Strike for now
Strikes have proliferated across the country over the past two years, with often mixed results. Are there right ways and wrong ways of conducting an efficient strike, asks Dena Rashed
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Clockwise from top: Abu Aieta leading the tax property workers during the strike; doctors demanding better salaries; the workers' strike in Mahala Al-Kubra
Disgruntled, even desperate, but determined. It does not matter anymore where a person works, or for how long he or she has had his or her demands. Today, anyone -- blue-collar worker, white-collar worker, or professional -- may resort to collective demands or strikes for a better standard of living. The resulting industrial action could be for a day or it could be for weeks: as the number of strikes and stand-offs in the country increases, people are becoming less and less surprised at news of a strike in almost any of the country's institutions.
This year, for the second year in a row, there has been a call for a national strike on 6 April. Despite the limited impacts of national strikes in the past, the very call for such a strike accentuates the willingness of many to use strikes as a tool for change and continues a trend that has been much in evidence over the past two years.
In December 2006, for example, more than 27,000 workers at the Misr Spinning and Weaving Company in the northern industrial city of Mahala Al-Kubra went on strike over unpaid bonuses, encouraging other workers in different parts of the country to follow suit. In January 2007, almost 12,000 workers at the Kafr Al-Dawwar textiles factory also went on strike for better wages.
Strikes, however, have not only been conducted by blue-collar workers. One of the most successful was held by property tax workers in December 2007, when a peaceful sit-in continued for 11 days in support of workers' demands for parity with other workers on the Ministry of Finance's payroll. The country's 55,000 property tax workers have reported to governorate-level directorates rather than to the Finance Ministry since 1974, and their salaries have not kept pace with those of their ministry counterparts.
The property tax workers' demands were eventually met, and as a result many other white-collar workers saw a possibility of improving their working conditions through going on strike. According to Kamal Abbas, an activist and union organiser, the fact that a number of strikes have achieved their goals cannot be ignored, particularly since many of them have been concerned with demands for better pay and have concerned factory workers. Abbas himself was involved in a strike in 1989 in the country's iron and steel industry, and since then he has witnessed changes in the ways in which strikes are conducted, while also feeling certain that some things have remained the same.
"It is the same old problem of capitalism versus the workers," Kamal told Al-Ahram Weekly. "Strikes have always been a part of the culture of the workers all over the world."
While recent years have seen an increasing number of strikes, strikes as such are hardly absent from Egypt's modern history. In 1899 tobacco workers went on strike in order to form a union in their industry, and the country's labour movement over the decades that followed was notably strong. When the workers at the Kafr Al-Dawwar factories went on strike in 1952, however, the new revolutionary regime met their demands with an iron first, sentencing two workers to death and imprisoning many others. Later, occasional strikes took place in different industries in the 1960s, though nothing like on the scale of recent years.
For Abbas, strikers are still inadequately protected by the law. "Workers do not strike according to the law, and the government does not treat them according to the law," he says. In fact, the legal situation is controversial. According to Article 124 of the Penal Code, a person deliberately choosing not to perform his job could face a sentence of three months to a year in prison. Nevertheless, articles 192 to 195 of Labour Law 12/2003 allow the right to a strike within certain limits. In order to be legal, a strike has to be peaceful and be regulated by a union, and it has to serve workers' professional, social and economic rights. A strike, in other words, cannot have a "political" goal. Unions are also obliged to inform the management of any business or other organisation of a strike before it is called.
The law states that unions should be involved in negotiations leading up to a strike, as well as in any decision to call a strike. Abbas, however, says that one of the main reasons why so many strikes are now occurring is that unions are too far removed from the people they are supposed to represent. "It is all very bureaucratic, and the next step after a strike is for workers to create their own unions, which has happened during negotiations with the government," he says. "People today are asking major questions, such as why their unions are not doing their jobs. The answer is clear: it is because the existing unions are not really theirs to begin with." What is taking place today, he says, is the appearance of "parallel unions" that are emerging to protect the rights of workers that are not necessarily protected by the existing, legal ones.
The basis of any efficient strike, Abbas adds, is unity. "The reason for pursuing a strike should be clear, legitimate and precise. It should be clear to all that a strike is happening to right an authentic grievance." With this in mind, he says, the experience of the property tax workers has been a kind of model for further strikes. This was a remarkable strike in Abbas's view because the workers had a legitimate right for equal pay with their counterparts at the Ministry of Finance, and they were prepared to go on strike to pursue it. "People were faced with difficult economic conditions, their financial obligations including paying for school tuition, medical treatment and the basic necessities for life. Yet their pay did not match those obligations, and the strike resulted in a 330 per cent increase in pay," as well as the election of a committee to discuss the demands with the government. All this was achieved in a democratic way, Abbas comments, "the way human beings should elect people to represent them."
While the property tax workers formed their own committee to pursue their demands, the lack of strong unions, ones fairly elected by workers or employees, is believed to be something that is missing from other professions, leaving people alone to protest for their rights. According to Kamal Abu Aieta, head of the independent General Union of Property Tax Workers, "people have no other way of attaining their rights nowadays apart from striking. At a time when union elections are either forged or under government supervision, there is no other way except for workers or employees to depend on themselves."
From his own experience, Abu Aieta believes that the main reason for success in any strike is to have clear demands. "When you have a right, especially when it is about equality, no one can prove you wrong, neither the people, nor the constitution, nor the religions," he says. The kind of media attention the property tax workers gained was also a way of making their voices heard, and it gave them a degree of popular support during their strike. Many people may have little sympathy for government employees, and in particular for tax collectors, but "they respected us for the way we handled our strike, with residents of Hussein Hegazy Street and passers-by on Qasr Al-Aini Street showing real support for our cause."
The technique used by the property tax workers paid off, and they showed perseverance in attaining their goals. "During our sit-in, we were days away from the Eid, so our families came and joined us. When people got tired, we started chanting Eid songs, and as a result our message was clear: we were going to remain on strike even during the holidays so that the government would know that we were not going to change our minds." Another reason for the success of the strike had to do with trust. "When soldiers go to war, they have to trust their leaders and believe they are going to win," Abu Aieta comments, adding that a similar trust had been in evidence during the property tax workers' strike.
The committee formed during the strike to press for the strikers' demands was later turned into an independent union, and this continued negotiations with the government after the sit-in itself ended. "We attained more than we planned," Abu Aieta says, "such that we have now achieved social and health benefits, and we have negotiated pension rights for workers when they retire, meaning that they can look forward to a decent standard of living when they most need it."
Yet, while the property tax workers managed to achieve their goals, other workers, such as those at the Mahala factories, have been less successful despite initial successes in achieving some demands. According to Abbas, the Mahala strike "started on the right track in December 2006 but did not go so well afterwards. It was wrong for the workers to resort to threats, for example, and despite the media attention given to the workers' cause their demands were unrealistic. They were asking for a minimum wage of LE1,200 for workers across the country, which is a political demand."
Another recent protest has been carried out by the country's engineers, and here the story of protest has taken a different turn. The Engineers Syndicate has been under government supervision for more than a decade, and no elections have taken place, though this, according to Engineer Omar Abdullah, is not the only reason for the protesters' lack of success. "We have to dig deep into different cases, think more broadly and find out why people choose to go on strike, or to protest against or boycott elections," he says. "People have two options in pursuing their rights before going on strike, the legal and the judicial [in the form of legal challenge]. It is only when these routes fail that people choose to protest."
These routes, however, are sometimes blocked, and Abdullah cites the Engineers Syndicate as an example. "We have legal rulings that allow us to conduct elections, but we are unable to do so. Since we can't conduct elections, and we can't negotiate with the government, we choose to protest."
Abdullah recognises the potentially dangerous effects of strikes on the country, particularly of strikes among the country's engineers. "We can't go on strike like other workers, because if engineers went on strike life would stop in Egypt. Imagine the effects of an electricity or metro strike on everyday life." He argues that the government's inability to meet people's demands is the main reason for strikes, but he differentiates between the demands of engineers and judges and other white-collar or professional demands. "Doctors, professors and other professionals have been striking for better salaries, but engineers have only been calling for the right to hold elections and judges for the right to independence. These calls are rather different, since they are not calls for more money but calls for more freedom."
Amr Elshobki, an expert at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, identifies differences between calls for a general strike like that which took place on 6 April 2008 and 4 May 2008 and other strikes. "General strikes call for political goals," Elshobki says, "and I would say that they have not been successful in their demands. Other protests have been more effective because of the specific nature of their demands."
Moreover, Elshobki says, public opinion does not necessarily sympathise with abstract causes, such as freedom of expression or movements to restructure the country's press. However, protests that have to do with more specific demands may be more effective in gaining public support and in meeting their goals, though this will also depend on the power of the strikers, the place of the strike, and whether or not the demands are felt to be attainable. "At a time when strikes have turned into the only popular way of demanding pay rises in different sectors, no one is asking whether productivity is increasing or not," Elshobki comments.
Finally, is the increasing number of strikes an indication of political turmoil? Are they simply a means to an end, or are they the beginning of a more general protest at a perceived lack of communication between government and people? For Elshobki, if the major part of the workers' demands is not met -- which seems likely, since the authorities cannot afford to meet all the demands -- then there is a risk that the current round of strikes will lead to a larger political strike. "That means that there is a risk that demands will be of a more political nature, like demanding a different government, or demanding major, structural change. However, these kinds of demands have not emerged as yet," he says.
Abdullah, too, sees the recent strikes as an indication of a desire for change. "The fact that people are protesting means that they are alive," he says. "Injustice is not just a crime carried out by the agent of the injustice. Rather, it is a mutual crime if the victim of the injustice chooses to remain silent. I think that the people who are striking or protesting are showing that they resent the unfairness and injustice they face."
In Abbas's view, the current political situation must bear some of the blame. "The left is weak," he says, "and the political parties are almost invisible." However, Abbas is optimistic about the work of NGOs and the labour movement. "If we look outside Egypt to the Latin American countries, for example, we will see that the labour movements there have achieved remarkable results in their quest for a better life," he says.
For Abu Aieta, if the current strikes continue then the country's future is bleak. "What we need is a political elite that is close to the people's hopes and dreams, and I don't necessarily mean a political party or coalition. What I mean is an elite that has a unified agenda for the people," he told the Weekly.
"The key to solving our problems and to averting strikes is having active unions that really safeguard the rights of their members and are accountable to them. If society can develop such tools, and if people can figure out how to use them correctly, then there is still hope."