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Egyptian textile workers win strike

Published Oct 6, 2007 11:31 AM

Some 27,000 textile workers in Egypt won a resounding victory on Sept. 29, following a one-week strike at El Misr Spinning and Weaving Factory in Mahalla el-Kobra, an industrial city in the Nile Delta north of Cairo.

Photo: Al-Masry Al-Youm

The workers occupied the plant and set up their own security.

Following this action, the company and the state-run union agreed to give the workers an immediate bonus equivalent to 90-days’ pay; workers’ days on strike will be treated as paid vacation days; the corrupt and wasteful company president will be fired; there will be an annual 7-percent increase in pay, and the Ministry of Investment will set up a commission to study granting an additional 40-day bonus.

The workers were extremely militant and had prepared for a long fight. Video clips show Mahalla workers chanting, “We will not be ruled by the World Bank! We will not be ruled by colonialism!” Sayyid Habib, a veteran union leader, told the Voice of America on Sept. 28, “We are challenging the regime.”

According to Joel Beinin, director of Middle East Studies at the American University in Cairo, the textile workers’ challenge to the economic policies of the regime drew widespread support from the people of Mahalla, other textile workers in the area, railroad workers, and teachers and other intellectuals.

The World Bank on Sept. 26 ranked Egypt as the most improved investment economy in the world, just a few days after U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice dined in New York with Egypt’s foreign minister. Washington has criticized the civil rights record of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s regime in words, but considers Egypt its main ally in the Middle East outside of Israel.

There have been than 200 major strikes in Egypt since 2004. The day the Mahalla workers went back to their jobs, hundreds of workers from the Tanta Linseed and Oils Co. in the same province as El Misr Spinning went out over very similar issues. The whip of inflation has lashed Egyptian workers hard. The official rate is 12 percent but many economists consider this half the real figure. The price of fresh vegetables, cultivated widely within Egypt, went up by 38 percent, which is a shock to people trying to feed their families.

In a news release, the Coordinating Committee of the Mahalla workers says international solidarity was one of the most important components of their victory.

The first solidarity letter came from the General Federation of Trade Unions of South Africa on Sept. 26, followed by one from the International Confederation of Arab Trade Unions, which criticized the role of the official state-controlled union in the struggle. Then the National Trade Union of Education Workers of South Africa, one of the largest unions in that country, chimed in, supporting the Mahalla workers’ right “to organize, to associate and to strike.” Italian unions sent a message of steadfast support. The International Textile, Garment and Leather Workers wrote a letter to President Mubarak criticizing his attempts to put leaders of the strike in jail. The International Trade Union Confederation also protested the arrest and detention of strike leaders.

As globalization spreads industrial activity throughout the world, international solidarity is going to grow ever more important.