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Posts Tagged ‘foreign policy’

Workers Hold Key to Reigniting Egypt’s Revolution

Monday, February 27th, 2012

Michelle ChenTo commemorate the first anniversary of the overthrow of the dictatorship, activists in Egypt called for a general strike earlier this month. But compared to the massive uprising of 2011, the response on the ground was muted. The military regime that has succeeded Hosni Mubarak was predictably dismissive of the anti-government “plotters,” and even activists acknowledged what seems to be a sort of protest fatigue.

But a year ago, when the Arab Spring was still fresh, labor activists were on the frontlines across Egypt, leading a massive wave of strikes and demonstrations. Today many ordinary Egyptians appear deflated or disilllusioned. With the new political structure divided between Islamist factions and a military junta, the country may be drifting back toward the familiar trade-off between democratic aspirations and political stability.

Reuters reported:

It was business as usual at Cairo’s railway station and airport. Buses and the metro ran as normal and an official said the strike call had no impact on the Suez Canal…

“We are hungry and we have to feed our children,” said bus driver Ahmed Khalil, explaining why he was not taking part in the labor action called by liberal and leftist groups, together with some student and independent trade unions.

“I have to come here every morning and work. I don’t care if there is a strike or civil disobedience,” he said.

The tepid response doesn’t necessarily suggest people have given up on systemic change, but it does represent the challenges of sustaining hope in the face of state oppression and economic crisis. At this stage, worker-led initiatives might again provide a vital boost, but activists haven’t yet channeled workers’ everyday grievances into a comprehensive political vision.

Noting that workers are often not politically organized, even if they’re willing to strike, Hossam el-Hamalawy, journalist and organizer with the Egyptian Revolutionary Socialists, told In These Times:

The general strike was successful in the universities because of the existence of independent student unions and student groups on the ground that could mobilize for this. In the case of the workers, we do not have (yet) either an independent trade union federation or a labor party that could pull this together. General strikes cannot be organized via Facebook calls.

But labor was a vibrant force of dissent in Egypt long before the Arab Spring. Worker-activists were involved both in the nationalist movements of the early-twentieth century and later on, in struggles under the authoritarian rule that was enforced by the state union apparatus. When neoliberal policies took hold of the economy during the 1970s, workers confronted a convergence of capitalist exploitation and state repression, fraught with low wages, gender discrimination and crackdowns on labor organizing.

The upheaval that began last January was in some ways an extension of this tradition. In his research on Egypt’s labor movement (published in an AFL-CIO Solidarity Center report), historian Joel Beinin has documented hundreds upon hundreds of strikes and protests over the past several years. Uprisings often responded directly to workplace conflicts, with particularly strong mobilization in the textile industry and public sector. The pattern of wildcat strikes continued in 2011.

Still, more radical opposition movements haven’t deeply engaged the working class. Though groups like the Revolutionary Socialists push class-struggle rhetoric and pro-worker economic and labor policies, their image is still affiliated with the intelligensia.

Beinin told ITT that, since civil society was so suppressed under authoritarian rule, many workers today–

aren’t used to sitting down and talking about politics and the country in a reasoned, logical kind of way… What they do is they [say], “Our management is corrupt, it was a crime to sell this public sector enterprise to these private investors who then reneged on their contractual obligations anyway–things like that. They don’t usually say, “The problem is, the IMF and the World Bank are trying to shape the Egyptian economy along vicious, vulture, private-sector capitalist lines.”

In the process of building a grassroots political movement, he noted, “There’s been this problem of trying to get workers in general to believe that there is a broader problem than whatever the issues are at their workplace.”

While workers are consumed with immediate problems of economic instability and unemployment, labor activists struggle to find unity as organizations jostle for representation in the fractious post-Mubarak political landscape. Meanwhile, reactionary political forces and state violence have narrowed the public sphere for dissent.

Yet new pro-labor coalitions are emerging–across sectors, political communities, and even national boundaries (though collaboration with international civic groups remains intensely controversial). In areport on a recent Egyptian trade union conference, Ben Moxham of the UK-based Trades Union Congress observed promising diversity among the participants, including women and rural workers:

What impressed me greatly is that these folks aren’t waiting for some legislative silver bullet to deliver a union movement to them. They are going out there and making it under laws that haven’t changed since Hosni Mubarak owned the country.

Kamal Abbas, leader of the advocacy group Center for Trade Union and Workers Services, reflected with cautious optimism on the prospects for strengthening independent unions and worker-led movements in June 2011 interview with Toward Freedom: “The challenge now that the revolution has succeeded is to be able to build a society of social justice.”

Months later, that vision is shadowed by a creeping sense of frustration and futility, especially among struggling communities that, for now, are more focused on survival than on political ideals. Egyptians haven’t given up on their revolution, but to bring people back to Tahrir Square, labor and activist groups need to rekindle faded solidarity on the ground level, before the counter-revolution stamps out its last embers.

This blog post originally appeared in Working in These Times on February 24, 2012. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michelle Chen is a contributing editor at In These Times. She is a regular contributor to the labor rights blog Working In These TimesColorlines.com, and Pacifica’s WBAI. Her work has also appeared in The Nation, Alternet, Ms. Magazine, Newsday, and her old zine, cain. Follow her on Twitter at @meeshellchen or reach her at michellechen@inthesetimes.com

Time to Wield the Foreign Policy Stick

Wednesday, January 26th, 2011

Leo GerardAmerica plays the role of abused partner in its relationship with China. Although the Asian giant repeatedly injures U.S. industry by violating international trade rules, America has responded, almost exclusively, by pleading and begging for China to stop.

China says it’s sorry. And continues to violate the rules. America respectfully beseeches China to discontinue manipulating its currency, and China says it will. Then it allows the value to increase a completely insignificant amount. Still America does nothing. Nothing. It simply accepts the abuse.

U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., and Michael Williams, senior vice president of U.S. Steel stood with me Wednesday at a press conference in Pittsburgh to urge President Obama in his meetings this week with Chinese President Hu Jintao to announce that America is done with soft talk. We want President Obama to tell President Hu that America has heard enough promises; the United States is bucking up and pulling out that big stick that Teddy Roosevelt carried in foreign policy negotiations.

This is a rare issue on which politicians, Republican and Democrat, manufacturers and organized labor all agree. Here’s what Sen. Casey said at the press conference, “In my estimation, and that of a lot of Americans, the time for talking is over. The time for action is now.” He, Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., plan to introduce legislation next week to force the federal government to hold China accountable, to enforce compliance with World Trade Organization (WTO) rules – rules that China agreed to comply with when WTO countries permitted it to join even though it is a non-market economy.

Mr. Williams described the effect of China’s unchallenged trade practices on American steel production:

“Our facilities in Pennsylvania and throughout the United States are among the most advanced in the world:

  • We make the highest quality steel for the most demanding applications;
  • Our technology is world competitive; and
  • Our workers are second to none in skill and know-how.

However, the more than 21,000 U.S. Steel employees nationwide, and the more than 4,700 employees here in Pennsylvania, know all too well that we do not always operate in a fair global marketplace. Instead, we are often faced with the reality of a distorted market – a market where we have to compete against job-stealing dumped and subsidized imports from countries that abuse the rules to gain a false competitive advantage.

No country more than China hurts all American manufacturing by the way it artificially undervalues its currency – making its exports artificially cheap and making competitive imports from the U.S. and elsewhere artificially expensive.”

Here are the facts: American industries have found that they can produce products, ship them to China and price them lower than Chinese competitors. But all too often, China prohibits sale of the American-made products on the mainland.

Sen. Casey gave an example, C.F. Martin & Co., which manufacturers its world-famous guitars in Eastern Pennsylvania. Martin tried to register its mark to sell its instruments in China. But it has been unable to do that because a Chinese manufacturer already registered the mark and is counterfeiting the guitars. “To say it is unlawful does not begin to describe the gravity of it,” the senator said.

In addition to countenancing counterfeiting, China provides illegal subsidies to its export industries, violates international regulations forbidding forced technology transfer when American companies seek to manufacture in China and deliberately undervalues its currency to falsely lower the price of its exports.

When Mr. Williams, Sen. Casey and I all said this must be stopped with enforcement of international regulations, someone in the audience asked if that would prompt a dreaded trade war. That won’t happen because we already are in a trade war. The United States simply is not fighting back. We are playing the passive partner in a perverted relationship, repeatedly allowing the abuser to pound us.

Mr. Williams said it best:

“U.S. Steel wants a strong America. To have a strong America, we need a strong manufacturing base. To have a strong manufacturing base, we need strong enforcement of international trade regulations.”

Sen. Casey agreed, “Our government must take every step necessary. It is not enough to say to the unemployed, ‘We are trying and we are asking.’”

Wield the stick, President Obama.

About The Author: Leo Gerard is the United Steelworkers International President. Under his leadership, the USW joined with Unite -the biggest union in the UK and Republic of Ireland – to create Workers Uniting, the first global union. He has also helped pass legislation, including the landmark Canadian Westray Bill, making corporations criminally liable when they kill or seriously injure their employees or members of the public.

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