In anticipation of new law, Egypt’s labor unions in limbo

Egypt's trade union movement is approaching an uncertain juncture, with the future of both the state-controlled federation and its independent counterpart uncertain.

State-controlled unions have monopolized Egypt's trade union movement since 1957. However, this monopoly has been weakened with the establishment of the first independent trade union in December 2008; the 25 January revolution has served to further dissolve this monopoly.

With each passing day, the power of the state-controlled Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) appears to decline, while the strength of the independent union movement – spearheaded by the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions (EFITU) – appears to gradually increase.

Furthermore, since the revolution, a number of governmental decrees and purges have served to dilute the monopoly of the state-controlled ETUF. On 4 August, the cabinet issued a decree dissolving the ETUF's executive board – which has been dominated by the former ruling National Democratic Party – and appointing a caretaker council to preside over the federation until new elections can be held. Based on judicial rulings, the ETUF's 24 general unions, along with 173 local union committees, are soon expected to be dissolved.

The cabinet is also engaged in the drawn-out process of issuing a new trade union law to replace Trade Union Act 35/1976. The future of Egypt's union structures and elections will be determined according to this new law – when and if it is issued.

Labor activist Saber Barakat, who is now a member of the ETUF's caretaker council, said, "We have no information yet regarding when the new trade union law will be issued. Some forces want to issue the law as soon as possible – including the Ministry of Manpower under Ahmad Hassan al-Borai. Others want to postpone, re-amend the law, or scrap it altogether – including ETUF's old guard and some members of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces."

The ETUF's nationwide elections are due to be held in October and November. "If the law is not issued before these elections, then we will be recreating the old system, and burying the democratic process altogether," Barakat said, adding that Egypt's trade union movement "may reach a state of paralysis, with some 200 newly established unions at risk of being deemed illegal."

The manpower minister has openly threatened to resign if the draft law, "Guaranteeing Union Liberties," is not issued.

When and if this draft becomes law, elections are to be held six months after its issuance. 

Nagy Rashad, a worker at the South Cairo Grain Mill who is also a member of the ETUF's caretaker council, said, "Our primary goal is to dissolve the old ETUF, and to make it represent the workers – not the ruling regime. We hope that the new ETUF will genuinely defend workers' rights and interests."

Rashad believes that, when and if it is issued, the new trade union law "will render the ETUF a bastion for workers rights. This will be a major gain for both the labor and trade union movements."

He added that the ETUF must never again be allowed to be the sole representative of Egyptian workers. "We must protect the independence of all the newly established unions and ensure their legal personality. Union plurality is a basic and fundamental human right."

On the other hand, members of the ETUF's old guard have argued that governmental interventions in unions' affairs is a blatant violation of workers' rights. They have staged protests denouncing the dissolving of ETUF's executive board, and claim that union plurality will only serve to destroy the unity and strength of Egypt's trade union movement.

According to Rashad, "We aspire to witness ETUF elections, which are democratic and representative. I personally hope to witness the ETUF becoming a strong and representative federation like Tunisia's UGTT (Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail), which is directly involved in political affairs, not only sociopolitical affairs."

In past decades, the ETUF had served as tool to mobilize Egypt's unionized workers for presidential campaigns and parliamentary elections. The ETUF was also the authority which granted – and also withheld – parliamentary nominees the designation of "worker's candidate" in elections in which 50 percent of seats were reserved for workers and farmers.

In the words of Aisha Abu Samada, a former unionist at the Hennawy Tobacco Company who had her union membership suspended by the ETUF in 2007, "This federation should have been dissolved years ago."

She explained that the ETUF had removed her from her local union committee on charges of instigating strikes. Since 1957, the federation has authorized only two strikes, while denouncing all others.

"Change will come; it will come from us workers and unionists. I am optimistic," Abu Samada said. "I intend on running for election in parliament and in my local union committee. I hope and trust that these elections will not be fraudulently conducted as in the previous years and decades."

However, it is not only the ETUF whose future is at stake. The EFITU was established on 30 January 2011 as a federation of four independent unions and syndicates; since then a host of newly established independent unions have joined its ranks, while others – including the Federation of Pensioners – have pulled out. A number of other independent unions have refused to join EFITU.

EFITU is seeking to house itself in the ETUF's headquarters, and is also seeking the state's sequestration of ETUF's regional offices, Workers' University, Cultural Institute, hospitals, clinics and summer resorts.

EFITU may be facing an uphill struggle, though, for although the independent union movement has quickly grown to an estimated membership of 500,000, the ETUF still boasts counts nearly four million workers as members.

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