Almost a thousand new unions independent of ETUF have been established since the January 25, 2011 uprising against the Mubarak regime. Many of them have joined one of the two new union federations—the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions or the Egyptian Democratic Labor Congress. The federations and many of their constituent unions are weak in resources and organizational capacity—in part because Egypt had no experience with democratic trade unionism between the early 1950s and 2011. However, the existence of these federations and the high-profile struggles of many of their affiliated unions—municipal real estate tax assessors; Cairo bus and Metro workers; teachers; iron, steel, and ceramics workers; Ain Sokhna port workers—have put the demands for democratic trade unionism, workers freedom of association, and the right to bargain collectively on the political agenda. The International Labor Organization and the International Trade Union Confederation have supported these goals. Yet Egypt routinely flouts ILO conventions affirming these principles that it ratified long ago. (...)
In the arena of trade unionism and labor relations—as in the broader political and economic arena—Egypt’s future is uncertain. Industrial workers comprise one of the sectors that solidly, but certainly not unanimously, opposed the new constitution. In addition, large numbers of previously unpoliticized “couch potatoes” participated in militant demonstrations against Morsi’s November 22 decree and the proposed constitution.
Workers have not been a strong factor in the post-Mubarak national political arena. Some components of the National Salvation Front (NSF) formed to oppose the constitution claim to represent workers’ interests. But its leading figures have done little to build grassroots support among workers. Many NSF supporters hope the front will contest the upcoming parliamentary elections as a unified bloc. This could create a different balance of forces than in the overwhelmingly Islamist first post-Mubarak parliament. In that case, the contest over Egypt’s future would take place in the parliament as well as in streets and workplaces. If not, streets and workplaces will continue as they have for the past two years.