Egyptian Labor Unions Lead the Way

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 dmacaray@earthlink.net


More articles by:

David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is How To Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows.  He can be reached at dmacaray@gmail.com

Weekend Edition
March 23, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Roberto J. González
The Mind-Benders: How to Harvest Facebook Data, Brainwash Voters, and Swing Elections
Paul Street
Deplorables II: The Dismal Dems in Stormy Times
Nick Pemberton
The Ghost of Hillary
Andrew Levine
Light at the End of the Tunnel?
Paul de Rooij
Amnesty International: Trumpeting for War… Again
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Coming in Hot
Chuck Gerhart
Sessions Exploits a Flaw to Pursue Execution of Meth Addicts
Robert Fantina
Distractions, Thought Control and Palestine
Hiroyuki Hamada
The Eyes of “Others” for Us All
Robert Hunziker
Is The EPA Hazardous
Stephanie Savell
15 Years After the Iraq Invasion, What Are the Costs?
Aidan O'Brien
Europe is Pregnant 
Matthew Stevenson
Why Vietnam Still Matters: Was Khe Sanh a Win or a Loss?
Dan Corjescu
The Man Who Should Be Dead
Howard Lisnoff
The Bone Spur in Chief
Brian Cloughley
Hitler and the Poisoning of the British Public
Brett Wilkins
Trump Touts $12.5B Saudi Arms Sale as US Support for Yemen War Literally Fuels Atrocities
Barbara Nimri Aziz
Iraqi Landscapes: the Path of Martyrs
Brian Saady
The War On Drugs Is Far Deadlier Than Most People Realize
Stephen Cooper
Battling the Death Penalty With James Baldwin
CJ Hopkins
Then They Came for the Globalists
Philip Doe
In Colorado, See How They Run After the Fracking Dollars
Ali Mohsin
A Disheartening Week for American Death Penalty Opponents
Binoy Kampmark
John Brennan’s Trump Problem
Nate Terani
Donald Trump’s America: Already Hell Enough for This Muslim-American
Steve Early
From Jackson to Richmond: Radical Mayors Leave Their Mark
Jill Richardson
To Believe in Science, You Have to Know How It’s Done
Ralph Nader
Ten Million Americans Could Bring H.R. 676 into Reality Land—Relief for Anxiety, Dread and Fear
Sam Pizzigati
Billionaires Won’t Save the World, Just Look at Elon Musk
Sergio Avila
Don’t Make the Border a Wasteland
Daryan Rezazad
Denial of Climate Change is Not the Problem
Ron Jacobs
Flashing for the Refugees on the Unarmed Road of Flight
Missy Comley Beattie
The Age of Absurdities and Atrocities
George Wuerthner
Isle Royale: Manage for Wilderness Not Wolves
George Payne
Pompeo Should Call the Dogs Off of WikiLeaks
Russell Mokhiber
Study Finds Single Payer Viable in 2018 Elections
Franklin Lamb
Despite Claims, Israel-Hezbollah War is Unlikely
Montana Wilderness Association Dishonors Its Past
Elizabeth “Liz” Hawkins, RN
Nurses Are Calling #TimesUp on Domestic Abuse
Robert Koehler
Normalizing Violence
Paul Buhle
A Caribbean Giant Passes: Wilson Harris, RIP
Mel Gurtov
A Blank Check for Repression? A Saudi Leader Visits Washington
Seth Sandronsky
Hoop schemes: Sacramento’s corporate bid for an NBA All-Star Game
Louis Proyect
The French Malaise, Now and Then
David Yearsley
Bach and the Erotics of Spring