Egypt: New labor unions founded by activists

The following was originally published in Spanish in Correspondencia Internacional issue 30, May/August 2011.


By José Castillo

The old building belonging to the Journalists’ Union in downtown Cairo is a magnificent work of architecture. From looking at it, one realizes that it was erected by a bureaucracy closely linked to and funded by the state. But the union was one of the many that were reclaimed by the upsurge of new activism. Upon arrival, the first thing we notice is traces of the battle that took place in previous weeks to oust the bureaucrats: Splintered glass from rocks thrown from the outside contrast with the majestic exterior columns. The huge door that crowns the marble staircase is closed: Access to this real palace can be gained through a small side door where young activists make sure that no pro-Mubarak provocateur enters inside.

We came here by invitation to attend the founding of the new independent bus drivers ‘union in Cairo. In the lobby, we see tables where leftist parties offer their publications while dozens of activists have coffee and discuss the questions about the new unionism. We entered a large amphitheater with a sitting capacity of 500. On stage, there is a flag with the initials of the new union and a simple activist table has information about an assembly meeting where the drivers, who have almost filled the room, discuss the founding program and the characteristics of the new organization. While a female Moroccan activist translates into Spanish what is being discussed we see that, at the same time, union membership sign up sheets are circulating in the room. Everything is happening very fast and it is happening with a large input from the rank and file membership which makes objections and additions to the texts. Within an hour, the constitution of the new organization in being voted; everyone cheers and everything ends. There are no big ceremonies, “this is because they are all workers who live on the outskirts of the city and some have a two hour journey to their homes; they made a great effort to come here to found the union after their long shifts at work.”

We were certainly impressed by real demonstration of ‘workers’ democracy” we had seen. But there was still more to see. When we left the amphitheater, one of the activists that we had made contact insisted that we should stay since”In half an hour” another union was going to be founded in the same room.

Indeed, that is how it was. New flags appeared on stage and the founders of the independent union of health workers began to arrive quickly, filling the auditorium: Doctors and nurses who were members together in a new union. These doctors mingled –obviously wearing more expensive clothes —with working class nurses who carried their children in tow. On one side of the arena, something caught our attention: A large group of women dressed in black in more orthodox Muslim clothes, all covered and even veiled and gloved hands, we were told that “they are nurses from the Islamic hospitals.”

The meeting was very similar to that of the drivers. There is an interim board that reads a founding document. And then, delegates from various hospitals and clinics go up the stage to make comments and speeches. Sometimes, someone without leaving his seat in the audience interrupts the speaker and asks questions. The most powerful moment was when the delegate from the Islamic hospitals mentioned above went up the stage. She made a very radical speech stirring applause and chants from the audience ending up asking for a minute of silence for the dead. There, we learned that the new Egyptian labor activism is not divided between religious and secular wings and that the radicalization runs through all of them. Again, just in an hour, the new union was founded.

When we left, we were impressed because of what we had seen. “And this happens every day,” one of the union leaders was explaining enthusiastically. We had experienced a small demonstration of how the labor giant of the Arab world is beginning to re-organize itself from the bottom up.