CAIRO: In a meeting held at the Center for Socialist Studies, workers from Al Mahalla’s Misr Spinning and Weaving Company celebrated their victory, while keeping a cautious eye on the future of the workers’ movement.
The meeting also aimed to bring together the leaders of the Mahalla strike with workers from other public sector companies.
The peaceful week-long strike, during which production came to a halt, gathered more than 27,000 workers at one of the oldest textile companies in the country.
The factory management and the Egyptian Trade Union Federation agreed after negotiating with the workers to improve working conditions and give workers bonuses equal to 70 days pay. In addition, the workers were promised to be paid an equivalent of 60 days pay after a pending General Assembly meeting.
Kamal El Fayoumi, a worker in Misr Company, warned the workers from repeating the mistakes of the first strike of December 2006, when the workers were promised by the factory management and the Union to receive bonuses worth 150 days pay if the company made more than LE 60 million.
The latest strike was triggered when the management failed to honor its promise at a time when the workers found out that the company had made more than LE 200 million but they only gave bonuses equal to 20 days pay.
Representatives of political and social movements were also present, taking turns to congratulate the workers. The groups included The Center for Socialist Studies, Afaq Socialist Center, Hesham Mubarak Law Center, Kefaya Movement for Change and the March 9 Movement for the Independence of Universities.
The workers expressed their initial wish to use the strike to press for all their demands before losing momentum. The workers wanted to form an elected local union in the company, change the wages to balance inflation and price hikes and to eliminate actions against alleged company corruption.
“These two strikes were the beginning, they were not the end, says Sayed Habib, a leader in the Mahalla strike.
“This will be the road for the next five years, another worker added.
Kamal El Fayoumi, an enthusiastic worker who spent 25 years working for Misr Company said, “We only want the company to raise us to reach the poverty line.
“This company is making profits, they’re not losing money. Our demands aren’t unrealistic.
Karim El Beheiry, a young worker, used his blog to report news on the strike as it was happening.
“I have the right to live in a nice building like the sons of ministers. I have the right to own a car. I have the right to have a good life, El Behiery said.
The workers said that they will start pressing for the rest of their demands after the Eid holiday. Some of them expressed their worries over government interference against their interests. “If the government does anything out of bad faith after Eid, it will be the last straw, said Hamdy Hussein, a worker from Mahalla.
Kamal Khalil from the Center for Socialist Studies warned the workers that the government would try to infiltrate and break up the lines of the workers leadership, encouraging them to stay united.
He suggested creating a workers solidarity fund that would be used to help workers and their families affected by the strikes.
The workers, who had discussed a similar suggestion before, supported Khalil’s idea.
“Workers should start collecting money from each other and saving it to support the families of workers who get arrested or expelled from a company because of their participation in a strike, Khalil said.
Another suggestion was to form a labor political party for workers.
Ahmed El Naggar, a worker in Misr Company, stressed the workers’ right to be politically active.
“Is politics prohibited in the constitution? Is politics an obscene word? I am here telling the president that I want to found a political party for workers. I have the right to join any political party I want. Before being a worker, I’m an Egyptian, said El Naggar. “I feel like I’m a refugee from some other country.
But the workers were also careful to refute government claims that the strikes were organized and supported by opposition political movements. They stressed that their strike was organized by workers without any influence from any other entity.
The workers also stressed the importance of free unions to represent them.
“I don’t acknowledge the legitimacy of the whole union system. If there was freedom to create unions and elect real representatives, the whole problem wouldn’t have happened. El Naggar said.
Many workers found the idea of pushing for a free union more realistic and achievable than forming a political party.
They suggested forming a nucleus of a labor committee that would meet regularly and has the capability to offer support and help to workers facing problems.
“The group of workers who are present here today can form the seeds of this committee, said Mostafa Nayet, a worker in the Egyptian Iron and Steel Company.
One of the attendees was optimistic about the workers movement. It’s the only movement the government can’t kill, he said.