Egyptian trade unionist on the revolution: "My lifelong dream has come true"

Submitted by Matthew on 9 March, 2011 - 12:09

Extracts from an interview with Kamal Abou Aita, President of the Real Estate Tax Authority Union (RETA), the first independent union in Egypt, established in 2009.

How did you feel during the initial days of the revolution?

I had a feeling of indescribable joy at seeing my lifelong dream coming true. To see Egyptians taking to the streets en masse, it was a moment of incredible joy.

How do you explain such a massive mobilisation within such a short space of time?

The young people managed to mobilise huge numbers of people. At the same time, since 2006, workers had started strike movements across the country, which prepared the ground for the revolution. It is through these strikes that they learnt to confront their fears, to dare to demonstrate in the streets and to organise themselves.

What were the main stages in the battle, leading to the formation of RETA?

In 1977, from 17 to 19 January, the massive popular uprising against the price of bread and other basic staples was a key moment. In 1977, only the government-controlled union federation ETUF was authorised, and creating a new union was impossible.

In 2007, we took a first step, by organising a group of workers and calling a strike. Over 50,000 workers took part. We set up 29 strike committees in each governorate and a coordinating committee in Cairo.

We were the first public sector employees in history to hold a strike outside the workplace, and we marched to the parliament building. The Finance Ministry finally gave in to our demands and we secured pay rises and better promotion opportunities.

We held discussions with the general and local strike committees, and they all agreed to become trade unions, in all the regions.

The ETUF, which had called on the Finance Minister to ignore our demands, went on, in 2009, to file a complaint against our union, accusing it of being illegal. Our office was closed down and I was arrested. I put up my own defence, for hours, evoking the right guaranteed by the Constitution to freely establish a union, in compliance with the ILO Convention on freedom of association ratified by Egypt. The judge dropped the case against me.

The ETUF leaders, who are part of the NDP (Mubarak’s party), along with members of parliament, did everything in their power to force the workers to leave RETA. Some were transferred, demoted or had their wages cut as a reprisal. The ETUF also set up a competing union in our sector, where it did not have one, in complete breach of the law. In spite of all these difficulties, RETA has 41,000 members across the country out of the total workforce of 48,000 employees in the sector. It is a very high level of representation.

What has been ETUF’s attitude since the revolution?

The ETUF did set up committees to stop any group of workers wanting to go on strike and join the demonstrators. The money the ETUF has accumulated through compulsory union dues and government funding was used to pay the thugs on the streets terrorising the population.

Many workers from all sectors have a great deal of anger against the ETUF. This is why when the university employees went on strike they abducted the vice president of the ETUF, who had come to put an end to it. The same thing happened at a steel plant.

Now, we are receiving daily messages from the ETUF, which is suddenly saying that it recognises the right to freedom of association and is proposing that we work together.

Does the new government meet your expectations?

I had a sleepless night after learning from the television that the new government’s Labour Minister was a member of the ETUF leadership. There was no way we could accept it. The deputy prime minister then asked to meet Kamal Abbas of the CTUWS who supports independent unions and offered him the post of Labour Minister. But we recommended Ahmed Hassan El Bouray, who has been an ILO expert.

To our great surprise, it was the treasurer of the ETUF, who clearly has a hand in all the corruption mechanisms, who was appointed. He contacted us, as well as Kamal Abbas of the CTUWS and other independent trade unionists, but we refused to see him.

With the resignation of the prime minister on 3 March, we hope that he will also be replaced. The candidacy of Ahmed Hassan El Bouray, which we support, is still valid.

On 2 March, the first conference was held of the new Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions. How can it be made into a powerful instrument to defend the rights of all Egyptian workers?

This first conference on 2 March gave us the opportunity to publicly present our main demands for a minimum wage, social protection and respect for freedom of association.

Hundreds of workers are contacting us every day, asking to form unions, in all sectors, public and private alike. We try to advise them and tell them what the procedure is. It’s a huge task.

How do you envisage the future development of this new federation?

An idea to develop would be the construction of a federation that is really capable of quickly bringing together all Egyptian workers. Putting together the workers’ unions and the syndicates that currently represent doctors, lawyers, journalists, engineers. But we should also open it to the rural workers, the “fellahs”, who have never seen any kind of organising and yet they represent the heart of Egypt, which is traditionally a country of farmers.

How are you going to go about this?

The idea is to establish general trade union centres in all the governorates. For example, if a group of agriculture workers ask to join, they elect a trade union representative, which will allow them to then affiliate with the federation. Afterwards, they could also launch sectoral federations.

What is the position of women in the new independent trade union movement?

Thirteen out of the 46 members of the RETA Executive Committee are women, and our vice president is a woman. They are also well represented at grassroots level. Women played a key role during the strikes, handling a lot of the practical organisation of a strike involving as many as 50,000 workers. Twenty five percent of the leaders of the independent health technicians’ union are women.

What are the main difficulties you now face?

Thanks to the revolution, the threats against our members and the attacks by security forces and employers have stopped. Our main challenge now is managing to handle the huge amount of requests we are receiving for the formation of first-level unions so that they can be established quickly and in line with the principles of trade union rights and freedoms. Having lived for decades under the single union system, a great deal of work is needed to change people’s mindsets, as individuals, as well as to change the trade union language and habits. Most workers have never been able to exercise trade union rights. It is going to require a huge educational effort.

What kind of support are you expecting from the international trade union movement?

The ITUC’s support, from our very beginnings, has been really important. The ITUC has always remained faithful to the principle of free trade unionism, refusing to work with the ETUF, which has helped a great deal.

Our affiliation to Public Services International (PSI) has also helped us a lot.

We do not want money. A range of experiences has shown that the influx of money from abroad does not produce good results and leads all too easily to a downward spiral of corruption. Education and training are our priorities.

We would also like to strengthen our ties with the trade unions in other North African countries, such as Tunisia and Morocco. These have more experience in the area of training, for women and young people, for example. We have solid experience in the area of strike action. We could exchange experiences and learn from one another.

• Interview by Natacha David on the ITUC website.

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