On Feb. 20, Kamal Abbas, Egyptian union leader and prominent figure in the Jan. 25 movement, sent a message to the “workers of Wisconsin”: “We stand with you as you stood with us.”
Egyptian workers have long fought for fundamental rights denied by the U.S.-backed Hosni Mubarak regime. Kamal is right to invoke the solidarity that has long been the driving force of the labor movement worldwide, and to compare their struggles for labor rights and democracy.
The two are closely intertwined. Labor movements have been in the forefront of protecting democracy and human rights and expanding their domains, a primary reason why they are the bane of systems of power, both state and private.
The trajectories of labor struggles in Egypt in the U.S. are heading in opposite directions: toward gaining rights in Egypt, and defending rights under harsh attack in the U.S.
The two cases merit a closer look.
The Jan. 25 uprising was sparked by the Facebook-savvy young people of the April 6 movement, which arose in Egypt in spring 2008 in “solidarity with striking textile workers in Mahalla,” labor analyst Nada Matta observes.
State violence crushed the strike and solidarity actions, but Mahalla was “a symbol of revolt and challenge to the regime,” Matta adds. The strike became particularly threatening to the dictatorship when workers’ demands extended beyond their local concerns to a minimum wage for all Egyptians.
Matta’s observations are confirmed by Joel Beinin, a U.S. authority on Egyptian labor. Over many years of struggle, Beinin reports, workers have established bonds and can mobilize readily.
When the workers joined the Jan. 25 movement, the impact was decisive, and the military command sent Mubarak on his way. That was a great victory for the Egyptian democracy movement, though many barriers remain, internal and external.