The Algerian labor union experience

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Article Summary
Algerian labor unions have struggled between being subordinate to the state and remaining independent.

Since its launch in 1867 and until the 1940s, the “union” in Algeria was for the European worker, not the Algerian one, as a result of the long settler colonialism in the country (1830-1962). The Algerian worker lived his first and main union experience inside the French General Confederation of Labor (CGT), which was under the control of the French Communist Party. The CGT was less hostile than the other unions toward the Algerian national issue.

The union experience for Algerian workers happened mainly in industrial sectors, such as mechanics, mines and construction. In 1954, some union branches tried to “Algerianize” their identities by putting Algerian faces in leadership positions, as did the General Union of Algerian Syndicates (UGSA). However, the outbreak of the war of liberation six months later practically froze this union, thus providing the first important lesson in the history of trade union action: Peace is a prerequisite for prosperity.

Political conflicts

In 1956, two other unions appeared, the Algerian Trade Union (USTA) and the General Union of Algerian Workers (UGTA). Because the split was based on how to resolve the national issue, which Algerian unionists considered a fundamental matter, the USTA, which was close to the National Liberation Front, imposed complete control over the worker base in Algeria and abroad at the expense of its unionist opponent, which was supported by the leader of the Algerian National Movement Messali al-Haj. The National Movement violently clashed with the National Liberation Front in the war’s first years. The same control was imposed by the UGTA on the UGSA, which was controlled by the communists. The UGSA was the strongest on Algerian soil.

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The linking of union work with political parties during that period would turn into a major factor in the Algerian trade union doctrine. After independence, it was not surprising that the trade union experience moved closer toward, and almost merged, with the nation-state and its administrative and partisan institutions, especially after the adoption of a unified trade union. A similar thing happened in many third world countries that newly gained independence.

The state is the biggest employer

After independence, the UGTA monopolized union work under the tutelage of the nation-state, which turned out to be the primary employer following the launch of public investment projects in many economic sectors. For more than four decades the state kept growing over and above what had been nationalized of foreign-owned assets. This unified union experiment lured most elderly workers from the industrial sectors, poorly educated people of rural origins. But it was boycotted by young workers, women, and most workers in the service sectors, and qualified workers who recently joined the working class after the expansion of the rules of the nation-state and its bureaucratic institutions. They, however, had a different strategy. A young worker with medium- to high-level education and qualifications used the trade union only as social ladder to rise in the public sector.

However, those who were more politicized chose to be active outside the rules of the UGTA or inside some its low-level structures, in specific worker hotbeds, which became famous for demand activism, like the large worker gatherings near Algiers, which included mechanical factories and steel carriages. These spaces were outside the control of the trade union bureaucracy that controls the UGTA. The union experiment has generally abandoned making popular demands and turned into a means of helping conduct the affairs of social and economic development. Moreover, of course, official political roles were undertaken by the union leadership and frameworks, where democratic practices, such as transparent elections, were absent. Those leaders and frameworks were performing political tasks for the sake of reaching power and for the sake of their own local and international projects.

Pluralism and independent trade unions

The Islamists, in their various orientations, were the only Algerian political parties who took the initiative to form trade unions with clear connections with political parties. The first union (the Islamic Union for Labor, 1992), which was connected to the Islamic Salvation Front, was suspended then dissolved after the party itself was dissolved. The second union (Ihsan), which was a subsidiary of the Movement for the Society of Peace (Muslim Brotherhood), failed in continuity and survival after the party preferred to do charitable work rather than union work.

These unions were formed after the ratification of the constitution on Feb. 23, 1989, which recognized trade union pluralism and the right to strike, after the beginning of the so-called Algerian Spring following the events of October 1988. About 70 independent trade unions appeared. The overwhelming majority of them were in the services sector and general functions such as public health, education and management. Meanwhile, the role of the old unified trade union retrenched in the public industrial sector, which managed to overcome the administrative and bureaucratic crisis due to its monopoly position and its rentier financial posture (petroleum and electricity, for example). That happened after many public industrial institutions in the fabric and construction sectors were dissolved because of the neoliberal policies that were “adopted” in extremely difficult security and economic circumstance. This led to a significant reduction in the number of members in the official union.

This emergence phase of the independent unions, such as teachers’ unions, under those critical security and political circumstances didn’t help in developing a new trade union experience. So they had to wait till terrorism was defeated, some kind of political “stability” returned, and the country’s financial situation improved (2002) before they could go back to popular demand activities focused on establishing recognition as a societal component, and on developing the economic situation of its members (specifically, wages and working conditions).

Those unions for specific economic sectors (more than 12 in the educational sector and about 10 in the health sector, for example) have resorted to relatively long strikes that were met with high popular acceptance despite adversely affecting the citizen’s daily life. Strikes in which women heavily participated happened in sectors where many women work, like education, health and administration. Despite the heavy female presence, not many women became union leaders.

Deficiencies and ironies

Despite their many deficiencies — such as factionalism, excessive pragmatism, intellectual and ideological shallowness and structural weakness — the experience of independent trade unions has put the spotlight back on political and societal centralization of work and unions.

Yet the turmoil experienced by the Algerian political system and the weakness of parties and civil society groups were factors that didn’t help this new and fragile union experiment. It found strong support from independent media that is present at political and social levels, contrary to the position of the elite opposition, which have a presence in the state and have become more anti-union as a result of adopting the dominant neoliberal ideology intellectually and politically.

The features of this situation began to emerge in the form of an almost total absence of union work in the activities in the private sector, which is professionally fragile, something that young labor groups and women suffer from. But those sectors became more visible on the operating level compared to the public sector, whose role shrank despite the legal protection of trade union, protection that they still enjoy.

Independent unions (which are numerous and fragile) are trying to face the situation by coordinating trade union action in order to limit the factionalism in this new independent trade union experiment in Algeria.

A trade union coordinating body?

The project to build a trade union coordinating body is finding many difficulties, including those related to conflicts within the elite union itself over “leadership” posts and over the trends and attitudes of this body. This is happening while there is no intellectual discussion or evaluation to renew the old union doctrine and overcome it. That old doctrine is still strongly held by many independent unions’ leaders even as they criticize it. Perhaps the participation of several independent unions together in strikes that have occurred in recent years will be a catalyst to form the new body.

Another type of difficulty stands in the face of forming a coordinating body, which has to do with the relationship with the national political sphere. The Algerian political system still needs popular and worker support that the parties cannot provide during the current crises. That support can only be provided by the official union. But, will this support be given in return for recognizing the new body as an official social partner (at the expense of its cause and independence) in parallel with the centralized trade union, whose strength and legitimacy have eroded because of its inability to adapt to its new surroundings and the subordination of its bureaucracy to the ruling political forces? In other words: Will the old be “renewed”?

The above article was translated from As-Safir Al-Arabi, a special supplement of As-Safir newspaper whose content is provided through a joint venture of As-Safir and Al-Monitor.

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