Organise like an Egyptian
The new societies being created in Egypt and the wider region must include strong, independent trade unions, says Kamal Abbas - the founder of Egypt's Centre for Trade Union and Worker Services (CTUWS), during his visit to the UK last week.
(Kamal Abbas General Co-ordinator of the CTUWS addressing the FBU Conference in Southport last week. Photo by Rob Bremner. )
Around the same time as the Berlin Wall was coming down Abbas, then a young welder, found himself the ringleader of an 'illegal' strike by 17,000 workers over pay and conditions at a large steelworks in the southern Cairo neighbourhood of Helwan.
The response of the state was massive repression. They sent in 5,000 soldiers who used live and rubber bullets as well as tear gas. One person was killed - Abdelhai Suleiman. Fifteen more were injured and more than 600 arrested and jailed.
Abbas was the last one to be released and the only one who was not reinstated at his job. He says that the long-term result of the strike was higher wages for the workers in Helwan.
Shortly after losing his job at the plant, Abbas and his colleagues established the Centre for Trade Unions and Workers' Services as an embryonic and independent movement in contrast to the officially-sanctioned Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF), which worked hand in glove with the Mubarak regime.
In 2010, the CTUWS celebrated its twentieth anniversary by receiving the Meany-Kirkland award from the American trade union centre, the AFL-CIO.
Abbas, who was in London recently as the guest of Egypt Workers Solidarity after speaking at the conference of the Fire Brigades Union, met us at the TUC where he told us that the old state-controlled unions were deeply worried about his organisation.
They saw the CTUWS as "an infectious virus" which would undermine their status and "change the whole union scene in the region" where official unions are the norm.
Those unions have worked together in the International Confederation of Arab Trade Unions (ICATU), which was headquartered in Syria and run by a Qaddafi appointee.
ICATU, a relic of the Nasser era, was not only hostile to the CTUWS, but even denied membership to the Palestine General Federation of Trade Unions on the grounds that it 'collaborated with Zionism' by working together with the Israeli Histadrut. The Palestinian trade unionists, though ignored by the official unions in Egypt, have been welcome guests at CTUWS events in the past.
With the collapse of the state-controlled ETUF in Egypt, Abbas thinks they were right to be worried: "the revolution didn't just change the regime but also the old and corrupted unions."
He revealed that a decision had been made to smash his organisation -- but was only averted by the revolution in January.
Abbas admits that he hadn't anticipated the revolution but is surprised by his accidental prescience in the choice of the motto for the CTUWS's annual calendar - 'Freedom is Now' - which was released only days before the Tahrir Square movement erupted.
Judging by his dog-tiredness it looks like Abbas and his colleagues are running to stand still.
They have exchanged messages of support with the newly independent unions in Tunisia but haven't yet found the time to deepen the links, let alone think of how to make the wider movement more representative of the workers of the Middle East.
He was tight-lipped about particular candidates in the forthcoming elections in Egypt "although trade unions are inevitably on the same side as social justice."
But he was crystal clear about the Muslim Brotherhood, saying "they don't have a good relationship with workers or women" and could "provoke a climate of discrimination against women and Coptic Christians." He summed up their viewpoint as 'you should obey your employers'.
Asked about his core message to trade unionists and democrats he said: "the Egyptian revolution succeeded in removing the dictatorship but we are only half way to a democratic state and in transition to building independent unions which are a basis of a more socially just and democratic system."
Given international support -- and more sleep -- this modest former welder could yet help achieve his dream and boost social justice in Egypt and more widely.
GARY KENT is the Director of Labour Friends of Iraq and is writing in his personal capacity.
ERIC LEE is the founding editor of LabourStart, the news and campaigning website of the international trade union movement.
The TUC is supporting an ITUC project to help the new Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions assist workers in forming and joining independent and democratic trade unions across the country. To support this critical work, please donate to the TUC Aid Middle East and North Africa Appeal.
Issued: 25 May, 2011