KAI RYSSDAL: American labor unions and the Occupy crowds are still trying to figure out exactly what their relationship ought to be. Occupy doesn’t want to get co-opted, unions want to tap into the power of the moment.
That’s not far from what’s going on in Egypt right now. In Cairo, an organized labor movement that was all but banned under Hosni Mubarak is finding its feet, as Julia Simon reports.
In downtown Cairo a group of teachers are striking, marching through the streets with big signs. A few weeks ago it was the post office workers, then the textile workers, the airport employees, nurses. All of them want higher wages.
Not far away from this teacher protest is the office of Kamal Abu Eitta. He’s a labor activist who was imprisoned and tortured under the Mubarak regime. Today he runs the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions.
KAMAL ABU EITTA: I’m busy, but the work is sweet, the work is beautiful. We are finally achieving our dream of having independent trade unions here in Egypt.
There’s a reason that Abu Eitta uses the word independent. It’s not that Egypt never had unions. It’s just that before the revolution, most unions were puppets of the regime. Samer Solimon is a professor at the American University in Cairo. He says the government union was created in the ’50s to repress the working class.
SAMER SOLIMON: It was controlled by the state security office, by the secret police, fraud in their elections.
In August Egypt’s new minister of manpower finally started to revamp the government union. Professor Solimon thinks that given the government union’s many assets, including a bank and university, it’s in the workers’ interest to keep it around. Saber Barakat is on its temporary board.
SABER BARAKAT: We have 3 million members. Now we’re rebuilding on the principles of democracy. We’ve gotten rid of the previous leaders and sent them away for public prosecution.
But even if the old leaders get jail time, labor activist Kamal Abbas thinks that the government union is still too corrupt to be reformed.
KAMAL ABBAS: The fact is we don’t want internal reform of the government union. We want to get rid of it. We want a new federation that really represents workers’ interests.
An hour south of Cairo trucks rumble along dusty desert roads carrying workers to their factories. This is the city of Helwan, Egypt’s industrial core.
Fathi Moustafa has been working at a sugar factory here for 35 years. He says the $80 a month he makes in wages isn’t enough to survive.
FATHI MUSTAFA: We want $80 more a month because the cost of everything is going up. The price of food is going up. All we want is our rights: the right to eat, the right to live, that’s it. That’s all everybody wants.
Regardless of whether Egypt scraps the government union or keeps it, the reality is that there are a lot of workers here who are now looking for a voice.
Marian Fadel is the Egypt program officer of the Solidarity Center; it’s affiliated with the AFL-CIO.
MARIAN FADEL: We were having requests every day, hundreds of requests, we had requests from the sugar companies, from the textile companies. We don’t have real unions yet and it will take years and years to build the whole thing.
Fadel says that’s why Egypt’s labor activists have to keep up the momentum — fighting for things like a higher minimum wage. Because for many Egyptian workers, the revolution is not over yet.
In Cairo, I’m Julia Simon for Marketplace.