Trade unions: the revolutionary social network at play in Egypt and Tunisia

This article, co-authored with Benjamin Weinthal, appeared in The Guardian online edition.

Perhaps the most overlooked factor in the demise of the authoritarian Ben Ali regime in Tunisia, and the weakening of Hosni Mubarak’s grip on state power in Egypt, has been the trade unions in both countries.

While the media has reported on social networks such as Twitter and Facebook as revolutionary methods of mobilisation, it was the old-fashioned working class that enabled the pro-democracy movements to flourish.

As working men and women in Egypt became increasingly vulnerable to exploitation and a deteriorating quality of life, the only legal trade unions – the ones affiliated to the Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) – proved worthless. The result of all of this was an unprecedented wave of strikes across the public and private sectors that began in 2004 and has continued to the present day. During the first four years of the current strike wave, more than 1,900 strikes took place and an estimated 1.7 million workers were involved.

As one worker in a fertiliser company put it, the effect of going on strike was to convince the employer “that they had a company with human beings working in it. In the past, they dealt with us as if we were not human.”

The strikes began in the clothing and textile sector, and moved on to building workers, transport workers, food processing workers, even the workers on the Cairo metro. The biggest and most important took place back in 2006 at Misr Spinning and Weaving, a company that employs some 25,000 workers.

The state-controlled ETUF opposed these strikes and supported the government’s privatisation plans. A turning point was reached when municipal tax collectors not only went on strike, but staged a three-day, 10,000-strong sit-in in the streets of Cairo, opposite the prime minister’s office.

This could not be ignored, and the government was forced to allow the formation last year of the first independent trade union in more than half a century.

Pro-labour NGOs played a critical role in providing support and guidance to these strikes and protests. As a result, they were targeted by the regime, their offices closed and leaders arrested. The best known of these groups is the Centre for Trade Union and Worker Services(CTUWS), which has been around since 1990.

Groups such as the CTUWS in turn enlisted the support of trade unions in other countries, and that support was invaluable – particularly in persuading the government to ease up on repression.

Those links with the international trade union movement have proven critical in recent days as well. When the Mubarak regime tried to cut off Egypt from the internet, CTUWS activists were able to phone in their daily communiques to the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Centre in Washington. The messages were transcribed, translated from the Arabic, and passed on to the wider trade union world using websites such as LabourStart.

In sharp contrast to the last seven years of Egyptian labour unrest, the Tunisian trade unions played a kingmaker role during the end phase of the uprising.

After decades of lethargy, docility and state domination of the General Tunisian Workers’ Union (UGTT), Tunisia’s largest employee organisation –with roughly half a million members – helped not onlyeradicate Ben Ali’s regime, but determined the shape of the post-Ben Ali government.

Working-class Tunisians were animated by the same goals as their Egyptian counterparts; namely, the desire to secure dignity and respect, bring about real political democracy, and improve their standard of living.

Mushrooming disapproval of Ben Ali’s regime among trade union members, coupled with a vibrant youth movement demanding dignity and greater employment opportunities, seems to explain the shift of top-level UGTT officials who had hitherto been loyal Ben Ali.

Cultivating democracy in Tunisia, and Egypt requires two pre-conditions. First, workers’ organisations must remain independent of state control. Second, to blunt the Iranian model, Islamists must be barred from hijacking free trade unions.

This helps to explain the worries of Habib Jerjir, a labour leader from the Regional Workers’ Union of Tunis: “That’s the danger,” he said. “I’m against political Islam. We must block their path.”

The UGTT, founded more than 60 years ago, has a history of strike action. Take the examples of the 1977 strike against a state-owned textile plant in Ksar Hellal, and a work stoppage involving phosphate miners in the same year, which secured a victory. The UGTT also called for an unprecedented general strike in 1978.

In a precursor to the December-January protests against Ben Ali’s corrupt system, phosphate mine workers in Gafsa waged a six-month battle against a manipulated recruitment process which sparked resistance among young unemployed workers. Rising discontent with the nepotism and cronyism of the state-controlled UGTT prompted workers to occupy the regional office.

This means that participatory economic democracy played a decisive role in Tunisian society before the Jasmine revolution. Ben Ali swiftly suffocated free and democratic trade union activity during his 23-year domination over organised labour (1987-2011). But he could not extinguish democratic aspirations among workers.

There are no exact parallels, but much of this reminds us of what happened in Poland in 1979-80. There, as in Egypt and Tunisia, we saw a mixture of a repressive, single-party state with trade unions that functioned as an arm of the ruling party. But there was also a network of NGOs that quietly worked behind the scenes, in workplaces and communities.

The result was the 1980 strike at the Lenin shipyard in Gdansk, the formation of Solidarnosc, and the end not only of the Communist regime in Poland but of the entire Soviet empire.

Today’s pro-democracy revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia are the culmination of that process, and where it will lead we cannot predict – though Poland does provide an appealing model.

The pressing point is that experts misjudged the tumult in Egypt and Tunisia largely because they ignored and overlooked the democratic aspirations of working-class Tunisians and Egyptians. To understand why so many authoritarian Arab regimes remain fragile, one need to only to look through the window on to the court of labour relations.

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