Egyptian strikes take aim at neoliberal economic policies

A wave of strikes involving tens of thousands of workers rolled across Egypt this week increasing pressure on President Hosni Mubarak to resign. Since coming to office in 1981, Mubarak has implemented neoliberal economic policies advocated by the US, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. His policies, according to Dr Joel Beinin, encouraged the use of temporary workers, weakened unions, made it easier to fire and layoff workers, reduced public expenditures on health and education, encouraged privatization, and kept wages low. This week’s strikes are a repudiation of these policies.

Some of the strikes are about wages and working conditions, but some are broader in scope like the strike of iron and steel workers in Cairo. They have demanded that President Mubarak and his political allies resign, that workers’ committees be established at all workplaces to oversee production, prices, distribution, and wages, that workers have the right to form independent unions, and that a general assembly of popularly elected delegates be convened to write a new constitution.

Workers for Cairo’s public transportation system are striking for a new constitution, the ouster of Mubarak and his cronies, and a higher minimum wage for all Egyptian workers.   

Many of the strikers’ demands include giving permanent status to temporary workers, who make up a large portion of the Egyptian workforce. Strikers making this demand include postal workers, service technicians who maintain the Suez Canal, workers at the agency that regulates prescription drugs, workers at the Al Hilal hospital, workers at a coke (a key ingredient for the production of steel, not the carbonate soft drink) plant in Helwan, workers at a cement factory in Helwan and many others. 

Strikers have also been targeting corrupt leaders who have benefited under Mubarak’s rule.   Members of the journalist union, while not on strike, are circulating a petition calling for the ouster of the union’s president Makram Mohamed Ahmed, who refused to support journalist arrested and beaten during the uprising and has publicly supported President Mubarak.

The mostly female staff at the Egyptian Animal Health Research Center are striking to demand that the center’s director Mona Mehnez resign. “She used the money allocated for studying and preventing avian flu to build personal villas,” one doctor told the Daily News Egypt.

The government recognized labor federation, the Egyptian Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), has also come under sharp attack. Egypt’s first independent union in more than 50 years, the Independent Real Estate Tax Authorities Union, held a demonstration in front of ETUC’s headquarters demanding that its president and board resign.

“(ETUC) has become a center for fighting the activities of labor unions,” said Kamal Abu Eita leader of the independent union. “Now we are demanding the investigation into its corruption and demanding the resignation of its board and the allowing of workers to form their independent unions freely.”

Many of the accounts about these strikes suggest that they are spontaneous with little or no organization. But, Egypt has a long history of labor struggles. Since 2004, there have been more than 1900 labor actions including strikes, demonstrations, and sit-ins, all of which were organized by rank-and-file workers and opposed by the old labor confederation.

During 2006 and 2007, strikers were especially active. At the center of these strikes was the industrial town of Mahalla where textile workers won significant concessions from their bosses, who then dragged their feet in implementing the concessions. In 2008, a group of young workers and students called a general strike in Mahalla to support the workers. The strike shut down the city for the day. Those who organized it, formed the April 6 Youth Movement, which has been one of the organizations mobilizing people for the protests at Tahir Square.

In a television address to the nation tonight, President Mubarak made further concessions but still refuses to resign. Whether he will be able to remain in office until September as he says he plans to do will depend largely on whether he is able to quell this new wave of strikes.

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