Let’s give Egypt’s labor unions some credit. According to a report presented at a symposium hosted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in February, 2010, there have been more than 3,000 labor protests by Egyptian workers since 2004. That’s an astounding number. The report declared that this figure “[dwarfs] Egyptian political protests in both scale and consequence.”
Arguably, the case can be made that Egypt’s current political unrest was inspired and energized by the actions of the country’s labor movement—just as the case can be made that the massive street protests of America’s union workers provided the template for the anti-war protests during the Vietnam war. Joel Beinin, a Stanford University professor, referred to Egypt’s labor activism as “….the largest social movement in the Arab world since World War II.”
While there are definitely many similarities between labor unions all around the world, it’s difficult and even counterproductive to try and compare, much less equate them. There are simply too many cultural and political forces at work to draw any meaningful conclusions.
For instance, the largest labor union in the world—the ACFTU (All-China Federation of Trade Unions), with a staggering 134 million members—isn’t even a real labor union, at least not in the sense that the UAW or Teamsters are real unions. There’s simply too much government control to compare it to an American or European union.
Although significant improvements in workers’ rights have been made in China—especially since 2000—the ACFTU is still a tool of the government. Chinese workers are very cautious and deliberate in how they behave. You can sum up labor’s role in China in one sentence: The ACFTU has as much freedom and autonomy as the Chinese government is willing to give it at any point in time No more, no less.
Mexico is another example of how difficult it is to make broad generalizations. While some of Mexico’s unions are the toughest, boldest, most hardcore found anywhere in the world (when these guys go on strike, they lock the doors and occupy the premises!), others are little more than government-run lackeys, weak and corrupt. Moreover, unlike the U.S., you have to apply to be recognized as a union in Mexico, which leaves many well-meaning worker collectives out in the cold.
India probably provides the closest (non-European) comparison to American unions. India’s unions are free, they’re democratic, they’re rowdy, and with all the international investments pouring into the country, they’re on the ascendancy. In that regard, they’re reminiscent of what the U.S. was like back in the heyday of smokestack industries and organized labor.
Also, India’s labor movement has the additional virtue of being loosely aligned with a fairly healthy Communist party, which means that organized labor in India knows exactly where its ideological roots lie, and doesn’t have to pretend otherwise.
Egyptian labor has its own story. It was in 1942 that Egypt’s workers won the legal right to form unions, and in 1952 (when the monarchy was overthrown) that the government allowed the formation of larger groups—labor federations. Eventually, the government authorized the formation of a “national confederation of labor,” which unions with a minimum of 1,000 members could join.
Today, approximately 28-percent of the Egyptian workforce is unionized, with the majority of those members employed in the public sector. (Union membership in the U.S. stands at 12.4-percent).
Despite the difficulty of making cross-cultural comparisons, one thing is undeniably true: union workers everywhere in the world have the same basic concerns and priorities. They’re all trying to improve their economic lives, and they all recognize the importance of being organized. In fact, the Egyptians just showed how contagious that kind of solidarity can be.
Now, if we could only get 200,000 American union members to follow Egypt’s lead. If we could get 200,000 American workers to demonstrate publicly—say by shutting down Wall Street on May 1 (May Day) in protest of U.S. trade policies—we would receive full coverage on Al Jazeera. How cool would that be?
DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright, is the author of “It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor”. He served 9 terms as president of AWPPW Local 672. He can be reached at email@example.com