Thursday, February 17, 2011

201. Freed by Egypt’s Revolt, Workers Press Demands

Suez Canal Company Workers Strike

By Kareem Fahim, The New York Times, February 16, 2011
The strikes have closed the banks, stalled buses in Cairo and crippled some textile mills. Police officers, airport employees, ambulance drivers and electrical engineers have carried out protests. Journalists have risen up against their managers. The government has struggled with its response.
“All ministers here are displeased with the strikes,” Magdy Radi, the cabinet’s spokesman, said in an interview. “It is hampering our work as a caretaker government. But it is an issue for the Supreme Council to take care of, not us.”
Despite initial reports that the military would ban strikes, the generals have so far settled for warnings. On Tuesday, they military issued a communiqué urging Egyptians to tone down the labor protests, citing the consequences for the economy. On Wednesday, it sent its text messages.
The recent strikes build on what labor organizers contend was their critical role in the uprising that toppled Mr. Mubarak: a grass-roots mobilization that seemed to find its own steam without the help of Facebook or Twitter or any kind of a national labor network.
One labor organizer and 20 of his colleagues, using cellphones, spread the word of a strike to a textile mill in Alexandria and a chemical factory in Aswan. The health technicians’ union reached out to steelworkers. Fliers were distributed all over the country last week by organizations like the Revolutionary Socialists of Egypt and Ms. Refaat’s group.
One flier said: “Three hundred young people have paid with their lives as a price for our freedom. The path is open for all of us.”
That labor leaders could organize strikes on the spur of the moment should come as no surprise, they say. They developed tight bonds over “many years of meetings and joint struggle for our rights,” said Muhammad Abdelsalam al-Barbari of the Coordinating Committee for Labor Freedoms and Rights. “It was natural during the protests to ask around about what labor action is being taken here and there.”
The movement had been building for years, despite the heavy hand of the security services and an authorized trade union federation that was seen as collaborating with the government.
Joel Beinin, a Stanford professor who has followed Egyptian labor movements, said strikes over the past decade accelerated in the past six years in response to the government’s efforts to privatize the economy. Mahalla el-Kobra, the center of the country’s textile industry, became a stronghold of labor resistance, and remains so.
The workers never developed strong connections to the Internet activists who became the most visible face of the uprising, like the April 6 Youth Movement, which was actually named for a labor action. “By and large, there wasn’t any organic connection between workers and middle-class movements for democracy,” Mr. Beinin said.
The differences were stark: the Facebook activists — patriotic and well intentioned — commanded huge anonymous audiences, but until recently had trouble mobilizing them. The workers knew and trusted one another and could mobilize readily, but their activism was local.
As the protesters filled Tahrir Square last week, the labor strikes went national, and included a sit-in by workers for the Suez Canal Authority, an alarming development for Mr. Mubarak’s government.
Now, amid talk of forming an independent national labor organization, the workers’ strikes and protests seem likely to continue. A protest outside Cairo’s television building this week was typical, as workers from the Public Transportation Authority called for higher wages and the resignation and indictment of the authority’s leader.
“Prices have risen so much that if I buy some lemons to treat a sore throat, I find myself bankrupt for the month,” said a Transportation Ministry employee, Abdelrahman Khalil. “The governor has to resign and be put on trial immediately.”
Emad Mekay and Liam Stack contributed reporting.

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