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EGYPT: Labour Unions Shake Off Old Masters

Cam McGrath

CAIRO, Aug 16 2011 (IPS) - The trade union federation that ex-dictator Hosni Mubarak used to repress labour movements and mobilise regime support for sham elections during his 30-year rule has been disbanded, striking a powerful blow to the old order.

Egyptian Prime Minister Essam Sharaf ordered the executive board of the Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) dissolved to comply with a court ruling that stipulated that the board was illegitimate because it had been selected through fraudulent elections. Labour activists say the board was stacked with loyalists of the now-defunct ruling party, who used their position to control the labour body’s 3.5 million members.

“Since it was created in 1957, ETUF has been an arm of the regime… that has carried out the government’s policies when it should have been looking after the interests of workers,” says Tamer Fathy, a spokesman for the Centre for Trade Union and Workers’ Services (CTUWS), a local labour rights group.

Under Mubarak, draconian labour legislation required all unions to be part of ETUF, and generally prohibited strikes or collective bargaining unless approved by its syndicate heads.

Fathy says the federation propped up the regime by preventing workers from holding strikes or taking any action that challenged the state or its economic policies. It also mobilised large numbers of workers for pro-government rallies and bussed them to polling stations during elections to vote for the ruling party.

“Dissolving ETUF’s board was a serious blow to the remnants of the regime,” he says.

According to cabinet sources, the prime minister’s order to remove ETUF’s leadership aimed to enforce a 2006 court ruling that invalidated the federation’s board after determining its leaders had rigged their own election the previous year. The former government had ignored the ruling.

The decision to carry out the court order just weeks ahead of scheduled board elections that would have brought in new leadership appears prompted by evidence that ETUF leaders paid and organised workers to attack peaceful protesters during the 18-day popular uprising that ended Mubarak’s rule. There were fears the federation’s member pool could be hijacked again for fraud and thuggery in upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections.

ETUF’s disbanded board lashed out at the cabinet for what it described as a conspiracy to undermine the rights of Egyptian workers. Former officials argued that the 2006 court order was issued against the committees of the 24 syndicates that form the federation, not the board itself. They vowed to take legal action to have their positions restored.

“This was an illegal (action),” said one former board member, who declined further comment.

Mohamed Trabelsi, a regional specialist on union activities at the International Labour Organisation (ILO), says ETUF’s power had been on the wane for years. A wave of wildcat strikes that began in late 2006 had stirred Egypt’s long-quiescent working class, challenging the federation’s authority and spawning the youth movements that played a decisive role in toppling the Mubarak regime.

The state-controlled labour body also faced a growing challenge from independent unions. Property tax collectors were the first to defy ETUF’s monopoly on organised labour activity, declaring an autonomous union in 2009. Since then, dozens of worker and professional groups have organised themselves into independent unions.

Most of these associations have gathered under the umbrella of the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions (EFITU), a parallel labour body that has cannibalised the membership of its state- controlled rival. Its members, estimated to number over 500,000, include postal workers, hospital staff, fishermen and transit employees.

Labour minister Ahmed El-Borai, an outspoken proponent of independent unions, hastened the official federation’s downfall by cutting off its financial support. In March, the minister cancelled all state subsidies to unions, stripping ETUF and its subsidiaries of nearly 15 million dollars a year. He also declared an end to mandatory syndicate fees, stating that union membership should be voluntary.

The official federation had languished since Mubarak’s departure amid calls for the impeachment of its leaders on charges of corruption and misappropriation of funds. Fathy says the decision to dissolve its board was “the final nail in the coffin.”

With ETUF’s apparent demise, there was speculation that the mantle would pass to EFITU. El-Borai, however, has given assurances that the mammoth organisation would not be scrapped. Instead, he wants it reformed and given a fresh mandate to support Egyptian workers under new elected leadership.

The minister has appointed an interim board comprised of former ETUF officials, opposition members and labour activists, to manage the federation’s affairs until a new board can be voted in.

“We will hold off on board elections until we have new legislation that organises trade unions according to international conventions,” El-Borai told IPS. “I expect this draft law to be passed in less than a month.”

Fathy says the decision to restructure and reform ETUF makes sense. While EFITU has made impressive strides, building a trade union federation from scratch is a monumental task.

“Workers want to elect their representatives and will follow them to the collective bargaining table to get better salaries and bonuses, but only a few activists have the ambition to build a trade union federation,” he explains. “With ETUF you have a structure that already exists.” [END/IPS/MM/IP/LB/HD/IF/PI/RA/CM/SS/11]

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