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Egypt and Organized Labor

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Given how little coverage organized labor in the United States receives in this country, it’s hardly surprising than when talking about international events, the news media really ignores labor. But of course the internal dynamics of other nations has a profound effect on the labor movements of those nations. That includes Egypt. This is an outstanding report on how the military government that took over in 2013 has repressed organized labor. The whole thing is worth reading, but here are the key points:

Between 2004 and 2013, Egypt witnessed a wave of labor strikes and protest unlike anything seen since the late 1940s, peaking in the January 2011 revolution.

After the revolution, the state offered no concessions in laws and institutional arrangements regarding freedom of association, the right to strike, or a minimum wage—which had been demands of labor activists and independent unionists.

Since June 2013, the state has stepped up its repression of labor protest and strikes.

The rising repression has gone hand in hand with calls for national unity against terrorism and in support of the current regime. Social protest and labor strikes are viewed as treasonous.

The regime is adamant about reimposing the structures of the old Nasserist state. It seeks to bring together trade unions under a state-dominated federation of unions, while placing extraordinary restrictions on industrial action.

At the same time, the state wants to liberalize the economy at the expense of workers, which would mean upholding political Nasserism but ignoring economic Nasserism.

The current situation is unsustainable in the long term. The drivers of the January revolution remain entrenched. Workers are still economically and politically marginalized. Real incomes are declining and previous gains are threatened with future privatizing of state-owned enterprises, downsizing of the government bureaucracy, and increasing informal labor in the private sector.

The future of the labor and trade union movement is not clear. In the short term, the movement is weakened and likely to wane.

There is no doubt that workers have gained a significant amount of experience in the past decade, and that the instruments of repression cannot erase that experience from their memory. This could someday form the basis for trade unions that truly represent Egypt’s workers.

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