Mahalla textile workers demand union dissolved and greater independence

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CAIRO: Over 200 workers from the Mahalla Textile Factory, Egypt’s largest, presented a petition to the General Union of Textiles Workers, demanding that their local factory union be impeached during a meeting yesterday at their headquarters in Shubra.

The workers called for new elections for their local factory union. If their demands are not met, they threatened to secede from the General Federation of Trade Unions, the umbrella organization which covers all workers’ unions. Representatives of the petition’s 13,000 signatories charge that the factory union – which supposedly represents workers in any dispute with management – with a host of abuses.

They claim the current union was both fraudulently elected and also conspired with management to abort their successful December strike, which energized the long-dormant Egyptian labor movement.

In December 2006, the factory’s 27,000 employees went on strike to demand their yearly bonuses, which traditionally make up the bulk of their annual salary. After five days the strikers compromised with management and received 75 percent of the demanded amount, although concerns over stagnant wages persist.

“The bonuses have not changed in 24 years, said one worker, who preferred not to be named. “But prices have increased by over 300 percent since then. Our wages are not worth much anymore.

“When will the National Council for Salaries and Wages convene again? asked another, referring to the defunct body tasked with determining the country’s prevailing wages. “It is supposed to meet every three years, but it has not met since the 80s.

This week’s stand-off is the first of its kind since the creation of the General Federation of Trade Unions in 1957. If the Mahalla workers succeed in forming an independent union, it would be the first in almost 50 years.

The General Union of Textiles Workers has agreed to review the Mahalla employees’ demands and provide an official response to them by Feb. 15.

“This is a legitimate demand, said Mohamed El-Attar, spokesman for the Mahalla workers. “Law 35 obliges the state to respond to us. Section B of Article 26 entitles us to impeach our local union if we feel it does not represent us. This has never happened in Egypt before.

According to Egyptian labor law, the leaders of any local union can be impeached if 50 percent of the workers plus one demanded it. The leaders of the Mahalla campaign claim their petition exceeds this demand.

Accusations that the local union plotted with management against the workers in December provoked a heated exchange inside the crowded hall.

“These are all lies! Lies! shouted one member of the Mahalla Factory Union, to a foreign visitor.

“No they are not, said El-Attar, responding directly to the Union leader. “Not one single member of our syndicate stood with us during the strike. You stood on the side of management. As our representatives you had an agreement with us, and you broke it.

“Look at what happened at Tora Cement factory, he continued, referring to the successful strike at Tora Cement factory in late December. “When the workers there went on hunger strike, eight members of the factory committee joined them and were sent to the hospital.

“Their demands were met in 12 hours because their union stood by them. But when we had our strike, where were you? he said, pointing at the local union leaders.

He added: “We want a union that really represents us. It’s simple. That’s our demand.

The local union leader declined to make further comments to reporters.

The Mahalla leaders presented their demands to the panicked members of the General Union’s board in a similarly tense back-and-forth. In addition to accusations of fraud and corruption against their local representatives, they accused the leaders of the General Union of coercion by the state.

“You are all a part of the National Democratic Party! shouted one worker, referring to the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) of President Hosni Mubarak, in power since 1981.

“I have no party affiliations, said Said Ghory, President of the General Union of Textiles Workers. “But I do not want to speak for my colleagues.

The other seven Union leaders sitting on each side of Ghory made no comment about possible political links.

Workers also charge that the General Federation of Trade Unions is cooperating with State Security to suppress their demand for an independent union.

They say two buses containing more than 300 more factory workers who planned to attend Monday’s meeting were barred from entering Cairo at a check-point outside Shubra, and that leaders from Mahalla received phone threats by police and security forces.

“I want to say this in front of the media: we are being intimidated by the labor union, said El-Attar, to cheers from his fellow workers in the audience. “It is very important that no intimidation takes place during this process.

Appearing visibly flustered during the meeting, Ghory denied one worker’s charge that the General Federation of Trade Unions is facing a crisis.

“There is no crisis here, he exclaimed. “There is no crisis. I am here because I have a clear conscience. We live in a democratic country, workers have their rights, and there is no crisis in this union.

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