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Egypt’s Tahrir Square, Revisted: Labor’s Revolution Betrayed?

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Michelle ChenIt’s time to return to Downtown Cairo. There are signs that the romance of the Arab Spring is already cooling off. Many activists who braved beatings and arrests to oust a dictator fear their civil society’s rebirth may be smothered before taking its first breath.  A proposed ban on strikes appears to expand the rollback on civil and labor rights that has steadily undermined this winter’s victory at Tahrir Square.

Activists fear that the pending draft decree, which would sharply restrict and penalize strike actions, would destroy workers’ leverage in pressuring employers and the government on wages and working conditions. Labor demonstrations were a critical weapon in the recent uprising as well as under previous authoritarian regimes.

Egypt’s leading independent labor organization, Center for Trade Union and Workers’ Services, declared on March 23 that the draft decree, though the exact wording had not been made public, echoed a sordid history of labor oppression, particularly a similar law that criminalized industrial actions which Mubarak invoked to suppress protests

The Egyptian workers have struggled for decades to maintain the right to strike. They paid the price when they were imprisoned, transferred or killed….

Article 124 of the Egyptian Penal Law which criminalizes the right to strike is a witness that the regime was reactionary and had the fingerprints of the 19th century….

Article 124 of the Egyptian Penal Law which is not different from the suggested draft law was a curse in the history of the regime in Egypt. …

The Egyptian workers did not start to move after 25th January 2011. On the contrary, they were on the vanguard of the revolution until it reached its summit and would not stop until the realization of the workers demands or at least the workers are assured that their demands are on the way for achievement.

Egyptian military police close in around remaining protesters in Tahrir Square on February 14, 2011 in Cairo, Egypt.   (John Moore/Getty Images)
Egyptian military police close in around remaining protesters in Tahrir Square on February 14, 2011 in Cairo, Egypt. (John Moore/Getty Images)

The draft law is one of many troubling developments driving a renewal of grassroots activism, now that the revolution’s first wave is ebbing. Organizers launched the “Save the Revolution Friday” rally today, according to Ahram Online, to counter the governing elite’s plans to resurrect the old order under a renovated facade:

The purpose of the event, [activists] say, is to press on with the rest of the revolution’s demands, rid Egypt of the “institution of corruption” with all its figures and symbols and to challenge the counter-revolution initiated by the old regime which, they say, is playing behind the scenes to end the Egyptian revolution.

“The Egyptian people will not accept the laundering of the old regime and presenting it back to them in a new form,” wrote the group in the invitation, explaining that they insist on the complete removal of the remnants of Mubarak’s regime from every institution in the country.

The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) has called on the current prime minister, Dr. Essam Sharaf, to reject the anti-labor decree:

This will lead to a legal disaster by all international labour standards and it will disgrace Egypt in the view of the international community.

We urge the Egyptian government to withdraw the said draft decree, and we appeal to the Supreme Council of Armed Forces not to issue it. Instead we would like to see a development of appropriate mechanisms for  negotiations between the social partners.

This proposed decree is a serious infringement of fundamental trade union rights and as a member of the ILO, Egypt is bound by international treaties, and we remind you that your government must fulfil its obligations and respect trade union rights.

But an appeal to international law is easily silenced under the imposition of “emergency” authority. With the entire political system in flux, the military has begun to mobilize against activists under the pretext of maintaining order, putting the revolution itself at risk of being co-opted or  dismantled in the “reform” process.

Now is the time to rethink civil society’s hierarchy of needs. Will embattled Egyptians slip back into conservative “stability” at the price of autocracy? Or will people’s movements plow forward by establishing human rights, building workplace democracy, and breaking the corrupt ties between capital and the state?

Modern Egypt has undergone many uprisings, spurred by anti-colonialism, pan-Arab nationalism, populism, and now, nonviolent democratic ideals. Still, past upheavals failed to yield true economic equity. That kind of revolution requires a political consciousness that directly challenges conventional premises of economic growth and “development.”

Yet in neighboring Tunisia, an awakening in the labor movement may be underway. As Seth Sandronsky reported recently, the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) has taken a leading role in both the overthrow of the old regime and the formation of a democratic government, and recently have begun networking with U.S. unions. Last month Tunisia also hosted the launch of the Arab Women’s Trade Union Network. The coalition focuses on the nexus of gender inequality and labor rights in Arab societies, where women’s oppression is compounded by economic exploitation.

So there’s a lot of work left to do for the global labor movement in the emerging political structures of Egypt and Tunisia—and all the other countries in the throes of political upheaval. And activists can’t do it without securing the power of independent collective action.

Egypt’s is not the only government that has sought to preempt the power to strike and protest through legislation. According to the ITUC’s 2010 Survey of Trade Union Rights:

Severe restrictions or outright prohibition of strikes also exists in a large number of countries. Furthermore, complex procedural requirements, imposition of compulsory arbitration and the use of excessively broad definitions of “essential services” provisions often make the exercise of trade union rights impossible in practice, depriving workers of their legitimate rights to union representation and participation in industrial action.

Egypt’s democratic vision turns on the struggles for both social and economic justice, and the power to strike is the focal point where labor and civil rights converge. The country’s workers face a process of social democratization that even “developed” democracies haven’t realized (see Wisconsin). The world is dotted with Liberation Squares, where the arc of revolution, or counterrevolution, is measured in the strength of labor.

About the Author: Michelle Chen’s work has appeared in AirAmerica, Extra!, Colorlines and Alternet, along with her self-published zine, cain. She is a regular contributor to In These Times’ workers’ rights blog, Working In These Times, and is a member of the In These Times Board of Editors. She also blogs at Colorlines.com. She can be reached at michellechen @ inthesetimes.com.

This blog originally appeared In These Times on April 10, 2011. Reprinted with Permission.

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First Mubarak, Is Your CEO Next?

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Image: Bob RosnerIn just eighteen days, Egypt went from being a pillar of the Middle East to being the poster child for the demise of out-of-touch dictators.
Rather than focusing on the geopolitical lessons, of which there are many, I’d rather take it all back to the workplace. Could your CEO be the next out of touch dictator to fall?
I hear what you’re thinking, Come on Rosner, gimme a break. My CEO has control of the board of directors, he’s been around forever and people are loathe to do anything but violently agree with him in meetings. There is zero-chance that his reign of errors could ever end.
To this I’d like to point out one simple fact. Mubarak had all that, and $1.3 billion dollars in new military hardware year-in and year-out courtesy of your tax dollars. Until he learned that his power base, the military, felt that the safer road was to send a strong message to the people in the streets that these arms would not be used against them. Then it all came crumbing down. Quickly.
Autocratic rule, exiling creativity and decision-making based on a toxic combination of ego and greed. Sound familiar?
Tahrir Square probably won’t happen in the courtyard of your corporate headquarters with a throng of people chanting for your leaders to leave. But there are places in your company where people already tell the truth without looking around to see who might hear.
If your company is like most, there is an underground economy where people act first and ask for permission later. Where most of the innovation happens. But its not happening in the “C” level suites. It’s often taking place in lower levels where mid-level managers nurture and protect risk takers.
How do you find this more fun group of people to work with? Look for people who aren’t fighting the last war, but who are fighting the next one. They’re out there. But it’s not something that appears on a business card or organizational chart.
No this is more of a secret society of innovators. You don’t have to learn a secret handshake, you just need to do some digging on your company’s most recent big innovations. Chances are that you’ll find that there is the “official” story and then real way that things came down. you want to get close to the people who are the real innovators.
Revolution might not happen immediately, but revolutionary activities could start right away. But it’s going to take some guts to network with your company’s trouble makers and risk takers.
The actual pyramids are now free. Who knows, you might find that your pyramid, a.k.a. the corporate hierarchy, might not be as rock solid as you thought. Just sayin’…
About the Author: Bob Rosner is a best-selling author and award-winning journalist. For free job and work advice, check out the award-winning workplace911.com. Check the revised edition of his Wall Street Journal best seller, “The Boss’s Survival Guide.” If you have a question for Bob, contact him via bob@workplace911.com.

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Day of Action: Workers, Activists Call for Democracy in Egypt

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Image: James ParksUnion members from all parts of the world today joined with community activists in a Day of Action for Democracy in Egypt. In actions outside Egyptian embassies and government buildings, they pressed their governments to demand a democratic transition in Egypt and guarantee that those responsible for the violent repression of peaceful demonstrations be brought to justice.

In the United States, AFL-CIO union members will join the Egyptian American community and human rights organizations in a demonstration in Washington, D.C. The AFL-CIO and the Metropolitan Washington Council are calling on union members in the area to demonstrate their support for the people of Egypt at 6:30 p.m. in front of the White House (Lafayette Park side).

The desire of Egyptian workers to make their voices heard through their unions played a key role in laying the groundwork for the protests. Click here to see video messages of support for Egyptian citizens and workers from world union leaders.

In other actions today around the world:

  • In Brussels, Belgium, an international trade union delegation led by Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), and including Jan Eastman, deputy general secretary of Education International, together with representatives of three Belgian trade union organizations held a protest at the Egyptian Embassy.
  • In Dakar, Senegal, TUC-Africa General Secretary Kwasi Adu-Amankwah and TUC-Africa President Mody Guiro led an international trade union delegation to the Egyptian Embassy.
  • Union members also are taking part in protests in Australia, Korea, Bahrain, Jordan, Lebanon, France, Tunisia, Canada, Sweden and Italy.

“The demands of the Egyptian population are legitimate,” said the ITUC’s Burrow.

After years of dictatorship, the Egyptian people, including the country’s trade union movement, yearn for a change of regime and democratic transition. The violent response of Hosni Mubarak’s regime is totally unacceptable. Those responsible for the killings, attacks and intimidation must be brought to justice without delay. The impunity must end!

*This post originally appeared in AFL-CIO blog on February 8, 2011. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: James Parks – My first encounter with unions was at Gannett’s newspaper in Cincinnati when my colleagues in the newsroom tried to organize a unit of The Newspaper Guild. I saw firsthand how companies pull out all the stops to prevent workers from forming a union. I am a journalist by trade, and I worked for newspapers in five different states before joining the AFL-CIO staff in 1990. I also have been a seminary student, drug counselor, community organizer, event planner, adjunct college professor and county bureaucrat. My proudest career moment, though, was when I served, along with other union members and staff, as an official observer for South Africa’s first multiracial elections.

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AFL-CIO, Global Unions Applaud New Egyptian Labor Movement

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Image: James ParksRepresentatives of the Egyptian union movement announced they are forming a new labor federation, the Federation of Egyptian Trade Unions, which will represent workers in more than a dozen industries and  enterprises. The federation also plans to set a date for a nationwide general strike for democracy and fundamental rights. Many people believe the labor demonstrations in the past two years played a significant role in giving Egyptian citizens  courage to stand up to the government.

In a letter today to Egyptian union leaders Kamal Abbas and Kamal Abu Eita, recipients of  last year’s George Meany-Lane Kirkland Human Rights Award, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka praised the workers’ “extraordinary courage and defiance of a ban on free and independent unions.”

Yesterday we learned that your organizations joined with retirees, the technical health professionals and representatives of workers in the important industrial areas to announce the organization of a new labor federation to represent workers in a new era of democracy in Egypt. We salute you in this brave endeavor and join the international labor movement in standing with you.

The people’s movement for democracy in Egypt and the role unions are playing for freedom and worker rights inspires us and will not be forgotten.

Abbas is general coordinator of the Center for Trade Union and Workers Services (CTUWS) and Eita heads  the Real Estate Tax Authority Workers (RETA), the first independent trade union in Egypt in more than 50 years. The Egyptian government has not formally recognized RETA, but has ignored its application for recognition.

The Egyptian government tried to silence the CTUWS, closing down two of its regional offices and its headquarters in 2007.  Bowing to an Egyptian court decision and international criticism, the government allowed CTUWS to reopen in July 2008.

RETA was formed after municipal tax collectors held an 11-day sit-in strike in front of the Ministry of Finance, gathered 30,000 signatures and elected local union committees in the provinces.

Read a statement from the CTUWS here about the situation in Egypt and workers’ demands.

The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) joined in congratulating the Egyptian unions and supporting the call for a general strike. In a statement, ITUC General Secretary Sharan Burrow said:

The union actions will increase pressure for genuine democratic change and respect for human rights. Just as in Tunisia, where the ITUC-affiliated UGTT has been at the forefront of the democracy movement, we salute the courage and determination of Egypt’s working people in standing up to an autocratic and illegitimate regime.

This article originally appeared in AFL-CIO blog on Jan 31, 2011. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author, James Parks: My first encounter with unions was at Gannett’s newspaper in Cincinnati when my colleagues in the newsroom tried to organize a unit of The Newspaper Guild. I saw firsthand how companies pull out all the stops to prevent workers from forming a union. I am a journalist by trade, and I worked for newspapers in five different states before joining the AFL-CIO staff in 1990. I also have been a seminary student, drug counselor, community organizer, event planner, adjunct college professor and county bureaucrat. My proudest career moment, though, was when I served, along with other union members and staff, as an official observer for South Africa’s first multiracial elections.

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