Workers, professionals demand independent labor unions

The large and ongoing wave of labor and professional protests sweeping Egypt, prior to and since the 11 February ouster of former president Hosni Mubarak, has been driven by democratic and organizational demands, along with economic demands. Workers, employees and professionals across the country have been demanding the establishment of trade unions and professional syndicates/associations that are democratically elected, accountable and recallable.

In Cairo, thousands of Public Transport Authority workers are demanding the establishment of independent trade union committees beyond the confines of the state-controlled Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF). Some 20,000 public-sector Mahalla Textile Company workers have also raised the same organizational demands.

"We have collected 15,000 signatures from among the workers demanding the recall of our so-called union committee and the election of a new and representative union,” said worker and labor organizer Kamal al-Fayyoumi. “We plan to present this petition to the High Military Council."

Al-Fayyoumi added: "I personally support the establishment of independent unions outside the structure of the corrupt ETUF, since the federation has never served the interests of workers and their unions, but rather the interests of Mubarak's ruling party and businessmen.”

“I've been trying to convince my fellow workers to establish an independent union, but many are reluctant to venture out into uncharted territories,” he added. “In any case, it isn’t illegal to have two or more different unions within the same workplace; the most effective and representative union will win the most workers in the end."

On Tuesday, the Lawyers' General Syndicate voted to suspend its president, Hamdy Khalifa, and his council until new elections are held. At the Journalists' General Syndicate, weeks of protests against Syndicate President Makram Mohamed Ahmed finally led to the latter’s resignation on Tuesday. Both Khalifa and Ahmed were close associates/advocates of the Mubarak regime.

Members of the Cinematographers' Syndicate have gone on strike, meanwhile, as others have been petitioning and protesting at their syndicate headquarters demanding the resignation of their syndicate president and council.

Similarly, members of the Musicians' General Syndicate in Cairo have been protesting for more than 22 days for the impeachment of their syndicate head, Mounir al-Wesseim. These professional musicians and performers argue that their syndicate is corrupt and does not represent or serve them in any meaningful capacity. They have been demanding that new elections be held and that the syndicate compensate them for dues and fees deducted from their earnings.

Singer Amal Khaled pointed to the bylaws of this syndicate, which stipulate that a dues-paying member of five years has the right to vote in syndicate elections. "I've been a member of this syndicate for the past 25 years, but I still don't have the right to vote,” he said. “We want to know where all our money–millions upon millions of pounds–has gone.”

"Wesseimi and his gang, and the gangs before him, had only served to collect dues and fees,” she added. “They have offered us no services in return; thousands of us aren’t even allowed to vote." The singer angrily added: "We are putting Wesseimi and his stooges in this syndicate council on trial. We are demanding that early elections be held, with all eligible members being given the right to vote."

On Wednesday, over 2000 employees of state-owned petroleum and gas companies also protested outside the Ministry of Petroleum. Hundreds of these employees have been sitting-in and sleeping-in outside the ministry for the past week. They have been demanding fulltime contracts and benefits and the right to establish trade unions at their companies, along with other demands.

Employees from the Gupco, Epsco, Petrojet, Butagasco and Petrotrade companies (all of which are affiliated with the Ministry of Petroleum) are also demanding the removal of corrupt administrative figures from their respective companies, along with the establishment of a minimum and maximum wage for employees and administrators.

"The establishment of trade unions at our companies is a secondary demand, but still it is an essential demand,” said Petrojet employee Mahmoud Abdallah. “We need unions to protect our rights and to improve our contracts, wages, working conditions, benefits and pension plans."

Karim Reda, who was sacked from the Petrotrade Company in December 2009 for calling to unionize employees, said: "Most of these protesting employees want to establish a trade union of any sort, whether independent or within the ETUF structure.”

The overwhelming majority of workers have no experience in union organizing, so most protest leaders are calling for the establishment of trade unions within the ETUF and its General Union of Petroleum Workers. Although many know that the federation is on its way to collapse, they nevertheless want to put forth their demands through official channels, until new channels are made available."

Addressing an audience of workers, professionals and activists earlier this week, labor organizer Kamal Abu Eita said: "I expect and trust that the ETUF will collapse this year. Many workers are demanding the establishment of independent unions, but many others insist on remaining within the structure of the federation because they are about to go into retirement and receive pension plans, insurance plans, etc."

"When the federation does collapse, workers will start looking for alternatives through which they can organize themselves,” Abu Eita added. “We must not wait for the collapse of the federation; we must reclaim our rights to organize. All we need is to collect signatures from workplaces and present them to the authorities, whether the High Military Council or the Ministry of Manpower."

“We need not heed the restrictive labor and union laws which were put in force by previous regimes,” he said. “We will establish our own customary laws in compliance with international labor and human rights standards to which Egypt is party."

Abu Eita is president of the Union of Real Estate Tax Authority Employees, Egypt's first independent union since 1957. Over the past two years this independent union, established in April 2009, has been joined by other independent unions and syndicates, including the independent Teachers' Syndicate, the Health Technologists' Syndicate and the Pensioners' Syndicate.

On 30 January these independent trade unions and professional syndicates grouped themselves into an independent federation. The federation is still in its formative stages, and does not yet have an official title or bylaws. Nonetheless, this independent federation is seen as an increasingly viable alternative to the ETUF. The ETUF's upper echelons are chosen through indirect elections; 22 out of 24 general union presidencies within the federation hailed from Mubarak's ruling party.

The finances of ETUF President Hussein Megawer, meanwhile, along with other ETUF officials, are currently being scrutinized by prosecutors. Megawer's bank accounts have been frozen and he has been prevented from leaving the country until investigations are concluded.

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