On the morning of January 30 in 2007, two buses arrived from Mahalla to Cairo’s Shoubra district, parking a block away from the headquarters of the General Union of Textile Workers.
The bus was carrying around 200 workers from the Misr Spinning and Weaving Co — the largest textile mill in the Middle East — armed with stacks of documents, talking nervously on their mobile phones and assuring their colleagues back in the Nile Delta they had made it to the capital safely.
Minutes later the workers were inside the building hall, slamming their state-backed union officials and demanding that the impeachment of their local union members, for not backing the strike action the month before.
The strike leaders were a diverse group. Some were seasoned activists, others led by Kamal el-Fayoumi, were more vocal and militant and, surprisingly for some, their political CVs were almost blank. No membership of political parties, little if any record of organizing industrial actions.
Fayoumi and those around him stayed silent for the first hour, hardly making a contribution to the ongoing verbal badminton. That was until Said el-Gohari, NDP member and the head of the state-backed General Union, sneered the workers’ demands, saying they had no right to ask for any since their company was “not generating profits anymore.”
Fayoumi jumped off his chair and pointed at the union officials, shouting: “I’m a worker! You give me a production plan every year, and I implement it. It’s not my business what I produced later gets marketed or not. This is the management’s responsibility not mine!”
It was the beginning of a series of memorable events, for which he became famous. And it was the fight that he and his friends started on that day that would go on to inspire other workers, with a domino effect, to establish the country’s first independent trade union in half a century just two winters later.
Fayoumi, or ‘Sheikh Kamal,’ joined the electrical power supply station of the textile flagship “Ghazl el-Mahalla,” at 18, after finishing his technical high schooling, for a basic monthly salary of LE38 that went up to LE87 with the bonuses and allowances.
“I didn’t want to work there,” he recalled. “I wanted to leave for Iraq.”
This was February 1984. Already an ongoing war between Saddam’s Iraq and the new Khomeini-led regime in Iran meant a drastic increase in the demand for foreign labor in Iraq to fill the vacuum created by the military conscription. Egypt was a premium supply source. “Everyone in Mahalla left,” Fayoumi says. “The factory and the town I swear were being emptied from its men. The salaries were low here. You had no choice but leaving to find money elsewhere. I tried to leave too, but my father insisted I stayed and found me a job at the factory, which was easy then because there were no workers in town.”
Fayoumi proudly mentions that his father was also a worker, dedicating 48 years of his life to service at the company. “But he joined during the time of the English,” he reflects. “It was different than today. He was 12 years old.”
But it might not be that different after all. Fayoumi’s father joined Ghazl el-Mahalla in 1946. The country was witnessing then a wave of mass strikes over work conditions and political demands related to independence from Britain.
The following year Ghazl el-Mahalla witnessed its first major clashes on the factory floor, with workers going on strike to protest against the sacking of colleagues in a dispute over work conditions. Police cracked down, killing three workers. The story of this strike was narrated by Fayoumi’s father to him and his three brothers and four sisters.
Fayoumi’s first taste of industrial action was in 1988, as the factory went on strike protesting the scrapping of annual grant given to workers in the fall to help pay the schooling of their children.
"I took part like any other worker," he says. "I went outside my section to find the workers carrying a coffin, with Mubarak’s poster on it, and chanting against the government. You wouldn’t have heard anything about it then outside Mahalla. No newspapers would publish photos of that, and you didn’t have internet.”
Although the workers won the strike, the factory was about to face its worst years to date. In 1992, the Egyptian government started the Economic Reforms and Structural Adjustment Program, under the sponsorship of the World Bank and IMF. Social spending was reduced and public sector companies were put on sale for privatization. The textile sector was hit strongly. From roughly half a million workers in 1990 the number was slashed to the half by the beginning of the new millennium.
“We had more than 35,000 workers in the (Ghazl el-Mahalla) factory, now they are less than 27,000,” Fayoumi says. “There were no promotions. The salaries were not moving upwards, but prices were.”
After 25 years of service, Fayoumi’s basic salary as a skilled worker stands at LE 500, amounting to LE950 with the allowances and bonuses. Still, he’s considered relatively more fortunate to some of his colleagues, for example who worked for 23 years with half of Fayoumi’s salary.
The decimation of the textile sector was coupled with a period of downturn for the labor movement in the 1990’s. Strikes were few, and some were met with live ammunition, as was the tragic case at the Kafr el-Dawwar branch of the Misr Spinning and Weaving Co in 1994, resulting in three deaths.
And it was no different in Mahalla. "There was so much repression,” Fayoumi says. “State Security used to summon and detain people whenever anything happened or seemed about to happen. Others would be transferred to the other provinces away from their families. The board chairmen ran the company like their own farm.”
The rise of the anti-Mubarak coalition, Kefaya, in 2004 failed to have a direct impact on Fayoumi and his colleagues in Mahalla. Although it claimed branches and offshoots in the provinces, the movement remained largely Cairene and middle class.
But in the age of satellite channels, mushrooming independent press and online media, the images of Kefaya’s protests, where they took on the president and his family directly—for long a big taboo in Egypt’s political life—made it to the TV screens and newsstands in Mahalla and elsewhere, raising some eyebrows.
“We heard of the demonstrations in Cairo,” Fayoumi comments, speaking of the 2005-6 Kefaya pro-democracy protests. “We didn’t have Kefaya activists in the factory, but seeing and hearing about those protests were motivating.”
Motivated enough by the political milieu in the country, coupled with government unfulfilled promise to pay the workers a two month bonus in December 2006 to help them cope with the increasing prices of basic commodities, the textile mill went on strike 7 December 2006. “The women began it,” he says. “They marched saying ‘where are the men? Here we are the women!’ Many men were ashamed they weren’t doing anything and joined the strike. I was among them. No one instructed me to do anything. I felt it was the right thing to do. We have had enough.”
The power station that he works at supplies the factory and part of the city with electricity. It was quickly decided among the spontaneous strike leadership that the power station had to continue working, or else the factory occupation and the city would go into darkness. He was assigned the responsibility and many humorously commented later about how the most militant “strike” leader made sure his section was “not striking.”
After three days, the strike was suspended after the state-run management submitted to raised demands.
“The workers felt their victory,” Fayoumi remarks. “We felt we could do anything afterwards.” The same feeling, it turned out, was shared by other blue-collar workers. Egypt embraced a “winter of labor discontent,” with virtually all textile mills in the Nile Delta and Alexandria striking over similar demands. Inspired by Mahalla, the cement mills went on strike, followed by the railways, garbage collectors, hospital workers, bus and metro drivers, teachers, professors.
Mahalla itself was to embrace another strike in Sept 2007 over bonus, with Fayoumi and his brethren increasingly forging ties that in effect meant an unofficial labor union that took the task of running the daily affairs of the strike and negotiating with the government officials.
The strike, which broke out in Ramadan, ended in another victory after 11 days. But the continuous mobilization on the factory floor against a state-run management meant bread and butter issues were increasingly getting “political.” The experiences of the strikers were politicizing a considerable section, including the strike leaders themselves who did not necessarily start out on an anti-government platform.
“I sometimes felt I was dreaming,” Fayoumi recalls. “Seeing all those people together chanting makes the biggest elephant shake. We received messages of solidarity from workers in Europe and America. The workers said ‘we are not alone,’ and this helped give us more courage."
The workers scored another success by forcing the government to sack its appointed CEO, yet they still failed to impeach their local state-backed union men. But slowly a network was emerging around Fayoumi, came to be known as the “Textile Workers’ League,” which started a campaign of leafleting in the factories demanding raising the national minimum wage to LE1200 and the freedom to unionize. The League mobilized a twenty thousand strong protest in February 2008, and announced a strike on 6 April to push for the same demands. The police aborted the strike. Fayoumi and other members of the league were kidnapped by the security services, but the town erupted in riots for two days.
His first prison experience, Fayoumi says, only politicized him further and hardened his views regarding the government. His time in Bourg el-Arab prison was spent reading newspapers and whatever literature he could get his hands on. Later following his release, Fayoumi’s political scope transcended the boundaries of his factory, town and even country. He was among the campaigners attempting to break the Gaza siege who were rounded up briefly by the police in October last year. “In Palestine or in Egypt, it’s the same,” he says. “They are occupied and we are occupied here. If we can help the Palestinians we should do that.”
Kamal’s crusade for a free union and national minimum wage continues. But, ironically, the first independent trade union in the history of the country was declared 20 December 2008 by the property tax collectors, who had previous gone on strike the year before, occupying downtown Cairo.
“The Mahalla workers taught us how to strike,” said the president of the tax collectors’ free union Kamal Abu Eita at a Giza meeting, at which Kamal Fayoumi and his colleagues were present. “They also showed us the way forward when issued their calls for independent unions. We owe you a lot,” Abu Eita continued, pointing at Kamal and his comrades. “And we are gathered today to see how we can pay you back all those favors.”
Fayoumi, Abu Eita, and other strike leaders in the industrial sector and civil service now meet regularly, to coordinate, exchange ideas and experiences.
“We hope our attempts will evolve into a national association, but first we must win in Mahalla,” Kamal said. “The independent union will not be born except by another successful strike.”