In late June, Education International, a global federation of teachers unions, held a conference in Cairo, Egypt, attended by nearly 50 education unionists from across the Middle East and North Africa, as well as a dozen observers from North America and Europe. The purpose of the meeting was for unionists to network with their comrades the region, share their experiences, and find ways to overcome similar challenges in their own countries.
I was in attendance, and so was American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten and Director of International Affairs for AFT David Dorn. We heard about Yemenis avoiding government crackdown, the importance of the trade union movement in the Tunisian revolution that overthrow the dictator Ben Ali, and the struggles in other countries to maintain autonomous, independent unions that advocate for workers’ rights and not for any one political party. Noticeably absent from the meeting were unionists from Syria and Bahrain, the latter of whom had been detained prior to the conference.
We also took a trip to the recently established International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) office and met Mostafa Saeed, the new ITUC representative, and Kamal Abbas of the Center for Trade Unions and Workers Services (CTUWS). With the breakdown of the Mubarak regime, Egyptian workers have been fighting to form independent unions and to combat the government-controlled one. They spoke about the challenges to create an independent trade union federation within Egypt. In February, Abbas gave sent the workers of Wisconsin a message of the strongest solidarity, saying that Egyptians “… stand with you as you stood with us.”
The conference ended in Tahrir Square, where we took pictures, flew Egyptian flags, and chanted “Long live trade unionism!” Hearing about the struggles of unionists from across the Middle East was awe-inspiring and humbling, that fighting for the union in these countries can mean taking the risk of losing everything. It shows that the real power of the union is not the guarantees offered by legal statute, but of popular power and collective action. Most of all, it shows that solidarity is truly international.
About the author: Alex Hanna is co-president of the Teaching Assistants’ Association and a graduate student in Sociology.