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  • An Update From The Independent Labor Movement In Egypt

    Written on March 7, 2011

    Our guest author today is Heba F. El-Shazli.  She has 25 years of experience in the promotion of democracy, independent trade unions, political and economic development. She has worked with institutions and leaders throughout the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) to challenge authoritarian regimes. Currently she is a visiting professor of international studies and modern languages at the Virginia Military Institute. The views expressed here are her own.

    The revolution in Egypt has unleashed a torrent of pent up frustration and protest from Egyptian workers in all walks of life. For weeks, beginning the day after former President Hosni Mubarak resigned, workers have taken to the streets to demand respect for basic worker rights and democratic principles. Their grievances are fundamental and share much in common with their U.S. counterparts now protesting in Wisconsin and elsewhere: the right to bargain collectively with employers over wages, hours, benefits and working conditions. Egyptian workers have been protesting at many worksites all over the country:

    • More than 6,000 teachers protested in front of the Education Administration building in the governorate (state) of Qena in Upper Egypt.  A majority of teachers are now working under temporary contracts without benefits. Teachers are calling for the end of these temporary contracts that cheapen their profession and cause much professional insecurity. 
    • Hundreds of workers from the iron and steel factory who were hired as “temporary contractual” workers demanded payment of three months’ worth of overtime and other benefits, and an end to their “temporary” status.

    The never-ending “temporary contract” is a tactic to weaken workers’ rights, which  has been widely used in both the Egyptian public and private sectors. In response to teacher protests, the new Education Minister did announce on Feb. 28 that the teachers who had been working under temporary contracts for more than three years will be made permanent as long as they are able to pass the teacher proficiency tests, which the Ministry will administer on March 25.

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  • Seize The Day?

    Written on March 2, 2011

    Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s determination to destroy collective bargaining rights for his state’s public employees has generated a lot of hyperbolic rhetoric from both sides. Some conservatives have taken particular umbrage at demonstrators’ signs likening Walker to Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and Hosni Mubarak. They are right that Walker is not akin to these brutal, murderous dictators, who solidified power by crushing independent unions. Indeed, they need not look overseas at all to find anti-union inspiration. The U.S. has its own rich tradition of union-busting – albeit considerably less fierce than in these particular dictatorial regimes.  

    This information is just a mouse-click away. Anyone with access to the internet can easily trace the history of violent state and business response to unions and union organizing in America, dating back 150 years. It’s not just the infamous Pinkertons and other thugs hired by business. Police, the National Guard, even federal troops have been used to brutally suppress workers’ efforts to form their own unions. Homestead, Haymarket, Ludlow, Pullman, the 1937 Battle of the Overpass – all are storied examples of incredibly violent action against workers and their organizations.

    This sort of drama, punctuated by carnage and death, is pretty much a thing of the past. With the passage of the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act and 1959 Landrum-Griffin Act, anti-union judicial decisions, global outsourcing, and the emergence of union-busting consultants, quashing unions has become, well, child’s play. America’s private sector unions have been on the defensive for better than half a century, with membership eroded to only seven percent of the private sector workforce. With Wisconsin, the attack against public service unions is well and truly launched.

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  • Bahrain: Workers Lead The Way

    Written on February 25, 2011

    Our guest author today is Heba F. El-Shazli.  She has 25 years of experience in the promotion of democracy, independent trade unions, political and economic development. She has worked with institutions and leaders throughout the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) to challenge authoritarian regimes. Currently she is a visiting professor of international studies and modern languages at the Virginia Military Institute. The views expressed here are her own.

    Bahrain has been rocked by turmoil since Feb. 14 – with protesters calling for political reforms from Pearl Square’s "towering monument of a pearl," in the heart of Manama, Bahrain’s capital city. It is the country’s Tahrir Square, its own seat of Liberation. In contrast to Egypt, though, Bahrain’s path to freedom been slower and more violent. On Feb. 17, the government brutally attacked protesters, killing four and injuring dozens. The next day, security forces opened fire on a crowd of thousands marching in funeral processions for the previous day’s victims.

    In the midst of this chaos, a young and independent Bahraini labor movement is finding its voice. In response to the government’s violence, the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions (GFBTU), with a membership of 66 unions – around 25% of the workforce – threatened a general strike if the government did not back off, start talking to demonstrators, and permit peaceful protest to continue.

    And the government backed off.

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  • A Very Happy Egyptian-American

    Written on February 11, 2011

    Our guest author today is Heba F. El-Shazli, regional program director for the Middle East and North Africa at the AFL-CIO’s American Center for International Labor Solidarity.  Currently she is a visiting professor of international studies and modern languages at the Virginia Military Institute. The views expressed here are her own.

    Today is a great day! A Glorious Day! A day of rejoicing, of celebration, of jubilation, and of so much more than words can describe! Today, Mubarak resigned and Egypt is now in the hands of the Constitutional Court and the Supreme Council of the Egyptian Armed Forces  under the leadership of the Field Marshall Tanatawy. This is a new dawn for a New Democratic Egypt.  This is a revolution that began peacefully on 25 January, and which galvanized all Egyptians from all social classes, men and women. What a message is being sent to everyone all over the world and especially in the Middle East – a message that political change can be achieved by the people and peacefully.

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  • Name: Egyptian ... Address: Tahrir Square

    Written on February 8, 2011

    Our guest author today, writing from Cairo, is Kamal Abbas, general coordinator of Egypt’s Center for Trade Unions and Workers Services (CTUWS), who last year accepted the AFL-CIO’s 2009 George Meany-Lane Kirkland Human Rights Award on behalf of Egypt’s independent labor movement. The article is reprinted, with permission.

    Now, I am proud to be Egyptian. I can sit in the evening among my children and grandchildren and tell them the story of the revolution; the story of boys and girls who refused the injustice and tyranny under which we have lived for years and years. I will tell them the story of Mohamed and Boulis [Peter]: the two boys who stood one against the other, each of whom hates and wants to destroy the other ... I will tell them how Boulis and Mohamed stood shoulder to shoulder confronting tyranny. I will tell them how Muslims protected churches against the violence of the regime’s thugs and how Christians guarded Muslims while they performed their prayers in Tahrir [Liberation] Square.

    I will tell them that I have no explanation except that this infamous regime made us reveal our worst part. I will tell my children and grandchildren how thousands, or rather tens of thousands, including young and very beautiful girls demonstrated and that those beautiful girls were not harassed. I will tell them that young males used to listen to the speeches of young females and received orders from them to keep order during the sit-in.

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  • Egypt In Crisis: Independent Unions Emerge As Leaders

    Written on February 7, 2011

    Our guest author today is Heba F. El-Shazli, regional program director for the Middle East and North Africa at the AFL-CIO’s American Center for International Labor Solidarity.  Currently she is a visiting professor of international studies and modern languages at the Virginia Military Institute. The views expressed here are her own. This is the first of several posts on events in Egypt.

    January 25, 2011 was the beginning of a peoples’ revolt in Egypt, a revolt whose outcome is still unclear. What is clear is that, after a smothering 30-year rule, Egyptians have broken the stifling collar of oppression to demonstrate for democracy and freedom. Also at issue are the corruption, high unemployment rates, inflation, and low minimum wages that impoverish even the hardest working, most educated people.

    All of this has become fairly well known to Americans over recent days. What is far less known is the role of the small, repressed independent Egyptian labor movement in keeping Egyptian hopes and spirits alive. On January 30, in the middle of Tahrir Square, those workers and their representatives announced the formation of the new "Independent Egyptian Trade Union Federation."

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  • Overcoming The Democratic Recession

    Written on January 26, 2011

    Our guest authors today are Arch Puddington, (director of research) and David J. Kramer (executive director) of Freedom House, a bipartisan organization founded in 1941 by Wendell Willkie, Eleanor Roosevelt, and others.  It has worked tirelessly over the intervening decades to promote democratic values both at home and abroad. It is best known for its annual Freedom in the World survey, which analyzes the state of political freedom and civil liberties. In 2010, it published The Global State of Workers’ Rights: Free Labor in a Hostile World, a survey of union and workers rights, and a global map of labor rights, with support from the Albert Shanker Institute. Along with the Shanker Institute, Freedom House is also a cosponsor of DemocracyWeb, a resource for history, civics and comparative government education.  Antonia Cortese, secretary treasurer of the Shanker Institute, also serves on the Freedom House Board of Trustees.

    As we enter a new decade, the evidence is fast mounting that global freedom is under the most intense pressure it has faced in many years. According to the most recent report issued by Freedom House, 2010 marked the fifth consecutive year of a worldwide democracy recession. During that period, democracy has suffered setbacks in every region of the world.  All of the political institutions that are crucial to democratic governance—including elections, press freedom, rule of law, minority rights—have suffered setbacks.

    The palpable lack of confidence among democracies in their own system of government, driven in part by the global economic crisis that has affected market economies more severely than authoritarian ones, partly explains these trends.  Recently, for the first time since the end of the Cold War, western pundits are raising questions about the efficacy of democratic systems.

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  • China Flunks Its Own Standards

    Written on January 19, 2011

    In the "dog bites man" department, Human Rights Watch (HRW) recently released a devastating report, which found that the Chinese had "failed to deliver" the human rights gains promised in its much-ballyhooed, first-ever "National Human Rights Action Plan" for 2009-10.

    The report is timely, since Chinese President Hu Jintao is in Washington this week to discuss a wide variety of issues with President Obama and other U.S. leaders, including human rights. In terms of "promises made and promises broken," the U.S. will surely have China’s human rights record of the last two years in mind.

    HRW reports that the years 2009-2010 witnessed a "rollback of key civil and political rights" in China, as the regime, among other actions, stepped up its practice of "enforced disappearances and arbitrary detentions, including in secret, unlawful detention facilities known as ‘black jails.’" It also:

    • "continued its practice of sentencing high-profile dissidents such as imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo to lengthy prison terms on spurious state secrets or "subversion" charges;
    • expanded restrictions on media and internet freedom;
    • tightened controls on lawyers, human rights defenders, and nongovernmental organizations;
    • broadened controls on Uighurs and Tibetans."

    This is a serious report. By taking China at its word as to the sincerity of its Human Rights Action Plan, HRW throws a lot of cold water on the theory that has been a critical part of U.S. China policy for nearly half a century: that engagement will lead to democratic change.

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  • PISA For Our Time: A Balanced Look

    Written on January 10, 2011

    Press coverage of the latest PISA results over the past two months has almost been enough to make one want to crawl under the bed and hide. Over and over, we’ve been told that this is a “Sputnik moment," that the U.S. among the lowest performing nations in the world, and that we’re getting worse.

    Thankfully, these claims are largely misleading. Insofar as we’re sure to hear them repeated often over the next few years—at least until the next set of international results come in — it makes sense to try to correct the record (also see here and here).

    But, first, I want to make it very clear that U.S. PISA results are not good enough by any stretch of the imagination, and we can and should do a whole lot better. Nevertheless, international comparisons of any kind are very difficult, and if we don’t pay careful attention to what the data are really telling us, it will be more difficult to figure out how to respond appropriately.

    This brings me to three basic points about the 2009 PISA results that we need to bear in mind.

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  • A Call For Democracy And Human Rights In The Arab States

    Written on November 23, 2010

    On Oct. 22-23, a group of Arab intellectuals, politicians, and civil society advocates convened a Conference on the Future of Democracy and Human Rights in the Arab World in Casablanca. Citing the “dramatic and alarming backsliding of political reforms in the Arab world," they issued a remarkable, frank and courageous appeal to the Arab nations. The “Casablanca Call for Democracy and Human Rights” represents a powerful consensus among disparate political groups that democracy must be the foundation for social and political justice in the region. As such, it represents a signal event for Arab democrats and for friends of democracy around the world.

    Among the group’s key appeals was for the right to organize free and independent trade unions. The call underscores both the courage of the signatories and the dismal situation for labor. The Middle East region has the worst trade union rights record in the world, according to a recent Freedom House report, which found that unions in the area are controlled by the government, severely repressed, or banned outright.

    The group also demanded that women (and youth) be empowered to act as equal partners in the development of their own nations, and called for freedom of expression and thought for all citizens.

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