The Free Union — How Did We Build It?


Kamal abu Eita
Kamal abu Eita.
Photo by Hossam el-Hamalawy.

The first time I participated in a discussion about independent unions, and about the idea of pluralism, was at a conference organized by the Al-Tagammu party — back in the days when Al-Tagammu was really “united” — when one of the veteran unionists, Atiyah Al-Sirafi, explained the idea.  This was almost 25 years ago, and I wasn’t convinced by the idea since at that time I was influenced by the idea of a single unified trade union federation — an idea connected with socialist thought in general, and Nasserism in particular.  . . .

In the middle of the seventies we lived in a dream that was impossible to realize: To transform the Socialist Union from within and stop the advance of the right within it, as the right was advancing towards control over the sites of power and resources in Egypt, with the support of the regime of Anwar Al-Sadat who laid the first brick to the wall of corruption when he issued Law 43 of 1974, the law of foreign investment.  This was the beginning of the economic Infitah (“opening”), which brought Egypt to this state of corruption, tyranny, and organized plundering.

The discussion which started a quarter of a century ago never stopped.  Atiyah Al-Sirafi continued his calls for a conference of Egyptian workers to form a union independent from the state, which continued to withdraw from its historical role to protect the interests of working people and left them to be plundered by the forces of the market.  . . .

The influence of working people on decision making was reduced, as was their representation in the political organizations and on the company boards.  Against this background I started to believe in the idea of Atiyah Al-Sirafi.  The discussion about his idea moved from the circles of the Tagammu party to the “national committee to support the rights of workers,” led by Ahmed Sharaf al-Din, where the idea took root.

In this way my position changed from defense of a single union federation into defending the freedom to organize.  And I was pushed in this direction by the happiness I felt during my union work, within the official union, which had withdrawn completely from its role in protecting its members and become devoted to writing thank-you telegrams to officials and employers.  It neglected the workers completely, having become an organization swarming with half-men, half-women, the worst of whom were the eunuch leaders who weren’t much better than any part of the state bureaucracy.  Rather the opposite: within the state bureaucracy I encountered women who were a thousand times more honorable than the union leaders.

The union federation became a foundation of corruption, devoted to corruption, defending it and propagating it.  At the successive general assemblies I heard more speeches justifying privatization than I heard from the businessmen.  And those benefiting from the privatization were selling the resources of the Egyptian people for close to nothing before the eyes of the official unions.  So the workers left the factories to join the ranks of the unemployed or to sell brushes or combs in the streets or on the buses.  The regime succeeded, with encouragement from the official unions, in turning the labor force into homeless vagrants, or in the best case vendors of trivial goods.

I remember how the union activist Faiz al-Kartah and I, when we were writing the program of the Karama party in 1997, insisted on including the principle of the freedom to form labor unions and professional syndicates — and I admit that many of our brothers didn’t realize then how important this step was.

But this line written in the program of the Karama party couldn’t be realized simply being written down.  I spent 20 years with my colleagues working within the official union, being elected as head of my union committee.  I was trying, by working within the official union, to realize the demands of my colleagues within the real estate tax authority — but always in vain.

In 1999 we tried, through the general union, to pressure for an incentive that had been decided by the prime minister.  The head of the union took our demands and wrote a letter to the officials, who replied by saying we didn’t have any right to that incentive.  So what could the union head do, other than writing on the cover of the union magazine — which was being published for our membership fees — a headline that repeated that we didn’t have this right?  That’s all the effort he made. . . .

After that, me and my colleagues from the local union committees gathered and decided to hold a meeting at the general union.  Faruq Shehata, the head of the union, called security and threw us out.  But we continued our struggle, until one day we held a protest outside the People’s Assembly and a delegation from us met a delegation from the speaker.  Then we went to Mohi el-Din el-Gharib, who was Finance Minister at that time, and he gave in to our demands.

This victory demonstrated the failure of the official union, who had betrayed us and was defending the employers.  But after this we relaxed and remained asleep for almost ten years without cutting our relations with the official union.

Then came the new movements that brought life back to Egypt, and the strike in Mahalla, and the new wave of price increases, which all reminded us of our old victory.  We started calling each other and meeting in cafés, homes, and workplaces.  We became organized, so the union attacked us with a flood of statements and lies, pressuring the workers not to have anything to do with the “professional agitators and troublemakers,” as they called us, in addition to informing security about us.

Kamal abu Eita is the head of the Union of Real Estate Tax Authority Employees in Egypt.  The article above is a partial translation, by Per Bjorklund, of Kamal abu Eita’s article النقابة المستقلة… كيف بنيناها؟   (The Socialist, 15 April 2009).  The translation was first published by Bjorklund in his blog Egypt and Beyond on 30 April 2009.  It is reproduced here for educational purposes.   See, also, “The Organiser” (Baheyya: Egypt Analysis and Whimsy, 1 January 2008).