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Women Unionists of the Arab Spring Battle Two Foes: Sexism and Neoliberalism

8:39 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Originally posted at In These Times

(Public Services International via Facebook)

This year’s World Social Forum, a transnational gathering of social activists, took place in Tunis, a city bubbling with unrest as it struggles to shake off a legacy of authoritarian rule while navigating tensions over women’s rights, labor and nationalism. At the gates of the gathering last week, these faultlines became starkly apparent when a caravan of trade unionists and rights advocates found themselves unexpectedly blockaded. Border police, under official orders, refused entry to a delegation of 96 Algerian activists that included members of the embattled union SNAPAP, known for its militancy and inclusion of women as leaders and front-line protesters.

That feminist-oriented trade unionists figured prominently in the incident is not surprising: In the wake of the Arab Spring, women in labor movements are situated at the crux of two very different, but interrelated battles. At the same time that they are resisting the traditional patriarchal governance of their communities and workplaces, they also push back against the “modernizing” forces of Western-style, pro-corporate neoliberal economic policy, and gradually opening new spaces for social emancipation. By operating within a traditionally male-dominated space, trade unions enable women to assert their agency as activists, simultaneously challenging their general marginalization from the political sphere and the typical Western media portrayal of women as silent victims of culturally ingrained oppression.

In advance of the World Social Forum, women labor activists came together in Tunis on March 23-24 for a leadership conference coordinated by the Public Services International union federation. The event brought women from Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Kuwait and Palestine, along with fellow unionists from Belgium, Canada and Sweden, to discuss the possibilities and perils wrought by the Arab Spring.

The situation of women trade unionists in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) isn’t altogether different from the historical gender-equality struggles within labor movements in Western industrialized nations, in which women were initially marginalized but have incrementally moved up in the union ranks. But women’s labor struggles in MENA are complicated by growing rifts between Islamist and liberal secular political forces that have engulfed the region since the outbreak of the Arab Spring.

In the political movements convulsing the region, gender-justice struggles have often been sidelined or even undermined. In Egypt and Tunisia, the initial wave of pro-democracy protest has yielded to a wave of Islamist-inspired reaction that troubles many leftists and feminists. Though the Arab Spring has scrambled many of MENA’s traditional political alliances, secular leftists and socialists have been increasingly marginalized amid the rise of hardline Islamist factions.

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Kraft Foods Bites Into Labor Struggles in Tunisia and Egypt

1:41 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Originally posted on In These Times

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. Read the rest of this entry →

U.N. Strike Shows Convergence of Labor and Middle East Politics

1:24 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Cross-posted from In These Times

In the Kingdom of Jordan, conflict erupted in the Palestinian refugee community, but it’s not the kind of unrest you might expect in a society of survivors of war. The protesters were employees of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA). They launched a strike to press for fairer wages and working conditions, which led to a sit-in at the agency’s Amman headquarters and affected a workforce of about 7,000 that provides health, education and social services to a Palestinian refugee population of about 1.5 million. The dispute was apparently just settled, following “mediation” by the Jordanian government, with a deal for a pay raise of about $70 (USD).

"Welcome," reads the artwork scrawled on the wall outside of an UNRWA girls school at the Jerash Palestinian Refugee Camp in Jordan. (Photo by Omar Chatriwala via Flickr)

The local press reported earlier that the representatives of UNRWA workers’ councils had issued further demands, including “promotions for teachers, directors and supervisors and the filling of vacancies in all the agency’s sectors, as well as the improvement of UNRWA employees’ work conditions.”

In a way, this was a classic labor conflict between a public agency and workers in a relatively poor country. But UNRWA is a unique international bureaucracy, with a global budget crisis intertwined with the politics of the conflict-ridden regions it serves.

UNRWA in Jordan faced a similar strike over pay rates in 2008. In Gaza last fall, the agency was besieged by calls for a general strike by the Local Staff Union of UNRWA in Gaza City. More than 240 schools in Gaza were affected by protests against the  suspected politically motivated suspension of union head Suhail Al-Hindi. Teachers were among the most vocal protesters:

Hamas sources said the UN agency had accused Hindi of meeting with Hamas political officials.

Buses took some 7,000 teachers employed at UNRWA-run schools to UN headquarters in Gaza city where they held a sit-in, calling for an end to “UNRWA political punishment of employees.”

“Death rather than humiliation” read a banner held by striking teachers. “Deception, lying and hypocrisy have become the core values of UNRWA,” read another.

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Workers Hold Key to Reigniting Egypt’s Revolution

3:42 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Photo: Revolutionary Socialists (http://www.e-socialists.net/)

Cross-posted from In These Times

To 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. Read the rest of this entry →

In Year of Uprisings, Reporters Brave Crackdowns from Wall St. to Tahrir Square

6:40 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

(Photo: shortstackblog)

Cross-posted from In These Times.

You wouldn’t think handling a notebook or a camera could be a hazardous line of work. But according to the latest global Press Freedom Index, abuse and oppression of reporters has made journalism an increasingly risky job in many countries. The past year has even left a notable taint on the U.S. press, despite the country’s mythos as a beacon of free expression.

While the United States certainly hasn’t descended into the ranks of the most oppressive regimes, the watchdog group Reporters without Borders observes that in 2011 the political barriers and outright attacks facing reporters had led to a steep drop in the rankings—27 places down, to number 47:

In the space of two months in the United States, more than 25 [journalists] were subjected to arrests and beatings at the hands of police who were quick to issue indictments for inappropriate behaviour, public nuisance or even lack of accreditation.

The most high-profile violations of press freedom took place during the Occupy protests, as reporters were abused by police and otherwise stonewalled by authorities.

Ever-faithful to his 1% cronies, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg moved swiftly to restrict press coverage of Occupy Wall Street actions, barring journalists from Zuoccotti Park. Authorities justified the “media blackout” by insisting that the purpose was “to prevent a situation from getting worse and to protect members of the press.” The safety assurances presumably weren’t much comfort to the many reporters who got roughed up and arrested while trying to do their jobs.

But as usual, the crackdowns only challenged activists to push back more fiercely as digital images and reports of police brutality and oppression went viral. And much of the heavy lifting was accomplished by a deft, if somewhat chaotic, grassroots media sphere.

Josh Stearns at Free Press tracked dozens of arrests across several Occupy cities through Twitter dispatches.

From cartoonist and journalist Susie Cagle (an occasional contributor to this website), who was arrested during the Occupy Oakland strike actions and “held for over 14 hours”: Read the rest of this entry →

Health Workers Deliver First Aid to Protest Movements

6:18 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Tahrir field hospital. (Kamal El Tawil via TwitPic)

Cross-posted from In These Times.

Warning: Defending your rights may be hazardous to your health. Potential side effects can include rubber bullets, tear gas, and batons wielded with impunity.

The recent uprisings around the world illustrate the physical risks involved in intense street protests. At the same time, movements are also discovering the connection between health and activism in another way, through medical workers joining the front lines to deploy their skills and their conviction.

Amid the brutal clashes with security forces at Tahrir Square, barebones field hospitals have held the line, thanks to a grassroots network of Tahrir doctors. One volunteer, Ahmed Adel, who has been aiding wounded protesters since January, told Ahram Online, “Treating the injured protesters here again makes me feel the revolution is about to be completed.”

But hospitals are by no means safe havens. Mohamed Fatouh, a leader of Tahrir Doctors, told the LA Times, “The people are refusing to go to the ambulances because they think they go to the general hospitals, and from there they go to the police.” Read the rest of this entry →

Labor Draws New Battle Lines on Iraq and Iran Oil Fields

3:29 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Image courtesy US Labor Against the War

Cross-posted from In These Times

The Middle East’s two key exports these days seem terribly at odds with each other: oil, the lifeblood of the global economic order, and political unrest, in the form of protest movements rolling across the region. Occasionally, though, oil and dissent can mix, and workers may be channeling a bit of the Arab Spring into the petrol empires of Iraq and Iran.

A few weeks ago, the Federation of Workers Councils Unions of Iraq reported on unrest in the Kurdistan region, involving 174 workers of the Taq Taq Oil Operation Company. The conflict, according to the International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers’ Unions site, centers on charges of “a complete lack of equality for Kurdish workers” as well as fundamental abuses at the heart of the oil economy: Read the rest of this entry →

From Cairo to New York, Which Side Are Police On?

2:26 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Cross-posted from In These Times:

[Ed. Note - Photo removed. It isn't permitted to use AFP/Getty images here unless one furnishes the license/agreement to use such an image. ]

As the Arab Spring enters a tense autumn chill, Tahrir Square remains a fiery political battleground, where struggles between the people and the state constantly churn and redefinine themselves. When police officers went on strike in October, they raised hard questions about the position of the public sector in the struggle against counterrevolution.

Thousands of Egypt’s police, though tarnished by the shameful violence deployed by security forces during the January 25 uprising, are now staging their own revolt. Meanwhile, the military brass, initially lauded in the early days of the revolution when it refrained from crushing demonstrators on behalf of Mubarak’s dictatorship, have become the target of public vitriol. The chaos—part of a continual wave of strikes, demonstrations and crackdowns—illustrates the people’s growing bitterness at the hijacking of their revolution by a reactionary junta.

So are the cops defecting to join the rabble? The momentum comes from struggling rank-and-file officers who actively distance themselves from the corrupt interim regime and notoriously cruel Interior Ministry. Alongside basic bread-and-butter grievances about wages and working conditions—the crux of all the strikes that have rocked the country this year—there are calls for an internal overhaul to restore the integrity and credibility of the institution. Read the rest of this entry →

Will the Arab Spring Leave Migrants Out in the Cold?

1:17 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Despite some reform efforts in Arab nations, South Asian migrant workers often suffer brutal abuse. (Image courtesy Bahrain Center for Human Rights)

Cross-posted from In These Times:

The uprisings of the “Arab Spring” have been by turns inspiring, frustrating and tragic for activists around the globe. And they are still horribly incomplete—not just because the emerging revolutions have been in many cases squelched by authoritarian regimes, but because the movements for freedom and justice have left out whole swaths of the affected populations. While citizens push for their rights and have broken into the foreground of the Western media, the throngs of migrants who fuel the regional economy continue to face their own struggles against abuse and impunity, mostly ignored inside and outside their adopted communities.

Earlier this month, Saudi Arabia executed eight Bangaldeshi migrant workers, convicted of killing of an Egyptian man. After the public beheadings, advocates globally denounced the trial (reportedly based on a violent workplace dispute in 2007) as a sham. Executions are up sharply in Saudi Arabia this year, reports Amnesty International, and 20 of the roughly 58 have involved immigrants.

An Indonesian maid met a similar fate in June, as did a Sudanese man last month (on allegations of witchcraft). The reports suggest that state violence against migrants shares the cruel mechanics of much more public government crackdowns on street demonstrations.

Calling for a moratorium on executions in Saudi Arabia, Amnesty notes that aside from the general barbarity of the practice, migrant defendants have no access to legal counsel or language translation, and “In many cases they are not informed of the progress of legal proceedings against them.”

So is the push for more democratic government in the Arab world going to change the plight of migrants, who in many ways have even fewer rights than citizens? Read the rest of this entry →

As U.N. Debates Palestinian Statehood, Palestinian People Still Ignored

8:33 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

US Palestinian Community Network

Cross-posted from Colorlines.com

Depending on which part of the world you occupy, the United Nations is either a well-meaning but inept political body, or a place where humanitarian ideals go to die. Either way, this week’s General Assembly gathering has revealed that the U.N.’s founding principles often ring hollow in the cavernous hall where officials convene to talk about the world’s problems—and do as little as possible to fix them. Still, this year could be a pivot point for one of the most intractable conflicts on the world stage.

In an unprecedented political gambit, the Palestinian Authority has sought full United Nations recognition and membership as a state. The Palestinians are, essentially, trying to use the same mechanism that established Israel back in 1947. Their own statehood bid, which could have not only symbolic but also legal implications for Palestine’s international standing, has support in the majority of the General Assembly.

It is nonetheless dead on arrival, since the U.S., as a member of the Security Council, has vowed to veto the measure if it comes up for a vote. The Obama administration is reportedly working frantically to convince Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas not to go through with plans to formally submit the request after his speech today. Israel has warned (with both diplomatic and military threats) that approving the bid would fatally disrupt the already moribund “peace process.”

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