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Tunisia: General Strike May Be Averted, For Now

With relations souring between Al-Nahda, Tunisia's ruling party, and the UGTT, the country's main trade union, both sides may be facing their toughest tests yet.
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A UGTT march on Labour Day 2012. Photograph by Wassim Ben Rhouma.

Before yesterday’s draft agreement between the Tunisia’s main trade union and the government, Tunisia had been preparing to experience only its first general strike since 1978.

The nationwide strike that had been planned for tomorrow, December 13, appears to have been averted for now. But to understand the current situation today, one must get to grips with the dynamics of its labour movement historically. Successive governments have tried to compromise with, co-opt, repress or change its workers' union, depending on the situation and the balance of power at hand.

Politically involved from the start

In 1978, the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT) went on general strike to protest against President Habib Bourguiba government’s move to change a union leadership judged to be too oppositional and too powerful. The cost was the worst setback in the union’s history since the assassination of its founder, the legendary Farhat Hached, in 1952. The entire leadership of the union was put on trial and replaced by regime loyalists. Ensuing popular riots were repressed by the army, resulting in dozens of deaths.

In a few years, however, the UGTT would rise gain and continue to play a crucial role as a locus of resistance and refuge for activists of all orientations, up to the present time. The UGTT has been the outcome of Tunisian resistance and its incubator since it was established in 1946.

In the midst of the struggle for liberation from French colonialism, the union was politically involved from the start, a line it has kept and guarded vigorously since. In 1984, it aligned itself with rioters during the bread revolt. In 2008, it was the main catalyst of the disobedience movement in the mining basin of Gafsa. And by December 2010, UGTT, particularly its teachers’ unions and some regional executives, became the headquarters of the revolt against Ben Ali.

The force to beat

After January 2011, the UGTT emerged as the key mediator and power broker at the initial phase of the revolution, when all political orientations trusted and needed it. And it was within the union that the committee which regulated the transition to the elections was formed. At the same time, the UGTT used its leverage to secure historic victories for its members and for workers in general, including permanent contracts for over 350,000 temporary workers and pay rises for several sectors, including education.

Despite various lacunae, UGTT remained democratic throughout. All its bodies were elected freely, even as dictatorship continued to be consolidated over the country as a whole. A combination of symbolic capital of resistance accumulated over decades, a record of results for its members, and a well-oiled machine at the level of organisation across the country and every sector of the economy, made UGTT unassailable and unavoidable at the same time.

But it also became the force to beat for anyone intent on gaining wider control in Tunisia; the UGTT became central as Tunisia moved from the period of revolutionary harmony in which the UGTT played host and facilitator, to a political and even ideological phase characterised by a plurality of parties and polarisation of public opinion.

The UGTT was challenged to keep its engagement in politics without falling under the control of a particular party or indeed turning into one. But, due to historical reasons, and partly because of the nature of trade unionism in a country such as Tunisia, the UGTT remained on the left side of politics and, in the face of rising Islamist power, became a place where the left, despite its many newly-formed parties, kept its ties and even strengthened them.

It is no secret that the top leadership of the UGTT is largely leftist, or at least progressive in the wide sense of the term. For these reasons, the UGTT remained strong and decidedly outside the control of Islamists. This was not for lack of trying, through courtship initially, appeasement afterwards, and finally coercion.

Attacked but not beleaguered

On December 4, 2012, as the union was gearing up to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the assassination of its founder, its iconic headquarters, Place Mohamed Ali, was attacked by groups known as Leagues for the Protection of the Revolution. The incident was ugly, public and had an immediate impact. These leagues, which originated in community organisations in cities across the country, were designed to keep order and security immediately after Ben Ali’s fall on January 14, 2011, but were later disbanded, and are now dominated by Islamists of various orientations.

They have been targeting the media, artists and members of the former regime under slogans such as purification or “cleansing of the old regime” and “protection of the revolution”. One prominent action was their violent attack against the party Nida Tounes, headed by former Prime Minister Beji Caid el Sebsi, which resulted in the first political killing after the revolution, that of Nida member Lotfi Nagadh in the southern town of Tataouine.

The attack, which was the latest in a series of actions, such as throwing rubbish at UGTT offices in several regions a few months ago, recalled the atmosphere of 1978 and another affront to the union’s existence. It responded by boycotting the government, organising regional strikes and marches, and eventually calling for the general strike.

For the first time, UGTT spoke out against the ruling Islamist Al-Nahda party and declared it an enemy, despite stating on many occasions professing neutrality. Anti-Al-Nahda parties and individuals are now backing UGTT. In Tunisia, contradictions have suddenly sharpened, not unlike the situation in Egypt, where President Mohammed Morsi managed to unite warring opposition groups against his party when he gave himself sweeping powers.

Tunisia today stands divided, with the UGTT on one side and Al-Nahda on the other. If history is any guide, the UGTT will prevail this time as well. What is in doubt is the cost to a revolution plagued by a set of circumstances and developments largely beyond the control of the country.

This is also Al-Nahda’s toughest test, internally and internationally. Internally, UGTT is forcing a rift between the government and the party which dominates it by challenging the former to protect a national organisation and apply the rule of law. Internationally, UGTT has already laid bare the paramilitary nature of the Leagues as a danger to social peace in Tunisia on one hand, and rallied the union’s powerful friends in the international labour movement on the other.

Tomorrow’s general strike appears to have been averted, but with everyone involved in one way or another, we could yet see a collision of titanic proportions.

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