Ramses III and the first strike

What does worker unrest in Egypt 3,000 years ago have to do with a proposed labor law in China?

Published February 23, 2007 5:49PM (EST)

In the 12th century B.C., on the 21st day of the second month in the 29th year of the reign of the pharaoh Ramses III, workmen in the town of Deir el-Medina conducted a wildcat strike -- the first recorded labor action in history. These were no ordinary men; they were hereditary craftsmen who worked on the tombs of the pharaohs, the vast complexes that to this day draw visitors from all over the world to the Valley of the Kings.

Their gripe was that they were not getting their rations. Was this because Ramses had overextended the resources of Egypt by fighting a series of extensive wars and engaging in a massive building construction campaign? Was it corruption in the priestly hierarchy? Was it the climatic effects of a volcano eruption in Iceland? We don't know for sure, but we do have a written record of the strike -- which tells us that the scribe Amennakte complained that "twenty days have elapsed in the month and rations have not been given to us."

I learned about this early example of sticking it to the Pharaoh from the year-old Global Labor Strategies blog. Describing itself as an effort to "explore the problems, the dead-ends, and the promises as workers and their organizations try to develop the strategies needed to cope with the global economy," the blog is dedicated not just to documenting "how corporate and capital mobility undermines unions around the world" but to searching for ways to confront the new realities of globalization.

I came to Global Labor Strategies via China. The current issue of Japan Focus is running a dialogue between three of the blog's authors, Tim Costello, Brendan Smith and Jeremy Brecher, and a representative of the U.S. China-Business Council. At issue: efforts by the American business community to water down a proposed labor law in China that would strengthen worker rights.

How the World Works contemplated the law on two occasions last year, and there's not much new to report. And while I may differ from the Global Labor Strategies folks on some aspects of how to engage with globalization, I'm in full solidarity with them on this one: It's a despicable sight to see corporations that are getting fat off of cheap labor in China doing their best to resist domestic Chinese attempts to improve the position of workers.

But what does all this have to do with Egyptian workers 3,000 years ago? Nothing, really, and yet everything. I am always on the lookout for new sources of information to incorporate into my blogroll, and I am especially delighted to find writers willing to lead off a story on current labor issues in Egypt with a news item dating back to the 20th Dynasty. A review of the last few weeks of blog posts reveals reports on Iraq, Argentina, the price of tortillas in Mexico, Egypt, China and climate change. In every case, the subtext is globalization.

Sound familiar? Consider me hooked.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

MORE FROM Andrew Leonard

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

China Egyptian Protests Globalization How The World Works Middle East Unemployment