This article has now been published on Progress Online. It is co-authored with Gary Kent.
For most people the ‘Arab spring’ came out of a clear blue sky but it was in fact the result of the consistent work of thousands of brave individuals whose efforts were under the radar for years.
Few know of a Solidarnosc-style tsunami of trade union activity preceding demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. For instance, three years ago, 10,000 trade unionists and their supporters staged a sit at the prime minister’s office in Cairo. That they could sustain this without repression indicated massive decay of authority and legitimacy.
It’s not an academic question of setting the historical record straight. Instead we should understand how trade unions, which can and do bring people together across sectarian lines as well as encourage the participation of women, can boost secular and unifying dynamics in the future.
It also highlights the need for trade unionists and democrats elsewhere helping to build the capacity of these workers’ organisations as part of a process of assisting a vibrant civil society, a key element of a democratic society.
There is an urgent need to sweep away the old and discredited state-controlled labour fronts. The Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) was typical. It claimed some 2.5 million members and it was the sole legal union. It enjoyed a close relationship with the Mubarak regime. Sadly, its leaders were treated as genuine trade unionists by many in the international labour movement.
But it had no credibility on the ground. New and independent trade unions have demonstrated outside its headquarters and demanded that its leaders be arrested and their assets seized.
Unions in countries like Syria are no different. The General Federation of Trade Unions (GFTU) is an arm of the Ba’athist party and state.
These state-controlled unions run a regional group, the International Confederation of Arab Trade Unions (ICATU), which is based in Damascus and was, until recently, headed up by a Gaddafi loyalist.
Just as the corrupt and tainted Egyptian Trade Union Federation is crumbling before our eyes, the regional organization it founded is also dying.
ICATU is withering away, turning into the kind of rump union federation like the formerly Soviet-controlled World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU) – with which it has had a close relationship.
The question is not whether ICATU will survive (it won’t) but what will replace it. Let’s imagine a new kind of regional body, one based on the emerging independent unions and also on the few examples of genuine trade unionism in the Middle East.
Such a new confederation would of course include the new Egyptian trade union federation launched in Tahrir Square on January 30th. It would include the Tunisian UGTT which played such an important role in ousting the old regime and creating a new one.
Iraqi trade unions might welcome such a new group. Iraqi trade unions re-emerged in 2003 following the fall of Saddam and are trailblazers of genuine, independent trade unionism.
ICATU included “Arab” in its name to deter Kurds, Iranians and Jews. That relic of Nasserite Arab nationalism has no place in a new regional grouping which should welcome the new unions emerging in Iran in opposition to the Islamist regime.
Long before Egyptian demonstrators filled the streets of Cairo, Tehran’s bus drivers waged a heroic general strike which posed such a threat to the regime that leaders such as Mansour Osanloo remain in jail to this day.
In the new Middle East anything is possible – or should be. That’s why inviting Palestinian trade unions should also be on the table. The Palestine General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU) was barred from ICATU because it was seen as somehow collaborating with the Zionists.
And why not go one step further? Israel’s national trade union centre, the Histadrut, is a genuine, democratic and independent union. It includes tens of thousands of Arab members as well as Jewish ones. It should be welcomed by the independent democratic unions now springing up in the region.
Unions in Europe and elsewhere have a vital role to play here. They can support the creation a new trade union movement in the Middle East, one that makes a real contribution to development, to the growth of civil society and democracy, and even to peace.
In the past, many unions mistakenly gave credibility to state-controlled labour fronts like the ETUF, even allowing them to represent workers at the International Labour Organization. It’s time to fix that mistake and to make a new start.