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.

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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


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