Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

Can Tunisia’s labour union ride to the rescue?

As Tunisia descends into political crisis, many are looking to the UGTT for mediation and resolution – for this is no ordinary union, writes Mohamed-Salah Omri

September 13, 2013
9 min read

Tunisia is gripped by its most serious political crisis since 2011, caused by a breakdown of trust between the government and its opponents and compounded by growing terrorism and a collapsing economy. Last weekend saw a rise in tension, with protestors filling the capital demanding the immediate resignation of the Islamist government.

Yet one local trade union may save the day, and not for the first time. The Tunisian General Union of Labour (UGTT) has affected the character of Tunisia as a whole since the late 1940s. It impacted significantly the 2011 revolution and the transition period and is likely to impact the future. Its current role as mediator between the government and opposition must be seen in historical perspective, as, arguably, the role of Tunisia’s labour movement is what sets it apart from the rest of the Arab World.

Child of protest, midwife of revolution

Trade unionism in Tunisia goes back to 1924 when Mohamed Ali al Hammi (1890-1928), the forefather of the movement, founded the General Federation of Tunisian Workers. But it was under the guidance of the charismatic and visionary Farhat Hached (1914-1952) that a strong home-grown organization would emerge. Hached learned union activism and organisation within the French colonial union, the CGT, for 15 years before splitting from it to start UGTT in 1946. The new union quickly gained support, clout and international ties, which it used to pressure the French for more social and political rights for Tunisia and to consolidate its position as a key component in the national liberation movement. The union’s inception in the midst of an independence struggle cemented its political character, a line it has kept and vigorously defended ever since.

Since then, UGTT has been a continuous presence in the country. During the one-party rule of Presidents Habib Bourgiba and Ben Ali, it constituted a credible alternative to the party’s power and a locus of resistance to it, so much so that being a unionist became a euphemism for being a member of the opposition.

Given UGTT’s power and popularity, successive governments have tried to compromise with, co-opt, repress or change the union, depending on political sympathies and the balance of power at hand. In 1978, the Bourguiba government attempted to change a union leadership judged to be too oppositional and powerful. 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. The cost was the worst setback to the union’s history since the assassination of its founder in 1952.

UGTT has been the outcome of Tunisian resistance and its incubator at the same time. In December 2010, UGTT – particularly its teachers’ unions and local offices – became the headquarters of revolt against the President. Many of the demands of the rising masses – jobs, national dignity, freedom – had long been on the agenda of the union, which includes 24 regional unions, 19 sector-based unions and 21 grass roots unions and has over 500,000 members. Furthermore, the union holds a strong support-base in the rural areas where the revolution started.

But after the revolution was complete, UGTT again became a target. On 4 December 2012, as the union was gearing up to commemorate the 60th anniversary of Hached’s assassination, its iconic headquarters were attacked, allegedly by groups known as Leagues for the Protection of the Revolution. The incident was ugly, public and of immediate impact. The leagues had originated in community organisations set up in the aftermath of the January 14 revolution to keep the peace in the security vacuum left which had reportedly become dominated by Islamists. UGTT responded by boycotting plenary sessions of parliament, organising regional strikes and marches, and eventually calling for a general strike on 13 December, the first such action since 1978.

Threats have also come from those on the inside. On August 26, 2013, a group of trade unionists founded the Tunisian Labour Organization, aiming, according to its leaders, at correcting the direction of UGTT. Sami Tahri, the UGTT spokesperson responded dismissively to this move, arguing that this was no more than the reaction of losers who failed to win elected offices in UGTT and were unable to drag the union into the “house of obedience”, referring to the new organisation’s ties to the ruling Al-Nahda party. This lack of concern may be justified, given UGTT’s history of warding off a number of attempts at takeover, division or weakening over the past sixty years or so.

Qualified mediator

Despite antagonistic relations with governments before and after the revolution, UGTT remains perhaps the only body in the country qualified to resolve disputes peacefully. After January 2011, it emerged as the key mediator and power broker at the initial phase of the revolution, winning trust from political players across the spectrum. It was within the union that the committee which regulated the transition to the elections of 23 October 2011 was formed.

At the same time, UGTT has 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 teachers.

As Tunisia moved from a period of revolutionary harmony to one characterised by a multiplicity of parties and a polarisation of public opinion, the challenge for UGTT was 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 which saw leftists channel their energy into trade unionism when their political activities were curtailed, UGTT has remained on the left of the political spectrum. This has continued in the face of rising Islamist power, with the union keeping or even strengthening ties with the numerous newly-formed parties of the left. For these reasons, UGTT has remained decidedly outside the control of the Islamist government, which has had to come to terms with the union’s role and status.

UGTT has a significant role to play in the current political crisis, acting as a mediator between government and opposition in an attempt to end the current political stalemate. Many of the protestors’ demands line up with those of UGTT: the resignation of the current government, its replacement by a non-political government, curtailing the work of the Tunisian Parliament, the ANC, and reviewing top government appointments. It also asks for the immediate dissolution of the Leagues for the Defence of the Revolution.

Cracks in the armour

UGTT is not without blemish. A key paradox has been the relative absence of women in positions of leadership, despite the organisation’s support of women’s rights. UGTT compares unfavourably in this respect to other civil society organisations, with women leading the Business Association, the Journalists Association and the Council of Judges. Although some have suggested that the nature of trade union work, including canvassing opinion in the male-dominated cafes of Tunisia, has put women off positions, UGTT’s failure to promote women in leadership is a serious lacuna.

The union has also been accused of over-bureaucratisation and corruption at the top level, which has triggered several attempts at internal reform and even rebellion over the years. The power and money that come as perks of the job for top union officials can be dangerous in a climate of rife corruption. In 2000, former Secretary General Ismail Sahbbani resigned over allegations of embezzlement and financial misconduct.

UGTT also faces future challenges if it is to remain the strongest union at a time when three other split unions are in place and to maintain a political role now that politics has been largely turned over to political parties.

But despite these challenges, a combination of symbolic capital accumulated over decades, a good record of getting results for its members and well-oiled organisational apparatus across the country and in every sector of the economy has made UGTT an unavoidable, and perhaps unassailable, feature of Tunisian politics. For these reasons, UGTT figures are still capable of credible mediation despite setbacks, with their demonstrable expertise and experience placing them above most accusations of bias. UGTT is a defining element of what may be called the Tunisian exception in the MENA region and, if the trade union is successful this time in resolving the political crisis, it would become even more exceptional.

This article was first published at Think Africa Press

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics

Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.

Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making

Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show

The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services

With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas

Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world

A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle

Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune

Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali

To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi

Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun

Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh

With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament

Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, by Shashi Tharoor, reviewed by Ian Sinclair

A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour: Kenya, Britain and the Julie Ward Murder, by Grace A Musila, reviewed by Allen Oarbrook

‘We remembered that convictions can inspire and motivate people’: interview with Lisa Nandy MP
The general election changed the rules, but there are still tricky issues for Labour to face, Lisa Nandy tells Ashish Ghadiali

Everything you know about Ebola is wrong
Vicky Crowcroft reviews Ebola: How a People’s Science Helped End an Epidemic, by Paul Richards

Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for an online editor
Closing date for applications: 1 September.

Theresa May’s new porn law is ridiculous – but dangerous
The law is almost impossible to enforce, argues Lily Sheehan, but it could still set a bad precedent

Interview: Queer British Art
James O'Nions talks to author Alex Pilcher about the Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition and her book A Queer Little History of Art

Cable the enabler: new Lib Dem leader shows a party in crisis
Vince Cable's stale politics and collusion with the Conservatives belong in the dustbin of history, writes Adam Peggs

Anti-Corbyn groupthink and the media: how pundits called the election so wrong
Reporting based on the current consensus will always vastly underestimate the possibility of change, argues James Fox

Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole

Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part

Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper

Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s

Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach

Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.

Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite


4