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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 →

Why a Growing Movement of Young People Could Ignite a Workers’ Revolution

9:21 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen


The following is an excerpt from a longer essay, ‘What Labor Looks Like: From Wisconsin to Cairo, Youth Hold a Mirror to History of Workers’ Struggles,’ written for the new book, Labor Rising: The Past and Future of Working People in America (The New Press), edited by Daniel Katz and Richard A. Greenwald. Reprinted here with permission.

Every revolution needs two essential ingredients: young people, who are willing to dream, and poor people, who have nothing to lose. Yet the social forces that make movements strong also incline them toward self-destruction. Hence, over the past few decades, uneasy intergenerational alliances have melted away as impatient young radicals bridle against the old guard of incumbent left movements. At the same time, when it comes to organizing, without patronizing, poor folks, activists continually struggle just to find the right language to talk about systemic poverty in a sanitized political arena that has largely been wrung dry of real class consciousness.

Today, of course, activists tend to speak eagerly about reaching out to “the youth,” or of overcoming cultural rifts between middle class professional organizers and the workers they seek to transform into the next vanguard. But the activism stemming from the recent economic crisis proves not only that the left could use some serious tactical upgrading and fresh blood, but also that movements cannot overturn entrenched social fault lines by sheer force of will. Like any embattled community that needs to rebuild, shepherding activism into the next generation requires that established organizers learn how to retire gracefully, that those moving onto the front lines learn how to temper urgency with patience—and that all sides recognize that there are things they don’t know.

In Wisconsin in February 2011, no one knew what would happen as they gathered at the state capitol. A few picket signs, a megaphone or two, maybe a well-orchestrated sit-in until getting politely marched off by cops. But soon, the optics defied just about everyone’s expectations. Middle-aged school teachers might have done a double take when they saw teenagers detour from their weekly mall trips to join the picket lines; sanitation workers who traveled to the statehouse with their union colleagues probably didn’t anticipate marching alongside young Hmong community activists. The biggest surprise about turnout was the very absence of a defining image: there was no single movement or ideological agenda, no figurehead at the helm of the crowd. The only message emanating from the masses during those days was simply “No.” No to a draconian piece of legislation that threatened a basic labor right that many workers had either forgotten or taken for granted, until it had been threatened with extinction.

The new wave of labor activism had a youthful glow: rage polished by cynicism, but also galvanized by an idealism relatively unfettered by the left’s historical baggage of ideological rifts, turf battles, and race and gender chauvinism. So now a reborn movement needs to cross a generation gap, which is also in many cases a culture gap, education gap, and racial gap.

So the slogan “This is what democracy looks like” had a ring of both pride and puzzlement: what could we divine about the “look” of democracy from this pastiche of contrasting faces, political orientations, and socioeconomic backgrounds? After a parliamentary trick allowed the antiunion measure to slip through the legislature, the movement faced a moment of compunction: was it really about killing the bill? Or protecting unions? Or was it about the fight for the soul of the labor movement, and the question of whether Wisconsin had inaugurated a nostalgic revival or narrative of rebirth. Read the rest of this entry →

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 →

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 →

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 →