Intel: How Tunisia’s main labor union cripples economic reform

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Tunisia’s largest labor union staged a nationwide strike today after the government refused to bow to its demands to increase the salaries of 670,000 public workers, a step that would run contrary to austerity measures imposed by the International Monetary Fund. The move by the Tunisia General Labor Union (UGTT), a powerful left-wing syndicate that is counted among the country’s main political actors, paralyzed rail, bus and air traffic, disrupting access to schools and hospitals. The action hit the country’s international airport as well, and most flights were canceled.

UGTT leader Nourredine Taboubi told thousands of people massed outside the union headquarters in the heart of Tunis that it was the government’s fault, saying it had chosen confrontation with public servants. “We will study the next steps on Saturday and we will step up our action and will not back down,” he vowed.

Why it matters: Tunisia is the sole Arab Spring country to have transitioned to democracy. But high unemployment topping 15% — double that among university graduates — is fueling unrest and prompting Tunisians to continue to try to make their way illegally to Europe. Continued violence in neighboring Libya is adding to worries about the rise of Islamist militancy, despite Western-supported measures to counter violent extremism. Tunisians have joined the Islamic State in startlingly high numbers and a local franchise known as Jund al-Khalifa lurks in the mountains separating Tunisia from Algeria. All this trouble has hurt the country’s once thriving tourism sector.

Coming just days after the eighth anniversary of the Jasmine Revolution that toppled autocrat Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, today’s industrial action has added pressure on reformist Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, whose ruling coalition with the Islamist Ennahda party relies heavily on IMF largesse. In September the fund approved the release of another $245 million as part of a $2.8 billion loan program with Tunisia. But it sharply rebuked the government when it caved to UGTT demands a month later to raise public sector salaries for some 150,000 employees and stop privatizing state-owned companies. Public spending, of which 40% goes to government employees, is the main source of inflation, bleeding Tunisia’s shrinking middle class and prompting nostalgia for perceived stability under Ben Ali. 

What’s next: Tunisia faces critical parliamentary elections in November. Should the UGTT dig in its heels, Chahed may feel compelled to capitulate to its demands. The prime minister is already locked in a power struggle with President Beji Caid Essebsi, his former mentor, stemming from differences over how Essebsi’s son Hafedh Caid Essebsi is running the ruling Nidaa Tounes party. In September, Nidaa Tounes froze Chahed’s party membership as the younger Essebsi stepped up calls for his dismissal on the grounds that he had failed to revitalize the economy. The internecine squabbles have seen lawmakers defect from Nidaa Tounes in droves. One bloc loyal to Chahed has decided to form a new party. The key question now is whether Ennahda will join forces with it.

Know more: Check out Al-Monitor for more on Tunisia’s struggle with democracy and its growing social unrest.

Amberin Zaman

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Found in: Labor Issues

Al-Monitor Staff

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