Egypt: Health workers build their union from the ground up

By Simon Midgley, CWU Bradford & District, and Huddersfield SWP.

This report is part of a series of articles by members of the MENA Solidarity Network delegation which visited Egypt 28 April – 3 May

On the afternoon of Friday 29th April, our delegation had the pleasure of visiting the offices that the Egyptian Independent Trade Union Federation (EITUF) was using as a meeting point, in downtown Cairo. The 19th Century building had seen better days. As we entered, the wide marble stairwell and high ceilings echoed grander times, but as with much of Cairo in the 21st Century, it’s time-worn décor was in dire need of some tender loving care and attention.

On the first floor, we stepped into an ante-room, the walls of which were plastered with clenched-fist posters publicising the May Day demonstration called for 1 May in Tahrir Square. Behind a slender partition wall, a noisy debate was taking place amongst reps from the Egyptian Health Technologists’ Syndicate, a 25,000 member union representing health professionals (such as radiographers and anaesthetists) from across Egypt.

The meeting was debating the progress of negotiations with the Health Ministry, which had reached a decisive point.

The delegates kindly offered us a ten minute slot to briefly address the meeting, but it would of course have to be after they had concluded the day’s business. While we waited we spoke with Rahma Refaat, an activist from the Centre for Trade Union and Workers Services (CTUWS) and EITUF lawyer, about the plans and preparations for the May Day demonstration, and with union president Ahmed El-Sayed who gave us the background to the dispute.

We had been there a good two hours and more when we were asked to join the delegates in the meeting room. Some of our delegation had already left to get food. If my memory is correct, just myself from the CWU, and the three RMT delegates, had stayed behind. However, those of us that were still there were in for a treat, as what was planned as a brief ten minute expression of solidarity became a lengthy two-hour discussion.

Unfortunately, unlike with most of the other meetings that our delegation attended, this one was not recorded. We weren’t expecting it to turn out as it did. As it was, the next day I managed to make some notes of the discussions we had, which had proceeded in the form of a lengthy question and answer session, through our translator for the day Ahmed El-Sayed.

We began by introducing ourselves, and then asked an opening question about what the delegates had been assembled to discuss and debate that day. The delegates, we were told, had come to Cairo from over 20 of the 27 Governorates of Egypt to debate how to respond to and proceed with the negotiations in their dispute with the Egyptian Government.

The Health Techonologist were demanding that the Government should fund the professional training and education that was required for them to do their jobs. Currently, there simply was no Government funding for such training; people had to fund themselves. Negotiations had been proceeding for a while, and had come to the point where the delegates were drawing up a detailed plan of how the state should provide this funding, which would be presented to the Minister of Health the following Monday. If, they said, the Minister did not agree to their demands, the health workers would be looking at taking national strike action.

Another major focus of the meeting was discussing the creation of a new independent trade union for health professionals. It was this topic that the delegates were most interested in asking us about. After all, they said, in Britain we have had independent trade unions for over a hundred years, so we must be able to tell them how to do it.

They were, at the same time as being in dispute with the new Government, also in the process of deciding how to recruit their members, and what structures they needed to set up. [1]

Some of the questions that they asked were quite revealing, and give a sense of the very basic level that these militant trade union activists are starting from. Some of these questions required simple factual answers, and so I have not given details of every response in what follows below. Some of the questions did, however, lead to interesting political discussions, and I have summarised these where appropriate.

In and amongst the discussion, we were asked:

  • How do people get to join your unions? Do they automatically get enrolled as members by the Government? Do they have to ask to join the union, or does the union ask them to join? Do they have to write a letter to ask permission to join?
  • Where do your unions get their funds from? Do they get money from the government, or do they rely on raising funds from the members?
  • How much do members pay in subscriptions to your unions? How often? How do you make sure that you get collect the money from your members?
  • When you are doing union work, do you have to do your normal job as well? Do you have to do both at the same time? How do you get time to do union work? This led us to explaining about our trade unions negotiating agreements with employers to give union reps ‘facility time’, and the fact that legislation in Britain gives union reps the right to paid time off of work to perform some union functions.
  • Who decides how your trade union leaders are chosen? Are they elected? If so, who decides how they are elected? Does the Government lay down rules that the unions have to follow? Our answers to this question varied according to the particular unions were from.
  • How frequently are your leaders elected? Are they elected each year, or are they elected for life? Again, our answers to this question varied according to the particular unions were from.
  • Are the national leaders of your unions paid by the unions or the Government? How much are they paid? This led us to point out that, in our view, the leaders of our trade unions were often paid too much and were as a consequence, relatively privileged, and cushioned from the daily reality of life for ordinary members.
  • Does the Government in your country put restrictions on trade unions? Are they controlled by the law? This led us to explain that there are anti-union laws in Britain, which attempt to prevent effective trade union action by insisting on postal ballots for strike action, for example. But in general trade unions are independent of the state and decide their own rulebooks, structure, and policies, within the limits of these laws.
  • How do you manage to keep political differences amongst representatives and members from creating divisions and disunity? How do you exclude political parties from the union? This led to a discussion on whether it is possible or desirable for politics and trade union issues to be kept in separate spheres; how our trade unions relate to politics through their own policies and campaigns; and the link to parliamentary politics and the Labour Party in Britain. External interference and control of trade unions in Egypt had left a bad taste in the mouth of many activists, who wanted to avoid this outside influence of political parties in their union in future.
  • If a union representative holds strong political views of their own, we were asked, do they act in line with these in their role as a rep, or do they have to represent the views of the members, or the union? The particular example given was: if a rep is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, would they act in line with Muslim Brotherhood politics or union policy? This led to a discussion around how our trade unions decide policy on political issues, at forums such as Annual Conferences, and how representatives might have their own opinions, but usually have to stick to union policy when acting as a rep. It was clear that some of the Egyptian delegates had experienced problems with some trade unionists representing their own religious or political opinions rather than the union or its members.
  • When you organise a strike, how do you go about it? This led to a discussion around the various legal hoops that unions are required to jump through under the British anti-union laws.
  • Do you have to ask your union’s national leadership for permission to go on strike? A number of differing responses were given by us, which illustrated how this differed from one union to the next.
  • How do you make sure that your unions respond to your members’ problems and disputes quickly, if you first have to have a postal ballot, and give the employer a week’s notice of strike action, etc? Which we said was a very good question. We agreed that it is a problem that has to be overcome, and pointed out that in our opinion, the British trade union laws restricted our effectiveness, and were brought in to do just that. The point was also made that sometimes workers, if confident enough, would just walk out despite the law.

In the course of these discussions, a number of comrades raised issues and problems with the British Trade union movement, as we see them. Specifically, the issues we touched on were:

  • While the British trade unions are structurally and financially independent of the state and the British Government, the leaders are often linked very closely with the Labour Party, and for instance were politically supportive of the previous Labour Government, which often weakened the union response to attacks on workers by that Government.
  • The union leaders are elected by the members, but these leaders occupy a position between the workers and the employers, negotiating compromise deals between the two.
  • In our view, the top officials and leaders of our unions are often paid very high salaries, and are a privileged layer compared to the ordinary members and the reality of their daily lives.
  • That as left-wing activists, we advocate what we call a ‘rank and file’ or grassroots approach to organising in the British trade unions, which attempts to mobilise the membership, and make sure the leaders are accountable to the membership and responsive to their needs and demands.
  • That in British trade unions, for us there is the ever-present problem of trying to mobilise members, encourage them to be active in the unions, in order to make sure that the trade union machine and officials carry out the wishes of the members, and of creating structures that promote involvement and engagement of members in the life of their unions.

Finally, readers of this report might appreciate a report of the following exchange:

The Egyptian delegates, we were told, had seen news reports of the TUC Demonstration of 500,000 trade unionists in London on 23rd March. The question they asked us was:

‘How did you organise that demonstration? How did you build it?’

This took us all aback a little, but after a brief pause, I answered along the lines of:

‘Well… at the start, activists in a number of trade unions proposed the idea to their own local union branches. They argued that the branch should call on their national union executive to themselves, in turn, call on the TUC to organise a demonstration. Resolutions were passed in local Branches of various unions, then by the national executive committees of some unions. Finally, the TUC agreed and resolved to call a demonstration. Then, after a date had been set, and the plans agreed with the authorities, various unions organised transport, and mobilised the members to attend.’

There were a few frowning faces around the table, and one of the lead negotiators of the delegation asked:

‘How long did that take?’

I hesitated a little, and then replied:

‘About six months.’

There was a pause, and then, with the universal gesture of putting a telephone to his ear, the same Egyptian delegate said a few words that we could all guess the translation of:

‘It would take us three days by phone.’
 

Simon Midgley

CWU Area Delivery Rep for Bradford & District, and member of Huddersfield SWP Branch.

 

 


[1] Throughout the decades that the Mubarak regime had been in power, the official Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) had effectively been an arm of the state. Only one union was allowed per workplace or industry. All unions had to be part of the national ETUF. The appointment of the ETUF leadership was tightly controlled by Mubarak’s National Democratic Party. Elections to the executive bodies of the official national trade unions were often rigged, by such blatant methods as preventing oppositional candidates from registering, and targeting militant workers for state repression by the security services. Under Egyptian trade union law, the state even had the power to determine union structures and rulebooks. Trade unions were also funded directly by the state.

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