THE WORLD OF LABOR — January 29, 2011

By Harry Kelber

Revolt in Egypt Continues, Despite Mubarak Crackdown

This generation of dissidents, most of whom have lived their entire lives under the three-decade rule of President Hosni Mubarak, have rebelled against a dictatorship that tolerates high unemployment and suppresses free speech. President Mubarak ordered a crackdown of the rebellion, while promising reforms in a television address, ignoring U.S. President Barack Obama, who urged Mubarak to exercise caution and restraint.

The massive protest is said to have been triggered by a 2008 strike of textile workers in the Nile Delta that aroused an expanding protest movement against political oppression and economic hardship. The traditional working class from all corners of the country have continued to inspire protests ever since occupying the streets outside of Parliament for weeks on end.

But what started on Jan. 25 was a set of specific demands: the resignation of the interior minister, the end of emergency law, and the imposition of a two-term limit on the presidency. The demands have coalesced into something far more radical and brought countless more people, whose latent hostility to the Mubarak regime had never before translated into concrete action, into confrontation with the state.

Tunisian Unions Play Increasing Role in Country’s Crisis

The UGTT union federation is proving to be a serious political force with its currently unmatched organizing ability and national outreach, in comparison with political opposition parties and civil society groups, enfeebled by decades of repression.

The “unions not only helped topple Ben Ali, the country’s long-time ruler, but are also serving to determine the future of the Tunisian interim government,” said one analyst, noting that democratic contagion is unlikely, precisely because neighboring states lack an independent labor movement

Security forces on Jan. 29 fired tear gas while demonstrators overturned police cars as protests resumed in the nation’s capital, Tunis. Union-led protesters last night defied a national curfew to stage a sleep-in near the offices of Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi.

Spain’s Government in Deal to Raise Retirement Age

Spain’s socialist government has struck a deal with the country’s trade unions to raise the age of retirement. All parties have agreed that the compulsory retirement age will rise from 65 to 67, one of the highest in Europe. The deal is a crucial step to convince investors the government is committed to structural reform to revive the economy and avoid a bailout.

Aware it was under international scrutiny, the Spanish government had threatened to impose the changes by decree if necessary. Spain’s unions had warned of another general strike, if the government acted unilaterally. With a low birth rate and increasing life expectancy, government figures suggest 32 percent of Spain’s population will be aged 64 or over by 2050. The number of pensioners is expected to rise from eight million to 12 million over the next three decades.

“If the reform is finally approved, the government will have scored a success, and the unions swill not have taken a step back,” was the reaction of an El Pais newspaper editorial, which concludes that the reform maintains the solvency of the country’s economic system.

Union Leaders Team Up with Davos on Job Creation

Trade union leaders are working with the leaders of the World Economic Forum (WEF) on a blueprint to boost employment growth amid rising concerns about the jobless nature of the global economic recovery.

Davos, the body that organizes the annual gathering of business leaders, is putting together a white paper designed to help the G20 group of developed and developing nations to piece together a jobs strategy. Fears about the lack of job opportunities in the West and the potentially explosive consequences of large-scale youth unemployment in emerging economies were one of the themes on the first day of WEF’s annual meeting on Jan. 29.

With a report from the International Labor Organization this week, showing that unemployment across the world is in excess of 200 million, unions believe the five-day Davos summit is ideally placed to prompt action on jobs in 2011.

10,000 March in Milan Against New Fiat Work Rules

Workers marched in demonstrations across Italy on Jan. 29 to protest new work rules at two Fiat plants that one union holdout says erodes workers’ rights. The FIOM metalworkers union organized the demonstrations to vent its anger at contracts at two Fiat SpA plants which, they say, undermine Italy’s national contract system.

FIOM called for the protests after workers at Turin’s Mirafiori plant voted to approve a more flexible work contract sought by Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne. Marchionne had pledged to invest 1.2 billion eros (US $1.64 billion) in the plant to build Alfa Romeo and Jeep brand SUVs as part of an overall investment of 20 billion euros he had slated for Fiat’s Italian factories.

FIOM also called for a metalworkers strike and said that workers at the two Fiat plants next slated for negotiations with the company would comply with the established rules. The union said that 50 percent of the workers at Fiat’s Melfi plant walked off the job, shutting down one line, while production was halved at the company’s Cassino plant, south of Rome.

Thousands Protest in Jordan with a Series of Demands

Thousands of people in Jordan have taken to the streets in protest, demanding that the country’s prime minister step down and the government curb rising prices, inflation and unemployment. In the third consecutive Friday or protests, about 3,500 activists in Jordan’s capital, Amman, waved colorful banners, reading: “Send the corrupt guys to court.”

Another 2,500 people also protested in six other cities after the noon prayers. They also called for the ouster of Prime Minister Samir Rifal. Members of the Islamic Action Front, the political wing of the Muslim Botherhood and Jordan’s largest opposition party, swelled the ranks of the demonstrators, massing outside the al-Husseini mosque in Amman and filling the downtown streets with their prayer lines.

King Abdullah has promised some reforms, particularly on a controversial election law. But many believe he is unlikely to bow to the demands for the election of a Prime Minister and Cabinet officials, traditionally appointed by the king.

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