Egypt's tax collectors and the fight for independent trade unions

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Historically regarded as one of the state's tools of repression, Egypt's property tax collectors are today spearheading the fight for independent trade unions.

Last year, 55,000 property tax collectors went on a national strike, demanding an improvement in their working conditions. The strike lasted for three months in autumn, during which tax collection dropped by 90 percent in Egypt. Victory was achieved with an 11 day sit-in in downtown Cairo, in front of the ministerial cabinet in December. More than 5,000 men and women civil servants camped out together with their children, chanting against the government, singing and banging their drums. The finance ministry conceded to their demands, raising their salaries by 325 percent.

The national strike was run by an independent committee, with elected representatives from the provinces. The state-backed General Union of Bank, Insurance and Finance Employees was hostile to the strikers. Throughout the strike-wave of blue and white collar workers, that first erupted in Egypt in December 2006, the state-backed unions were on the side of the bosses. The country's trade union movement was crushed following the 1952 coup by Nasser's Free Officers. The new "revolutionary" military regime inaugurated its rule by executing two Communist textile workers, repressed all organisations on the left (and on the right), mass jailed labour activists, and crowned its achievements with the 1957 General Federation of Trade Unions which continues to exist till today. Rather than representing workers and civil servants, the Federation is the regime's arm when it comes to controlling and mobilising the working class. Its elections are rigged. Opposition and independent candidates are routinely banned. Those who usually make it are "police-friendly" workers. Under Hosni Mubarak's reign (and that of his predecessor, Anwar Sadat) the Federation has been the vital tool in rigging parliamentary elections, by bussing poor public sector workers into the provinces to vote for the ruling National Democratic Party.

The state-sponsored union officials have denounced and conspired to sabotage the recent strike wave. In Kafr el-Dawwar, the strikers "detained" their union officials to force them to stay in the occupation in February 2007, while in Mahalla in September 2007 the strikers hospitalised the head of the union when he urged them to suspend their strike and go home.

The resentment felt by the strikers expressed itself strongly in, largely unsuccessful, impeachment campaigns against the local state-backed union officials. But now the white collar workers, represented by the property tax collectors, are spearheading the fight against the state unions. The tax collectors' strike committee, having led the victorious strike successfully and democratically, declared it was not disbanding itself in January 2008 and would continue to exist to ensure the agreement with the ministry of finance was fully implemented. The victory gave courage to the strike leadership to embark on building the country's first independent trade union since 1957. The leadership of the new union is strongly left-leaning, having built a base of support by demonstrating magnificent organisation skills during the strike, displaying a non-compromising fighting spirit in negotiations with the government minister, and a dynamic mobilisation of their colleagues. The free union leaders are far-sighted enough to see their struggle linked to that of their blue collar colleagues, as their statements regularly demonstrate. They see their free union as an embryo for a new federation, which blue collar workers can join.

Cracks are expected in the state-backed General Federation's body if the property tax collectors succeed in launching their free union. This should have a ripple effect in the Egyptian political arena. The establishment of independent union federations has been in the heart of the political transformation process in former dictatorships like Poland, South Korea, South Africa and others. At the start of this summer the Higher Committee for the Property Tax Collectors' Strike began circulating a call for an independent labour union, collecting signatures from the civil servants. The results are promising. More than 20,000 have already signed the call and at least two branches for the free union are officially declared now in the provinces of Bani Suweif and Beheira. Free union leaders are routinely subject to targeting by the state. Organisers are summoned to state security facilities for interrogation, while others get prosecuted on "administrative violations". In their fight, the free union leaders are calling on their counterparts in Britain and the world to lend their support and help. Solidarity messages from international trade unions should be addressed to freeunion.taxcollectors@gmail.com.

For updates on the fight for free unions and industrial action in Egypt, check out Hossam el-Hamalawy's blog: arabawy.org.