Our Union is Our Weapon
We want to build it right
Popular Socialist Alliance Party
Why do we want a union?
Workers have discovered that after the strike ends (especially if their demands were addressed) they will need a way to stay more connected. A ready weapon they can use any time to hang onto the rights they won. Something around which they can organize; something they can use to demand other rights. A tool that can help them negotiate and decide what to do next. And when the boss doesn’t grant a demand or tries to take away one of their rights, the union is a way of gathering them together and uniting their ranks for a new battle.
They stole unions from us
Egyptian workers on their own were able to build strong unions that defended their rights and demanded higher wages. When a worker was fired, his fellow workers showed solidarity by organizing a regional strike against the abuse of firing workers. These unions were strong in Egypt until the early fifties, when the government decided to break up worker unity by taking control of the weapon that made them strong. Instead of helping workers defend their rights, unions became a means of dividing them—a weapon in the hands of the state and company bosses. The members of these unions became a part of the regime whose goal was to drain workers’ blood.
The government did all this by founding the Egyptian Trade Union Federation in 1957. Its hierarchical structure gave all decision-making powers to the federation president and union heads. The government forced all trade unions to join the federation, thereby allowing it to control the unions by taking away their independence. The unions separated from the working masses and became unions in name only—a far cry from gaining rights for workers. The unions’ condition continued to worsen until workers woke up again.
The union’s role
So why does the government try to shatter our strength? Why does it set up roadblocks to forming any popular organization, whether it’s a party, a union, or even a people’s collective or human rights organization? When we do manage to surmount these obstacles, why do they insist on controlling us? The answer is that it’s in the interest of those who exploit us and those who help them with their laws and policies to keep us weak and in an ‘every man for himself’ situation. If we were strong, we’d demand our stolen rights and fight against the policies that aim to destroy us and our lives at little cost—policies such as privatization, low wages, and unemployment. We’d demand our right to free health care, a fair minimum wage, insurance, and more.
Unions allow us to make a move as an organized group, hands linked against the bosses. They allow us to demand our right to sufficient wages, an eight-hour work day with an hour break, guarantees against arbitrary firing, health insurance and social security. This is why they don’t want us to have this weapon.
The union is for workers not against them
About four years ago, workers began to take back the unions. When the real estate tax-collectors organized a sit-in to demand their rights, the union that was supposed to defend them stood in their way, telling them they had no rights. The same thing happened to workers at Masr Spinning and Weaving in Mahalla, and in many other factories and companies.
When the Mahalla workers and tax-collectors realized their demands through protest, they saw that these unions were not their own and could not be reformed from the inside. They decided to try something new. The Mahalla workers requested to withdraw from their union. But the real estate tax-collectors decided to build a totally new union outside the trade federation, despite the fact that…
… the Egyptian government and its labor law (in violation of the constitution and international agreements signed by Egypt) didn’t recognize their union. However, the International Trade Union Confederation recognized them after tireless efforts, and three more independent unions followed in their footsteps. After the 25 January revolution, it rained trade unions as workers helped shape the Egyptian people’s destiny.
The true union is a weapon
But if unions are to succeed, they must be properly built. They must be built in a way that keeps them from being stolen from us again, and that prevents anyone from using them to break us apart or turning them into facades rather than weapons for our rights.
First of all, the unions must be made up of workers. No decision should be made without the consent of every desk and warehouse. This means that the assembly of rank-and-file members must reflect workers and employees from all kinds of workplaces. They must know their problems and ask about their opinions. The union must always tell them everything they agree on and take their views into consideration in all their planning. Most importantly, the union must take its legitimacy from the workers. Nothing but workers’ actions will gain workers’ rights.
These unions must also be democratic in all decision-making and elections, in other words the governing assembly should never be allowed to make decisions through any process other than what the workers dictate. The workers’ association determines plans, actions and demands, and it elects the assembly and any other committees.
Unions must be independent, and should not be bound to any authority other than their workers. In an independent union, all plans originate with the public association and with its members. No one can impose anything from outside…
whether it’s the government or any party or organization. Only an independent union can articulate its workers’ positions and needs. It doesn’t discriminate between workers on any basis—they’re all equal as far as rights and obligations are concerned.
Also, the right union has to be a model of struggle. Yes, we’ll negotiate for our rights, but we keep the weapon of resistance raised high so the administration always understands that this union has the power to assemble its workers for their rights at any time, in any way.
Unions and the revolution
Of course building these unions isn’t easy; it’ll require a lot of effort. But this is how the unions will remain a weapon in the hands of their united workers. We’re in a new moment. A revolution happened in our country, and workers participated in it in different ways. It was a popular revolution, and this ought to have some effect on the lives of workers and the poor. Of course until now, basically nothing has changed for workers. Wages haven’t increased and prices haven’t dropped, nor have the corrupt been deposed. Worse, the workers’ movement to demand their rights (on the assumption that the people made the revolution happen) has been criminalized by laws whose like we haven’t seen in any era. Enemies of the revolution knew where the revolution’s real power came from, so they started a war on the workers and the poor, because the revolution’s success is in their hands.
In sum, we’re at war. Either we keep our revolution and start reaping the benefits of our sacrifices, or we lose everything including the weapon that we built.
We can say the revolution won’t succeed until we arm ourselves correctly. As long as the fight inside the factory has no relationship to what happens in the streets, the union won’t have a true meaning in workers’ lives.
We must understand that the fight is everywhere, and all the partisans have one goal: the right to form unions is just like the right to form parties. A clean ballot box is like a clean loaf of bread or unpolluted water. The right to health insurance is as important as the right to a dignified existence without political arrests or torture.
The Popular Socialist Alliance Party
Central: 71 Nubar St. – Bab al-Luq – First floor
Cairo: al-Awqaf Residences, in front of Dome Gardens Neighborhood – Block 5, Apt. 6
Alexandria: 89 Memphis St. – al-Ibrahimiyya – First floor, Apt. 8
Isma’iliyya: 96 30th St. – First floor
al-Daqhaliyya: 5 Salah Salim St. – Khafaji Tower – Sixth floor
Or our Facebook page: “Popular Alliance” (al-Tahaluf al-Sha’bi)
Acquired 8 July 2011
Translated by Rachel Antonsen
Translation reviewed by Emily Drumsta