Striking Textile Workers in Egypt Get Concessions
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
During this week when there's been a lot of labor news - starting with the big strike at Chrysler that lasted all of six hours before ending with a labor deal - let's take a look at labor unions - trade unions in particular - in a very different country, Egypt.
For decades, those unions were thought to be powerless, stymied by pro-government labor councils. But textile workers at a venerable Egyptian spinning mill recently did something that was considered unthinkable. They went on strike, and they won significant concessions from the government.
NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Cairo.
PETER KENYON: Egypt has long been known for its world-class cotton products and the eighty-year-old Misr Spinning and Weaving Company, the first to be owned by an Egyptian Muslim, is still a source of national pride. So when 27,000 workers at the plant went on strike last month and the government responded by pouring thousands of security men into the middle town of Mahalla al-Kubra, people held their breath. But instead of crushing the strikers, the government ended the weeklong walkout by giving the workers much of what they were asking for, including bonuses and investigations into corruption among top management officials.
Professor Joel Beinin, head of Middle East studies at the American University in Cairo, says the economic gains the Mahalla workers won are important. But he thinks the strikers' biggest victory was in managing to negotiate directly with the government - something the state has avoided for decades.
Professor JOEL BEININ (Head, Middle East Studies, American University, Cairo): Hugely significant. The workers won a nearly unequivocal victory in terms of their economic demands. They also won a very important political victory by forcing the government to negotiate directly with their elected strike committee rather than with the local trade union committee, which are essentially government appointees.
KENYON: In the 1930s and '40s, Egypt's thriving trade union movement was an incubator for leftwing and nationalist political expression. Ironically, it was the Arab nationalist Gamal Abdel Nasser who began to dismantle the independent labor movement in the 1950s. Since then, critics say, company owners and the government have been insulated from workers' demands by the Egyptian Federation of Labor Unions, which consistently sided with the government even though it was nominally representing the workers.
The victory by the Mahalla strikers, which was the most dramatic of a wave of strikes and job actions across Egypt for the past 10 months, has raised new hopes among labor advocates.
But Kamal Abbas, director of the Independent Center for Trade Union and Worker Services, says the government will move to block political gains by the labor movement just as it has blocked pro-democracy reformers.
Mr. KAMAL ABBAS (Director, Independent Center for Trade Union and Worker Services): (Through translator) The government is also very sensitive about any links between political powers in Egypt and the labor movement because this would mean that workers might enter with their weight into the democratic movement. They're very scared of this.
KENYON: Abbas has reason to be pessimistic. His center has been closed and he was targeted in a lawsuit that resulted in a one-year jail sentence, which he's now appealing.
Given the government's aggressive crackdown on independent newspapers, judges and reform advocates, Abbas wonders how he will fair when his appeal comes up in December.
Mr. ABBAS: (Through translator) As to how much hope we have, if the basis of the ruling will be the law and justice, then we have nothing to worry about, we will get acquitted. But of course, we have serious fears particularly based on the general environment that's prevailing.
KENYON: Professor Joel Beinin at AUC says, for now, the workers can be glad to have better pay and working conditions. But any move to reclaim what real political clout further labor movement will meet real resistance from the government.
Prof. BEININ: It looks like what it has decided to do insofar as there is a clear decision-making process that were carried off is to give the workers their economic demands and hope they'll go away. The question is, will those political gains be spread beyond Mahalla? Will they form the basis of an effort to establish in independent trade union?
KENYON: For now, labor advocates will be watching closely to see whether workers across the country succeed in bringing the type of economic concessions won by the Mahalla strikers to their own factories.
Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Cairo.
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