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Vol. 75/No. 17      May 2, 2011

‘Strikes turned into
rebellion against regime’
Egyptian textile workers press fight
for political space to organize and act
(feature article)
MAHALLA, Egypt, April 6—“Textile workers had been at war against the Hosni Mubarak regime since 2006,” explained Kamal Fayoumy in an interview with the Militant newspaper, describing scenes of mass struggles in the mill towns of Tonton, Shebeen, and Mahalla over the past several years.

Fayoumy and four other textile workers who are part of the workers’ leadership at the Misr Spinning and Weaving Company, and represent the workers in negotiations with the government, spoke to a Militant reporting team visiting this textile area in early April. Like many large-scale industries in Egypt, the plant of 21,000 workers is run by the government. Up until recently, so has the union.

With the fall of the dictator in early February, after sustained mobilizations throughout Egypt pressured the military to push Mubarak aside, workers throughout the country have been pressing for greater freedoms to organize, better pay and working conditions, decertification of unions that were tied to the government, and formation of independent unions.

The struggle to bring down the Mubarak dictatorship was given tremendous impetus by the struggles of the 100,000 textile workers in this region north of Cairo, particularly since 2006. It has put workers in a stronger position today to continue fighting for their rights.

“On April 6, 2008, we had our own January 25 revolution in Mahalla,” explained Fayoumy, referring to events in January and February 2011 that led to Mubarak’s fall. “The workers’ strike and protests here in 2008 turned into a rebellion against the regime. There was a gigantic picture of Mubarak in the Mahalla town square. We tore it down. Our struggle had turned into a fight not just for better working conditions, but for dignity and freedom as well.”

Fayoumy has worked in the Mahalla plant for 28 years. In 2008, like many other leaders of the textile workers, he was imprisoned by the military in an attempt by the government to turn back the workers’ protests.

The textile workers interviewed by the Militant described their struggles beginning in 2006. “There has been a no-confidence vote by the workers here against the regime for some time,” said Fayoumy.

Many of the early protests and strikes were to raise pay, which was below 300 Egyptian pounds ($50) a month in 2006, according to workers we interviewed.

“There have always been fights by the textile workers,” said Abdul Kader Ahmed El-Deeb, who has worked at the plant some 26 years. “But in December 2006 the government announced the yearly bonus would be a paltry 100 pounds ($16), and to heap further insult on us they were going to deduct 10 pounds for insurance!

“This was such an outrage that we began to organize a mass boycott campaign against the bonus thinking that if we all refused to accept it the company would raise the amount. But the company didn’t do anything. They acted like we didn’t want the bonus and so they would just keep it in their pockets.

“The company couldn’t believe we would do anything further. Then we went out on strike. The whole factory. Even though it was a short strike, that is when the rebellion here started.”  
Strike forces gov’t to back down
The workers described how the government relented and agreed that it would give every worker the equivalent of two months’ pay as a bonus. Having won that pledge the workers went back to work.

“In September 2007 we had another strike. This time we raised the ceiling of our demands,” explained El-Deeb. “We wanted more labor rights. We demanded a minimum wage because the pay was so low. We were supposed to get a meal during work hours, but we weren’t getting it so we demanded that. This was a profitable company, but we weren’t enjoying any of those profits. We won some of our demands again and went back to work.

“We were starting to learn the only way to get anything from the government was to go on strike. That was an important change among the workers.”

The workers described how the big strike and mass protests that began on April 6, 2008, were organized, as opposed to previous struggles that were more spontaneous. “We timed this to put ourselves in the best position to succeed,” said El-Deeb. “Workers are paid their monthly wage on April 5. There had just been a local election and we knew as usual all of the Mubarak cronies would be swept into office, angering workers throughout the region. And by April the weather was getting better.”

“Our slogans were becoming more political by this time and we were becoming more organized,” agreed Fayoumy. “We wrote up demands and printed flyers. We passed them out in the central square, even though we were often harassed by the police and the military for doing so.

“When we struck on April 6, thousands of workers flooded the central square chanting ‘Down with the Mubarak regime.’ The giant poster of the dictator was ripped down. Don’t forget this is April 6, 2008, three years before the events in Tahrir Square.”

Fayoumy and other leaders of the textile workers were put in jail in an effort to break the resistance of the workers.

Even though the strike and open rebellion that began April 6, 2008, was eventually suppressed by the government, it inspired other workers and the younger generation in Egypt. The road to the Jan. 25, 2011, revolution and the fall of Mubarak began with the struggles in Mahalla, the workers here proudly point out.  
Fight for independent union
Workers in the textile industry are still fighting for their rights. They say that although many conditions have improved because of their strikes and mobilizations, most workers must have more than one job to survive. Many of the factory managers are holdovers from the old regime.

“There was a union in the mill. But it was a union that did not represent the workers. It was headed by an appointee of Mubarak. It acted against the workers,” said Fayoumy. “Since the January 25 revolution we have taken the first step by getting rid of that outfit, now we are fighting to establish an independent union. In the Mahalla plant 5,000 workers have already signed a petition for an independent union.”

The Militant asked Fayoumy about the antistrike law recently decreed by the government in Egypt banning work stoppages or protests that impede business activity. “Of course the workers oppose this,” said Fayoumy, “but we struck under the repressive conditions of Mubarak so we are not paying much attention to the new law. Our answer is the thousand workers who were in the streets yesterday celebrating the 52-day strike at Shebeen Spinning.” Fayoumy was referring to a recent strike at another textile mill demanding the removal of corrupt officials who were plundering the factory.

“Workers also don’t yet have any political rights. Parliament is supposed to set aside a certain number of seats to represent them, but this is a sham. Those ‘worker representatives’ have been Mubarak supporters. And the media has perpetuated the fraud by reporting that the unions in Egypt have always been loyal to the regime.

“We are not opposed to seats being set aside in government for workers representatives. But no one should be fooled that this is what we have today.”

The workers in Mahalla have received solidarity with their struggle from around the world. Now that space has opened up through their battles for broader contact with workers in other countries, the textile workers’ leaders here are looking forward to deepening contact with others in struggle.

“We understand that workers in the United States and other countries also face some of the same problems we have,” said Fayoumy. “We want communication with workers who are fighting for the same rights as we are. We are especially grateful for the solidarity we have received throughout our strikes and protests.”  
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