Mixed messages about united labour movement in Tunisia

It seems Tunisian trade unionism is plagued by the same problems as elsewhere in the world, and on top of that there’s the slight issue of more than 60 years of brutal repression. There’s a significant gap between the leadership and rank and file members in Tunisia’s largest union and some say the union was slow off the mark to join the Revolution, but many remain hopeful that this new epoch will bring real unity.

We met Abdeljabel al Bedoui, in charge of studies and research for the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT), Tunisia’s largest union founded in 1946 – we are told one of the first in the Arab world. The UGTT, like almost every sector in civil society, was heavily pressurised by the Ben Ali regime to toe the government line. Even under the previous regime of Bourgiba, Tunisia’s first post-colonial president who was in power between 1957 and 1987, the UGTT was subjected to at least three coups by the governing party: in 1965, from 1978 to 1980 and again from 1984 to 1989. The 1978 attack on the UGTT’s sovereignty occurred when the union called a general strike. On all three occasions, the leadership was imprisoned and a new, pro-government, leadership was imposed. But time and again the state was eventually forced to capitulate when workers simply refused to recognise the authority of the imposed leadership.

The UGTT was also under siege from the inside: its general council contained a significant number of members of Ben Ali’s party throughout his reign, who always pushed for the union to back the regime. Despite the internal and external pressure, there were those who always fought for the union’s independence, in particular the socialist and communist factions within the union, despite such dissidence often resulting in brutal repression. Sadly, these voices of opposition were sometimes a minority, and in 2009 the UGTT backed Ben Ali as the presidential candidate.

But whilst the union’s leadership collaborated with the Ben Ali regime, its members certainly did not. In 2008, miners in the mining area of Gafsa went on strike. They were savagely oppressed by the government; a number of miners were killed, the leadership was imprisoned and families suffered terribly. The UGTT’s leadership refused to support the strike, until eventually they capitulated to pressure from sectoral and regional representatives’ pressure.  A regional representative of the primary school teachers said that the leadership’s failure enabled the government to repress the strike in such a brutal fashion.

On an aside, the Gafsa miners’ strike is often heralded as the start of the Tunisian Revolution. But nobody outside the country has heard much about it because the media were prevented from covering it. More about this later.

Abdeljabel al Bedoui didn’t directly respond to the question we put to him about the UGTT being slow off the mark. He did provide an interesting insight into the broader role the UGGT fulfilled during Ben Ali’s dictatorship. Mr. al Bedoui said that because all political parties were banned the UGTT was the only forum within which activists could operate in any kind of public way. The interesting implication of this is that activists from different political persuasions worked together more closely than they otherwise ever would. Does that mean that Tunisia’s moderate Islamists will be more inclined to form a coalition with leftist and other factions to fill the post-revolutionary power vacuum? We are meeting Al-Nahda, or the Renaissance Party, the moderate Islamist party, and the Tunisian Workers’ Communist Party  (POCT) tomorrow and will keep you posted.

Our regional teacher says that, in fairness to the UGTT leadership, the extensive external pressure placed on them as well as the internal factions that exist meant that decision-making at the top of the union was a long and arduous process. And when the UGTT in Tunis did finally get its act together, it promptly called a general strike and, they say, started the calls for Ben Ali to step down – the famous slogan of Degage or ‘Get out’. The UGTT has also played an important role in preserving the integrity of the revolution, refusing to cooperate with the interim government when it included members of Ben Ali’s overthrown government, effectively forcing them to resign.

Abdeljabel al Bedoui nonetheless gave us some cause for concern for the future. We asked his views on how workers’ rights could be protected in the future. We put it to him that if there were to be greater political stability and plurality in the future, this would make Tunisia a lot more attractive for foreign investors. Was he worried that they would undermine workers’ rights and power? In our collective experience the introduction of trans-national corporations rarely meant workers were better off, and benefits like subsistence allowances would be reduced. Fear not, he said, if foreign investors will appreciate that subsistence allowances will mean they can reduce wages. A union welcoming the opportunity to reduce its members’ wages? We’re not sure he fully understood our concerns?

But Tunisians carrying out grass roots work never cease to amaze us, and we hope to visit the Gafsa miners on Friday. Smaller unions, such as Tunisia’s National Union of Journalists, showed incredible bravery in the face of persecution and torture. Journalists as a whole, and new media activists and bloggers, are acknowledged as having played a crucial part in the revolution.

Katherine Craig

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