What happened in Egypt over the last few weeks has a clear historic parallel in the events of August 1980 in Poland.
In both cases, weakened authoritarian regimes crumbled as popular unrest spread. In Poland and Egypt, state-controlled labour fronts proved unable to control the masses; new, independent unions were formed in struggle. In both countries, religion provided a means of expressing dissent — and both the reactionary Roman Catholic church and the Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood posed threats to the prospects of genuinely progressive change.
And in both countries, small groups of workers and intellectuals struggled over many years (KOR in Poland, the CTUWS in Egypt) building the basis for the independent unions that eventually emerged.
The lessons we learned in 1980 apply today, and the battle is already on to determine what happens next for the Egyptian working class — and for the region as a whole.
In Egypt, a fight is now underway over the fate of the Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF), the state-controlled labour front.
At stake are the assets of the organisation, the fate of its corrupt leadership, and its monopoly power in the workplace.
This struggle is taking place side by side with the fight for the right to strike, and the right to form free and independent trade unions.
In fact the complete defeat of the ETUF and its replacement by genuine unions is essential if the workers’ movement is to make any progress at all.
So while Egyptian workers demonstrate outside the ETUF headquarters and others demand the arrest of the corrupt ETUF leaders and the seizure of their assets, there are things we in the international labour movement can do to support them.
First of all, we must assist Egyptian workers in isolating and delegitimising the ETUF. We can do so by urging the global union federations to which our unions are affiliated to expell the ETUF members from their ranks. The rotten and corrupt ETUF never belonged inside the international trade union movement and its expulsion is long overdue.
We should also insist that the ETUF not be allowed to represent the Egyptian working class at the International Labour Organisation. Instead, representatives of the new unions should take their place inside the ILO Workers Group. The TUC and the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) should insist upon this point.
Second, the ETUF and its equally rotten counterpart in Syria have long controlled the International Confederation of Arab Trade Unions (ICATU). ICATU represents all that is wrong with state-controlled labour fronts and is currently headed up by one of Colonel Qaddafi’s stooges.
But it is treated seriously and with respect by the TUC and the ITUC — and this must stop. ICATU, like the ETUF, should be isolated and allowed to wither away.
Instead, our unions should encourage the formation of a genuine regional body for democratic and representative unions in the Middle East. (And such a body would not have the word “Arab” in it.)
Ideally it would include not only the Tunisian UGTT and the new Egyptian unions, but also the Iraqi unions, including the Kurdish ones, the independent workers’ groups in Iran, and the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU).
The fact that the PGFTU was excluded from ICATU because of its alleged “collaboration” with the Israeli Histadrut tells us just how useless and reactionary ICATU was.
And we should not hesitate to call for the inclusion of the Israeli working class — both Jews and Arabs — in any such regional body. That means the affiliation of the Histadrut as well as smaller unions to a regional organisation.
The Egyptian workers will not win their fight unless it spreads throughout the region, as is already happening. Countries which do not tolerate independent workers’ organisations such as Syria, Jordan, Iran, the Gulf states, Hamas-controlled Gaza and so on, are all seeing signs of worker unrest. All those struggles need our support.
While practical gestures of solidarity such as delegations, raising funds and so on are vitally important, there is also a political fight taking place here within the trade union movement and the left.
Many on the self-styled “left” of our movement, such as the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU), were long identified as supporters of the state-controlled labour front in Egypt, as well as those in other countries in the region.
Those on the left, such as the Socialist Workers Party, who once called independent Iraqi trade unionists “quislings” (thus endangering their lives) and who see the Palestinian trade unionists as “Zionist collaborators” have suffered a massive defeat in the streets of Egypt.
Egyptian workers have rejected the lies put out by the ETUF and ICATU and are insisting on a new beginning.
Anything is possible now, including a regional union federation in which Israelis and Palestinians can finally take part. The Egyptian workers have made this possible. We must stand with them, and support them in any way we can.