend the strikes? … This decision doesn’t reflect the [opinion] of the workers, who are suffering from their demands being ignored and are being subjected to harassment and persecution during peaceful strikes. … It is surprising that this happened in Alexandria, where many workers were arrested. … The trade unions’ mission is not to prevent strikes, but to organize and lead them.”
On supporting Sisi, Kamal said, “We refuse to use the trade union movement in favor of any candidate, whether Sisi or [the founder of the Popular Current, presidential candidate] Hamdeen [Sabahi]. … Our objection is not about Sisi specifically. We would have objected if support [was declared] for Hamdeen, too.”
Unionists are particularly sensitive to using the trade union movement to provide support for any political authority. Ever since Nasser used the unions to overthrow President Mohamed Naguib in March 1954, union work was nationalized and used for the benefit of the rule for half a century. The emergence of independent unions was an important indicator about the emancipation of the trade union movement from the state’s grip. But the latest positions are not in line with that emancipation.
In this context, DUEW member Samar Sami told As-Safir, “Those who have supported Sisi don’t represent the workers. Let them support whomever they wish, but not on behalf of the workers. There should be a separation between union work and political work. We have demands and rights, which we will raise in the face of whoever is the next president. We don’t offer pledges to anyone because no one has the right to concede workers’ rights, and the right to strike is one of the most important rights for the workers. They have waived [that right] in that document. The document was only signed by the representatives of the unions. It was not signed by the government or by the businessmen. This means that [the document] is binding only for the unions. How can they offer such concessions without anything in return or even without the review of union committees. Those who signed the document are not the ones to organize or prevent a strike. They are not the ones to tell workers how to vote in the election.”
Instead of discussing the demands of the workers and their causes, the major unions signed the Alexandria document and declared their support for Sisi. This matter is not new, as declarations of support used to be issued by union officials throughout Mubarak’s 30-year rule, with initiatives to stop the strikes, and even condemn them. That happened dozens of times, but all those statements and initiatives didn’t protect Mubarak’s regime. And yet some are betting they would protect the regime today!
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