State backs down on forcing striking train drivers into army

State authorities halted attempts at conscripting striking train drivers into the service of the Armed Forces on Wednesday, a campaign they had begun the day before.  The state’s “public mobilization” order was rescinded following solidarity protests and a host of legal complaints filed by labor lawyers.

The attempt to enlist 97 striking train drivers into military service came after previous efforts at strikebreaking had failed.

At a Thursday news conference at the Egyptian Center for Social and Economic Rights, labor lawyers pointed out that according to the law, acts of public mobilization can only be issued by the president’s office in times of war or natural disaster.

“There was no announcement of a disaster or state of war,” argued labor lawyer Mohamed Adel. “Furthermore, it was not the president who issued this order for public mobilization. Therefore, this order is null and void."

The public mobilization order was issued on Tuesday by Transportation Minister Hatem Abdel Latif via the Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS), and was enforced by the Ministry of Defense.

By forcefully enlisting the strikers into the service of the Defense Ministry, under this decree their continued work stoppage would have been considered an act of sedition — punishable by military trial.

Train drivers had launched the largest nationwide railway strike since 1986 on Sunday in demand for increased salaries, more time off and other benefits. By Monday night the strike had largely fizzled out, and the few protesters who remained were summoned to an army barracks in the Cairo neighborhood of Sharabiya on Tuesday.

“The Morsy administration’s targeting of strikers has proven to be much worse and more oppressive than the actions of the Mubarak regime” said train driver Ashraf Momtaz.

Momtaz explained that he and 96 of his coworkers were detained at the military barracks in Sharabiya for nearly 24 hours. “We were not allowed to go home, and we were denied visitations.”

 “We were singled out as being the chief strike leaders. The army held us as if we were war criminals; we were not given any food or drink. We would give money to the soldiers so they could buy us food and beverages,” recounted Mohamed Khalil, another train driver who was held for public mobilization in Sharabiya.

The Egyptian National Railways Authority (ENRA) and Ministry of Transport resorted to this tactic after they had threatened to replace train drivers with members of the Armed Forces, but had to back down when the Ministry of Defense conceded that it did not have the personnel qualified to operate trains.

The ENRA and the Transport Ministry then sought to recruit retired train drivers to break the strike, but to no avail. Metro drivers were offered bonuses to take over operating the trains, but they refused out of solidarity with the train drivers, said Khaled Ali, a labor lawyer and former presidential candidate.

Refaat Arafat, a member of the Independent Union of Metro Workers, denounced the “punitive measures” taken against striking workers.

“The authorities are quick to issue laws against strikes and protests, while they continue to drag their feet when it comes to issuing laws that protect our labor rights,” he stated.

The ENRA had also asked the public prosecution to press criminal charges against the striking drivers, accusing them of obstructing transportation and harming the economy. The body claimed that the two-day strike resulted in a loss of several million pounds of revenues.

 “Tens of our names were sent to the public prosecutor for criminal investigations, while the railway authority moved to suspend 17 of us drivers for three months,” claimed Khalil.

“Apparently these suspensions have been revoked, but we don’t know if we are still being investigated or not,” he added.

Another train driver, Karim Ibrahim, explained, “We were promised that conscription would not be imposed on us again. The national railway authority also promised us that our wage scales would be augmented by June.”

“We have heard a lot of promises from the authority in the past, but none of these promises have been fulfilled,” he added.

The recent attempt at conscription is just the latest in a series of labor violations perpetrated by Morsy’s government, according to labor lawyer Haitham Mohamadein.

“Tens of unionists and striking workers have been referred to prosecution and criminal investigations for exercising their right to strike,” he said.

“We’ve seen also that the regime is willing to crackdown against strikes by any means available,” he alleged, referring to the recent use of police dogs against striking cement workers in Alexandria.

The army has also actively involved itself in acts of strike-breaking. The Armed Forces operated alternate bus services during the Delta Bus workers’ strike in February and March 2012. Prior to this, in May 2011, military police in the industrial hub of Mahalla are reported to have threatened striking doctors with military trials if they did not resume their work. 

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