Anne Alexander explains what difference strikes make in a revolutionary process that has already involved millions in protests and occupations
Millions in Egypt came back onto the streets on 8 July to demand justice for the families of the martyrs killed during the uprising, and a purge of the interior ministry.
The scale of the protests quickly forced Essam Sharaf’s government onto the defensive. It granted concessions, but the protesters have not yet made a decisive breakthrough.
Now it is vital for workers to act as workers in support of the demands of 8 July. They did this in the days before dictator Hosni Mubarak fell. Strikes taking place at the moment show the power workers have.
Overnight on 20 July thousands of airport workers launched a lightning strike. They blocked the main road to the airport over the proposed appointment of a former chief of the Egyptian air force as minister of civil aviation.
Other demands included an end to the appointment of former military officers to head departments at the civil aviation ministry and wage parity with Egypt Air workers.
Al-Ahram newspaper noted that workers agreed to suspend their action only “after a long meeting with air marshal Reda Hafez, the current commander of the Egyptian air force, who promised to meet all protesters’ demands in 72 hours”.
The air traffic controllers, who first flexed their muscles with a strike and sit-in back in February, have founded a union of their own.
They’ve been joined by pilots, maintenance workers, ground staff and flight crews. Suddenly, the question of who controls Cairo International Airport is not so simple.
This is a real problem for those in power.
When workers go on strike they deploy their collective social power against the boss. By doing so, they hit at the very essence of capitalism.
Demonstrations, occupations, bread riots, attacks on police stations—these are all ways the poor, oppressed and excluded can make those in power take notice of their demands.
But they lack workers’ power to disrupt the machinery at the heart of capitalism itself. And when workers refuse to work at the direction of the boss, it does more than disrupt the flow of profits.
It threatens to fracture the system of political and social controls that bosses as a class rely on to keep themselves in power.
In Egypt today it is easy to see concrete examples of how relatively small groups of organised workers are using their power to defend themselves.
The 3,000 or so members of the Cairo Public Transport Authority Workers union would not even fill a small corner of Tahrir Square. But from the point of view of the state, they are not just another group of protesters.
Since February alone they have organised three strikes which shut down the Cairo bus network.
The generals have locked up thousands of workers, and are dragging trade unionists before the courts.
But they cannot take away workers’ collective social power to paralyse the economy and stop large parts of the state itself from functioning.
There can scarcely be a major workplace in Egypt which did not experience some form of workers’ protest in February when Mubarak fell.
Moreover, there is often a direct link between those workplaces which have the most active traditions of strikes and those with the strongest union organisation.
In a revolution, strikes can quickly take on dimensions which go far beyond the “bread and butter” issues of workplace relations, pay and conditions.
On 5 July the governor of Alexandria, Egypt’s second city, tried to transfer two council workers in a bid to stop them speaking out against plans to reinstate members of the old ruling party.
One of the workers was Farag Sha’aban, the elected secretary of the council in the city’s western quarter.
Local government workers in the area struck and locked the head of the council, an unelected general, out of the building.
When he attempted to break his way back in with a gang of thugs, they chased him away.
A few days later, with huge protests and square occupations across Egypt, the same workers announced another strike and hundreds of them joined the sit-in in Sa’ad Zaghlul Square.
Now, in addition to calling for the resignation of the governor, they added their voices to the hundreds of thousands calling for the downfall of Sharaf’s government.
They also took another step—electing Farag Sha’aban as a replacement for their old boss as head of the council.
A strike in defence of a whistle-blowing colleague suddenly became something much bigger—a means to remake a small part of the Egyptian state from below.
Likewise, the struggle at the airport is intimately connected to the revival of the mass movement in the streets since 8 July.
Airport workers’ unions organised a march from the occupation in Tahrir Square on 16 July to the cabinet offices demanding the resignation of the previous minister of civil aviation because of his links to the old regime.
And the cabinet reshuffle which has sparked this new round of more militant action was directly a result of the huge pressure on Sharaf and the military council from the occupation in Tahrir Square and other cities.
These examples show that this is not a question of counterposed tactics—strikes and occupations. Nor is the key issue about competing and separate social and democratic demands.
Rather it is about understanding that using what the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky called “proletarian methods” to achieve the goals of the revolution rapidly accelerates three processes.
First, it intensifies the interaction between economic and political aspects of the struggle.
Second, it dramatically increases workers’ confidence and sense of their own power.
Finally, the process of organising mass strikes in a revolutionary situation begins to build institutions which can form the foundation for a democratic alternative to the existing state.
The council of workers’ deputies (“soviet”) created during the mass strikes of the 1905 Russian Revolution was one example of this kind of institution.
As Trotsky explained, “the substance of the soviet was its effort to become an organ of public authority”. This effort was a natural and logical consequence of the success of the strikes in disrupting and disorganising the existing government.
Using both the disruptive and the organising power of strikes to achieve the goals of the revolution seems to have a compelling force in Egypt at the moment.
And the need to act is urgent, as last week’s attacks on demonstrators from Tahrir show.
The landscape of the Egyptian workers’ movement is changing daily.
A quick scan of the Egyptian press over the past few months reveals nearly 100 independent unions. These include 25 in manufacturing and industry, 28 representing clerical workers (mainly in government departments), 15 transport unions, four education unions, eight representing health workers and three in the post and telecommunications sector.
Some are based around particular workplaces, making them more like union branches in Britain.
But there are also company‑wide and nationwide unions, such as the union for workers in Egypt Telecom—which already has branches in six governorates.
The independent union federation is currently preparing for its founding conference. It faces many challenges.
The huge strike wave has unfolded largely without coordination, with the exception of the doctors’ strikes in May.
The sheer density of union membership and the vibrant culture of collective action in many workplaces have allowed many unions to impose their will on the authorities at a workplace level.
But, unless unions develop coordination at a national level, the state’s greater resources will eventually tip the balance against workers’ efforts to reshape society.
Union activists are also engaged in a sharp debate over whether NGO workers should be allowed to take on formal organisational roles in the independent unions.
They pose a greater threat than unelected officials in established trade unions. These are people whose salaries are paid by external organisations over which the union rank and file have no control whatsoever.
Their familiarity with the law, knowledge of funding sources, and access to government circles, the media or international bodies can lead to a culture of dependency on “outsiders”. This comes at the expense of workers developing their own self-confidence.
Watch a video of Farag Sha’aban, the council worker whose transfer sparked a strike in Alexandria, interviewed by Maysoon el-Massry at http://bit.ly/oLVdSi
Read statement from Revolutionary Socialists in Egypt: Workers of Egypt: Strike! Occupy! Bring the revolution to victory!