Kraft Foods has spread its syrupy slogan, “Make Today Delicious,” around the globe. But today in North Africa, bitter labor struggles at Kraft-affiliated plants in two hotbeds of the Arab Spring reveal that political revolt has failed to overturn the rotten dominion of multinationals.
Workers for Kraft-affiliated plants in both Tunisia and Egypt have charged that workers have faced crackdowns for trying to organize independently. According to the Geneva-basedInternational Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers’ Associations (IUF), which represents millions of workers and hundreds of unions worldwide, the nascent Egyptian and Tunisian labor movements face the old challenges of economic and political oppression, as well as the new challenges of post-revolutionary social tumult.
At an Alexandria factory that came under Kraft’s control with the takeover of Cadbury, IUF reported this week, “Kraft has sacked five members of the board of the newly created independent union… following a protest over the non-payment of a government-decreed social allowance.” According to IUF, in order to squelch the union (which is supported by IUF and has enrolled most of the plant’s 300 workers) the company flouted both the social allowance policy and basic labor rights, and tried to justify its move by alleging the sacked members had “caused loss to the company by having instigated the protest.”
In its press statement the IUF added that in militating against the union, the plant’s management sought “to intimidate the workers and remove those who would fight for their rights and to eliminate the union.”
Similar intimidation tactics seem to be at play in Tunisia, another nation in which the Arab Spring generated political transition without fundamentally addressing structural inequality. At a large biscuit factory, Société Tunisienne de Biscuits, of which Kraft owns a 49 percent stake, IUF reported last month that workers have clashed with management in tense contract negotiations, particularly over temp contracts used in place of formal regular employment, and general assaults on union rights. After convening a meeting with union members, the local union’s General Secretary Zed Naloufi was, according to IUF, “disciplined and summarily dismissed. His crime? Representing and meeting the members who elected him!”
Workers initiated a three-day strike in July after the dismissal of a union leader, and IUF communications director Peter Rossman tells Working In These Times that since then, “a second union representative at the factory was dismissed, and the management has initiated disciplinary proceedings against a third.” As the situation deteriorates, the union warns of a potential five-day strike in the coming weeks.
(Kraft’s bullying isn’t limited to North Africa, of course. Earlier this year, a Kraft facility in Allentown, Penn., famous for churning out Grey Poupon, has reportedly spewed union-busting venom to smother organizing efforts by an IUF affiliate. Activists say the management has roped workers into “captive anti-union meetings” to propagandize about the dangers of Big Labor.)
The labor conflicts in Egypt and Tunisia are unfolding in different political climates. In Egypt, independent labor activists are just starting to emerge after years of oppression by the Mubarak regime, which ran its own labor apparatus, the Egyptian Trade Union Federation. Labor unrest spiked after Tahrir Square exploded, fueling the fire of pro-democracy uprisings and bringing the Center for Trade Union and Worker Services to the helm of the fight for workers’ freedom of association amid brutal government suppression.
Rossman says, “At Kraft Egypt and elsewhere in Egypt, the fight is for legal recognition of the independent unions and an environment in which they can genuinely function as workers’ representatives and negotiate on their behalf. That brings them into conflict with just about all forces.” IUF says it is trying to offer advice and solidarity to local activists struggling to organize an emergent independent labor movement.
Meanwhle, in post-Ben Ali Tunisia, Rossman says the major trade union confederation, UGTT, as one of the country’s only effective mass organizations, has encountered “hostility from the Islamists, from the very active survivors of the old regime, and from businesses,” which previously operated in complicity with the Ben Ali power structure. Behind the biscuit factory battle is a backdrop of roiling social unrest under the new coalition government. The UGTT recently helped organize a general strike, demanding both political and economic change, in Sidi Bouzid, the city where the first Arab Spring protests flared up.
But beyond the workplace conflicts, Tunisian and Egyptian labor activism faces the overarching challenge of persistent economic hardship and corruption, as well as the neoliberal forces in the region stoked by deep domestic political divisions and multinational capital.
Meanwhile, as social instability continues to plague the Tunisian and Egyptian workers, the sweet promise of the Arab Spring is quickly curdling. Kraft’s role in the latest crackdowns reveals that in global economic terms, neither equity nor democracy has really come to the workers who should have gained the most from revolution.