Labor movement at heart of events in Egypt, Tunisia

UC Irvine history professor Mark LeVine conducted an interview recently with Egyptian journalist and blogger Hossam el-Hamalawy who notes that unions can be a “silver bullet” against dictatorships, as in South Korea, Poland and elsewhere.

Sure enough independent unions in Tunisia and a burgeoning independent movement in Egypt have been critical to the progress of events in both countries. el-Hamalawy said:

The Egyptian labour movement was quite under attack in the 1980s and 1990s by police, who used live ammunition against peaceful strikers in 1989 during strikes in the steel mills and in 1994 in the textile mill strikes. But steadily since December 2006 our country has been witnessing the biggest and most sustained waves of strike actions since 1946, triggered by textile strikes in the Nile Delta town of Mahalla, home of largest labour force in the Middle East with over 28,000 workers. It started because of labour issues but spread to every sector in society except the police and military.

As a result of these strikes we’ve managed to get 2 independent unions, the first of their kind since 1957 property tax collectors, including more than 40,000 civil servants, and then health technicians, more than 30,000 of whom launched a union just last month outside of the state controlled unions.

Much like the situation in China in 1989, the unrest is giving the labor movement an unprecedented opportunity to organize, creating new civil society institutions to fill the so-called “vacuum” that the Obama Administration professes to fear. Of course, the real goal of the US government is to keep the neo-liberal globalization project alive even under a post-Mubarak regime. This explains the steadfast support of Mubarak  (Hilary Clinton: the regime is stable) and even a few days ago (Joe Biden: Mubarak is not a dictator); the support for Mubarak by the US is giving way as slowly as possibly and only after the bloody sacrifice of the Egyptian people.

In light of the US commitment to its global neo-liberal policy, the new Egyptian labor movement must begin discussion of an alternative path of economic development for the country, the region and, perhaps, beyond. There are lessons here for many workers around the world.

Interview with Hossam el-Hamalawy – Features – Al Jazeera English.

Labour Start keeps track of labor related articles on both countries here.

Juan Cole noted the class aspects of the current situation here.

Real News Network has an interview on the Egyptian labor movement here which also credits the recent strike wave as critical and makes clear the Muslim Brotherhood, the bogeyman propped up by the American right as well as the Obama administration, is not a serious player.