Workers in Egypt and Wisconsin fight for justice

Workers in Egypt defied their military rulers by remaining on strike to protest low wages, poor management, and their lack of a voice in job related matters. Public workers in Wisconsin defied their governor by continuing to pour into the state capital today to protest proposed legislation that will reduce their benefits, lower their pay, and deprive them of a voice in job related matters. Egyptian rulers have insinuated that they may use military force to break the strikes; Wisconsin’s governor has threatened to call out the National Guard to force public workers back to work.

Striking Egyptian workers helped overthrow the Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, and since his overthrow, tens of thousands of workers in the banking, transport, oil, tourism, textile, and state-owned media industries have remained on strike. Workers at several government agencies also remain on strike.

In Al-Mahlla al-Kubra about 60 miles north of Cairo, workers at Misr Spinning and Weaving textile factory, who have been at the center of countrywide worker unrest, resumed their strike  on Wednesday after a two-day interlude.

The Misr textile workers are demanding an increase in the country’s minimum wage from 400 Egyptian pounds a month ($68) to 1200 pounds a month ($204), the court-ordered minimum established last year but never implemented.

The Misr workers are also demanding that the mill’s boss, who has ties to former president Mubarak, be fired and that their independent union be recognized instead of the existing union, which has proven to be corrupt and unwilling to support workers’ fights for justice.

Back in 2006 workers at dozens of textile factories in Al-Mahalla including Misr, went on strike and occupied factories for pay increases and health benefits. Management agreed to their demands, but never followed through, which led to another strike in 2007. In 2008 when gains won by workers had still not been implemented, young workers and students in Al-Mahalla organized a general strike that shut down the city. Out of the general strike grew the April 6 Youth Movement, which was a key group that mobilized people to overthrow President Mubarak.

In Madison, Wisconsin, 20,000 public workers and their supporters on Thursday returned to Madison for the fourth day of protests against Gov Scott Walker’s proposal to cut public worker pay and take away their collective bargaining rights. The workers and their supporters have been mobilized by  the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the Wisconsin American Federation of Teachers (AFT), and other public sector unions. 

Gov Walker’s proposal was supposed to come up for a vote in legislature on Thursday, Democratic senators were not present so no there was no quorum and no vote could be taken. Police were sent looking for them.

Today’s rally followed yesterday’s which drew more than 30,000 opponents to the bill. After the rally ended protestors marched to the Capitol chanting “Kill the Bill.”

The bill proposed by Gov Walker increases the amount of money public employees contribute to their health care and pension plans.  The increased employee contributions will result in an 8 percent cut in take home pay for the average public worker in Wisconsin.

Gov Scott says that these cuts are needed to bring public workers’ benefits in line with workers in the private sector, but according to research done by Jeffery E. Keefe of the Economic Policy Institute, when total compensation packages for public and private sector workers with comparable skills and training are compared, Wisconsin public workers make 4.8 percent less than their private sector counterparts.

The fact is that private companies have been using the recession as an excuse to reduce benefits for their employees, and Gov Scott wants to do the same.

The bill also substantially limits the right of Wisconsin’s public workers to bargain collectively and takes away on-the-job rights like a fair grievance procedure. This bill is clearly aimed at busting public sector unions.

Wisconsin public workers are receiving support from private sector unions. The United Steelworkers has mobilized members to participate in the rallies and some Green Bay Packer football players, who are members of the National Football League Players Association, wrote a letter to Gov Walker scolding him for his union-busting,  anti-worker proposal.

You can read more about the impact that Gov Scott’s anti-worker bill will have on individual lives here.  And you can read more about the struggle at AFSCME’s and Wisconsin AFT’s website.

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