AFL-CIO Honors Independent Egyptian workers movement

Kamal Abu 'Eita (left), translator, and Kamal Abbas (right). Photo courtesy of Lacy MacAuley

by Stuart Elliott

“We just want what is owed to us!” is one of the many labor rights chants that increasingly fill the streets of Cairo and other cities in Egypt. This year workers are protesting like never before in Egypt, striking, staging sit-ins, and protesting in the streets, despite police beatings. Besides demanding the basics like fair pay and a 40-hour workweek, workers are pounding the pavement to demand the right to strike and the right to protest.

In an awards ceremony on Tuesday, August 3, 2010, the AFL-CIO  gave the prestigious George Meany-Lane Kirkland Human Rights Award to the Egyptian workers’ movement. The ceremony was at the AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington, DC with by Arlene Holt-Baker, the Executive Vice President of the AFL-CIO,  presenting the award.  The award was accepted by labor leaders Kamal Abbas, General Coordinator of the Center for Trade Union and Worker Services in Egypt, and Kamal Abu ‘Eita, President of the Independent General Union of Real Estate Tax Authority Workers. This award was granted in recognition of the extraordinary courage and perseverance the workers have displayed in the face of substantial state repression.

After being fired from his job as a welder, Abbas helped to found the first independent nongovernmental organization in Egypt concerned with defending the democratic and economic rights of its workers. Abu ‘Eita helped to found the first independent labor union to be formed in Egypt in over half a century, the Independent General Union of Real Estate Tax Authority Workers (IGURETA).

Hundreds of thousands of Egyptian workers have joined Abbas and Abu ‘Eita in protests this year. On April 3, workers rallied in Cairo to demand a higher monthly minimum wage. With the current monthly minimum wage of about $25.00, World Bank estimates classify nearly 44 percent of Egyptians as “extremely poor,” “poor,” or “near-poor.” This poverty has only been deepened by the global economic crisis. While the Egyptian economy is often portrayed as growing strongly, Kamal Abbas told the Wall Street Journal that the gains have gone overwhelmingly to the well-off. “The gains touch only certain segments of the population — the upper crust of society.”

The workers’ upsurge is amazing, as Stephen Franklin observed on the Working In These Times blog:

It is estimated that over 2 million workers have taken part in over 3,300 factory occupations, strikes, demonstrations or other forms of protest since 2004. For Egypt’s politics, for the country’s workers and for parts of the Arab world, where unions are neither free nor even exist, what’s been happening in downtown Cairo has been more than riveting.

Joel Beinin, a Stanford University professor, describes it as “the largest modern labor movement in Egypt and the largest social movement in the Arab world since World War II.”

“If the global economic crisis has taught us one thing, it’s that we are all connected,” said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka in the foreword to The Struggle for Worker Rights in Egypt, a Solidarity Center report published in February 2010. “That’s why it’s more important than ever before to stand behind workers in Egypt who are trying to reinvigorate the union movement in their country.”

The report, released by Solidarity Center, an allied organization of the AFL-CIO, states that 1.7 million workers have engaged in 1,900 strikes and other forms of protest from 2004 to 2008. Since 2008, Egyptian worker’s voices have gotten even louder. As noted in Foreign Policy magazine by expert Joel Beinin, restrictive laws and other repression have been ineffective at quelling protests among workers demanding rights and democracy, chanting “a fair minimum wage, or let this government go home!”

The George Meany-Lane Kirkland Human Rights Award is an annual award granted by the AFL-CIO to groups or individuals who demonstrate exceptional sacrifice in order to promote workers’ rights. The award is named for George Meany, who served as the president of the American Federation of Labor and then the modern AFL-CIO from 1955 to 1979, and for Lane Kirkland, who served as president of the AFL-CIO from 1979 to 1995.  We often had serious disagreements with the foreign policy of the AFL-CIO during the Meany and Kirkland years.  We have been encouraged by the re-orientation of  the AFL-CIO under John Sweeney and Richard Trumka and applaud them for giving this human rights award to the Egyptian workers movement.

————–

Kamal Abbas is the General Coordinator of the Center for Trade Union and Workers Services in Egypt. Abbas is an activist and leader devoted to the struggle for labor rights in Egypt since 1977. After he was fired from his job as a welder for leading a major strike in 1989, he and some colleagues and activists established the Center for Trade Unions and Workers Services (CTUWS). CTUWS is an independent non-governmental organization concerned with defending the democratic and economic rights of workers. They vowed to meet the urgent need to form an independent organization that advances and supports the needs of workers in a democratic manner, provide direct support and services to the workers and fill the void created by the “official” trade union organization which failed to achieve its fundamental obligations. CTUWS has become the largest independent workers’ organization in Egypt will be celebrating its 20th Anniversary in March 2010.

Kamal Abu ‘Eita is the President of the Independent General Union of Real Estate Tax Authority Workers (IGURETA). The first independent union established in Egypt in over half a century. Following a successful strike among municipal tax collectors, many tax collectors, led by Abu ‘Eita, decided to build a new organization that would continue to advocate forcefully for the needs of its members. They gathered 30,000 signatures endorsing a new, independent union and elected local union committees in the governorates (provinces). On December 20, 2008, more than 1,000 municipal tax collectors from all over Egypt met in Cairo and declared the establishment of the Independent General Union of Real Estate Tax Authority Workers (IGURETA), the first independent Egyptian trade union in more than half a century.

2 Responses

  1. […] Continue reading here: AFL-CIO Honors Independent Egyptian workers movement « Talking Union […]

  2. advocate forcefully for the needs of its members. They gathered 30,000 signatures endorsing a new, independent union and elected local union committees in the governorates (provinces). On December 20, 2008, more than 1,000 municipal tax

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