Up with Friction
On the first anniversary of the January 25 revolution in Egypt, it is right and meet to shine light upon a figure who is shadowy and obscure in mainstream retrospectives: the striking worker.
The revolution was not born of strikes, and organized labor was one face in the crowd during the triumphal 18 days of Tahrir Square’s mass occupation. By the same token, the revolution cannot be separated from the preceding decade of upsurge in street-level activism of all kinds, particularly the 13-year strike wave -- as Joel Beinin wrote already in 2007, “the longest and strongest since World War II” -- that began in 1998 and continues to this day. Starting in classically blue-collar locales like the mill town of Mahalla al-Kubra, the work stoppages spread throughout the country and across job classifications, expanding the usual definition of “worker” and helping to forge, in mindset and motility, the unified people that demanded the fall of the regime.
Labor militancy has also been a wellspring of international solidarity with the Egyptian uprising, with state employees in Wisconsin, for example, comparing their union-busting governor to Husni Mubarak and clearly drawing inspiration from Tahrir Square. Kamal ‘Abbas, one of two labor activists who had accepted the AFL-CIO’s 2009 Meany-Kirkland Human Rights Award on behalf of Egyptian workers, famously responded with a video tribute: “Today is the day of the American worker, as yesterday was the day of the Egyptian worker.”
One year on, Wisconsin’s struggle continues, though it is not the prominent national story it should be. The Occupy movement has supplanted it as the left-populist effort in the wavering media spotlight. Meanwhile, even as the evening news relays bird-doggers’ heckling of Mitt Romney for being a 1 percenter, the corporate media seems to have somewhat succeeded in portraying the Occupiers in the same old culture war terms: as entitled middle-class kids bedazzled by alternative this-and-that and fatally out of place in the heartland (not to mention home for the winter). There is a stratum of Occupy that facilitates this libel with faux radical anti-union thinking that, in some places, has led to debilitating bickering.
Whence the apathy toward (or even antipathy for) organized workers? In his terrific essay in the new issue of Jacobin, Seth Ackerman notes: “In the public mind, union ‘activism’ in recent years has been associated with images of defeat.” And no wonder: The print version of Ackerman’s piece contains a nifty, though sobering graphic depiction of the precipitous decline in strikes from the early twentieth century to the present. There are peaks and valleys on the chart until the early 1970s, at which point the bottom falls out. The timing is no accident, of course: The end of the long post-war boom saw the job market grow tighter, real wages stagnate and manufacturing begin to move overseas. Capital also felt freer to use the harshest union-busting tactics permitted by the skewed New Deal labor legislation. Under sustained assault, and defended less and less by the Democratic Party, union leaders had meanwhile internalized a great deal of the industrial peace model whereby the interests of management and labor were conceived as fundamentally in concert, especially vis-a-vis the specter of foreign competition, and also the management view that labor is a commodity.
Egypt’s tale is very different and, at least at this historical moment, seems a bit more encouraging.
In the 1950s, private firms like Shell Oil tried to import the industrial peace model to Egypt, sending their Egyptian managers to the US and publishing paeans to frictionless American production in the company magazine. But, with Nasser’s nationalizations, the great majority of Egyptian workers were employed in the public sector. There, as per Nasser’s corporatist model, workers were cast as builders of the nation, a key role in Egypt’s all-consuming collective project they occupied alongside peasants, white-collar employees and other social groups. The state, it was understood, owed these people something for their service to the nation. The big downside was that unions were absorbed by the state, with strikes essentially outlawed; the modest upside was that workers could mobilize the state’s rhetoric against it, via what Marsha Pripstein Posusney called the “moral economy,” in order to achieve material gains. And workers never abandoned the wildcat strike when suasion failed them.
The corporatist model has been justly lambasted as a means of coopting workers, criminalizing dissent and strangling democratic aspirations in Egypt. In light of the 2011 uprising, however, it seems clear that elements of it helped bring the state to its knees. First, and despite the marked erosion of the “moral economy” through neoliberal reforms, its residual effects helped workers to win major victories in Mahalla al-Kubra and elsewhere. There have been numerous defeats, but the overall image is not one of defeat. Second, and more important, generations of Egyptians have been educated to believe that workers are builders of the nation owed a debt by the state. If so many workers were dissatisfied to the point of risking jail or worse through wildcat strikes, as from 1998 onward, then something was grievously wrong in Egypt -- and, crucially, with the Egyptian state.
The drumbeat of counterattacks on striking workers in Egypt, identified by Hesham Sallam and others as the fi’awi discourse, draws upon the nationalist themes of the corporatist model. Strikers are labeled as troublemakers placing their own evanescent wants above the urgent needs of the nation. Yet, in the neoliberal era, the fi’awi discourse also evokes the globalization of the sensibility whereby labor is a commodity and everyone must be flexible so as not to ossify. Middle-class Americans not only expect to hold multiple jobs and even pursue multiple careers in their working lives, but increasingly regard these dislocating post-Fordist realities through the lens of personal empowerment. (In Jacobin, Ackerman explains how radicals can wind up advancing a version of the same outlook.)
One hopes that Egypt can stay Egypt in this respect (while dispensing with the nationalist claptrap, of course). Meanwhile, strikes are ongoing, as is the formation of independent unions. On the first anniversary of the January 25 revolution comes news that water and sanitation workers in Asyout concluded their sit-in, having faced down threats of violence and scored hikes in incentive pay and more benefits -- plus a pledge from the governor to remove the general who runs their company.
Such successful job actions are little replicas of Tahrir Square that, one year on, help allow the tantalizing thought that the glass is half-full.