There have been a number of articles recently, such as this one in The Wall Street Journal, discussing what lessons Indonesia’s transition to democracy offers when considering Egypt’s potential transition from an authoritarian regime to a democracy. One may consider Indonesia an equally interesting comparison regarding the role of and outcomes for the labor movement in Egypt’s potential democratic transition. In particular, what does the survival of Indonesia’s New Order-backed labor federation suggest about the future role of Egypt’s state-sponsored Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF). I raise this possibility as it has been reported today that over 500 workers and activists demonstrated outside the offices of the regime-backed ETUF calling for the federation’s dissolution, protests which led to physical confrontation as the protesters attempted unsuccessfully to storm and occupy the offices (photo below).
Now, before I go any further, I should point out that I *do not know enough* about the Egyptian labor movement to know how apt this comparison is. However, what happens to the Egyptian Trade Union Federation going forward will provide an interesting new case study on the role of regime-backed labor union in new democracies.
Political scientist Teri Caraway published a paper in 2008 examining how one explains the continued survival and, often, dominance of authoritarian regime sponsored labor unions in newly democratic contexts, using Indonesia’s New Order-backed Serikat Perkja Seluruh Indonesia (SPSI) as her main case study. In the case of Indonesia, SPSI has survived and remains one of the major labor federations in Indonesia. Caraway finds that SPSI has managed to maintain its position, despite initiating only limited internal reforms to make the union more democratic, largely due to contextual factors, such as institutional advantages inherited from the old regime, partisan links, organizationally weak competition, and a weak national economy. She argues that legacy unions will tend to rely on these institutional advantages to maintain their organizational dominance, only undergoing as much democratic reforms as a given context requires.
How do Caraway’s finding match up with the Egyptian case? That is for someone who knows the Egypt context well to examine. What is certain is how important the transition period is to the future of any labor movement in an emerging democracy, as Caraway explains below:
Legacy unions are a profoundly enduring aspect of nondemocratic regimes, and this article shows that competition is not enough to break their lock on power. Their dominant position in many new democracies provides part of the explanation for why labor movements are so weak. By crowding out new organizing and holding members captive, they limit the promise that democratization holds for unions to vigorously pursue improved working conditions and worker welfare. The continued dominance of legacy unions—in the absence of internal reform—thus has important normative and political consequences (p1393)