Tunisia labor union serves as political mediator

The Tunisian General Labor Union has always played a significant political role in the history of Tunisia, yet its role in the national dialogue, which led to the new constitution, is under scrutiny.

al-monitor Members of the main labor union gesture and shout during a protest in Tunis, Dec. 4, 2013.  Photo by REUTERS/Anis Mili.

Topics covered

zine el abidine ben ali, ugtt, tunisian economy, tunisian politics, tunisian constitution, ghannouchi, ennahda, chokri belaid

Mar 14, 2014

On Jan. 26, 1978, “Red Thursday” (according to activists of the leftist Tunisian Workers Organization, as this day was stained with the blood of laborers and other people, while others called it “Black Thursday” in condemnation of the leadership of the labor union), marked the first large uprising of the Tunisian trade union movement against the authoritarian regime of former President Habib Bourguiba. It is the date of the first strike after the independence declared by the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT), which ended in bloody confrontations with the security forces.

On Jan. 26, 2011, the government of Mohamed Ghannouchi, mainly made up of former figures from the Constitutional Democratic Rally (CDR), was forced to conduct a cabinet reshuffle. This came after unemployed people and families of the martyrs occupied the Kasbah Square for 10 days as a protest, following which security forces harshly suppressed them and expelled them from the square.

On Jan. 26, 2014, the first democratic Tunisian Constitution was adopted, despite many political crises and two political assassinations. This constitution marks a new era of very high significance that is the result of the accumulation of collective struggles of several generations who fought for individual and collective freedoms, as well as for economic and social rights. Also, the adoption of this constitution was the result of a long path of arduous negotiations between the various political components, led by the national dialogue quartet. This quartet includes the powerful central union forces, i.e. the UGTT, the Tunisian Union of Industry, Commerce and Handicrafts — which represents employers — the Bar Association, and the Tunisian Human Rights League.

The national dialogue has also led to replacing the Islamist-led government of Ali Laarayedh with a new government headed by Mehdi Jomaa, whose main mission is to organize elections away from political interactions. The UGTT has always occupied a primary position in the various stages of Tunisian history — starting from the struggle for independence until the leadership of the current transitional phase. Its role, however, has always been widely debatable and controversial among those who defend the central political role in periods of political transition and those who demand to settle for a social role. But what is the role of the UGTT in the national dialogue quartet and what are the challenges that lie in store for it?

General Union of Tunisian Workers: Consensus as a way to resolve disputes

Tunisia entered into a severe political crisis on July 24, 2013, when left-wing member of parliament Mohamed Brahimi was killed, following the assassination of Chokri Belaid under the same circumstances in February of the same year.

On the one hand, the opposition demanded the resignation of the Islamist-led government and the dissolution of the National Constituent Assembly (NCA) without suggesting any viable alternative. On the other hand, the Troika government, Ennahda in particular, clung to the electoral legitimacy, thus refusing to relinquish power. At the time, the UGTT put forth an initiative to solve the crisis, while the national dialogue quartet advanced a consensual roadmap based on three axes: preserving the NCA, forming a non-political government and setting the dates for the general elections. After several political negotiations, consensus overcame confrontation between legality and revolutionary legitimacy, which led to a constitutional path and a solution to the crisis.

A brief return to history shows that this is not the first time the UGTT has played the role of mediator between the government and the opposition. Through the use of consensual speech in the wake of the fall of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the union created the “National Council for the Protection of the Revolution,” which institutionalized and organized the debate between the government and the opposition and eventually led to the adoption of the option proposed by the NCA.

The role of this union — as unionists like to call it, “a balance force” — is very complicated, and this is a point that many people miss. Due to its political role, the UGTT was suspected of being a tool in the hands of political parties. During the entire course of the national dialogue, the Islamists had suspicions that the UGTT would back down on the electoral legitimacy by preparing a coup in favor of the opposition.

In the face of the inability to find a consensual candidate for the premiership, the national dialogue quartet opted for a voting process, which brought former Minister of Industry in the government of Laarayedh, Mehdi Jomaa, to the post. Ironically enough, the opposition accused the union of being a tool in the hands of Ennahda. Since the departure of Ben Ali, all of the political parties have been making such accusations to condemn the political role played by the UGTT. But how could this enthusiasm and controversy surrounding the union be explained?

Throughout history, the union has always been an organization of members of various political orientations, regions, social groups, workers, employees, physicians, etc. Therefore, its work has always been dependent on a fragile balance between sector-related interests, regional considerations and political issues. Thus, ideological and partisan disagreement is not what shapes the decisions of the UGTT, but rather the need to find a compromise between various divergent interests.

The positions, delays and tensions that marked the path of the union were the result of a political culture based on a method of work that combines pressure and compromise in order to contain conflicts. It is this political culture that allowed the union to organize a national dialogue between the various political components. Even if there were forces that are more influential than others within the union, such as the left wing or the former ruling party (CDR, the Socialist Constitutional Party or the neo-Destour), and even if it faced various political pressure, the fact remains that its history and composition make it an entity that cannot be completely controlled by a particular political orientation. The fact is that the UGTT is forced to maintain the necessary balance for the sake of labor unity. This delicate equilibrium position has created a misunderstanding about its political position.

Throughout the various institutional experiments during the transition period, the UGTT, being the only organized space for any collective action and having remained aloof from the influence of the dictatorship, managed to establish an effective consensual base to resolve political differences. This very consensual logic led to the “consensual constitution,” which provided an understanding between Islamists and modernists.

However, reaching consensus is still closely related to political calculations that are limited to the political and economic elite. These calculations lack comparison or competition between viable economic and political projects.

Labor and employers: class equality?

The national dialogue was characterized by another trait related to complete commitment from all parties to save the country from terrorism and chaos.

This commitment was translated by a united front between the UGTT and the Tunisian Union of Industry, Commerce and Handicrafts, otherwise known as the employers’ organization, to make progress in the national dialogue. This front, which brought together workers and employers, was not the first of its kind in Tunisian history. A few days following independence on March 20, 1956, the Tunisian General Labor Union cooperated with the neo-Destour Party and the Tunisian Union of Industry, Commerce and Handicrafts to form a national front that participated in the 1956 constitutional elections and the 1959 parliamentary elections. In the name of unity, considered essential, Bourguiba saw that the social demands for equality should not turn into pressure exerted by the underprivileged on the rich, and he prioritized state-building.

He had used the same discourse in the past to join the labor movement to the national liberation movement. History, which has repeated itself, shows that political issues prevail over economic and social ones, as the UGTT is affiliated with the Tunisian political field. As a result, some critical analysts described the national dialogue as “class consensus” (between the rich and the middle classes). This consensus benefited from the weakness of revolutionary forces and happened at the expense of the underprivileged. The International Monetary Fund (IMF), which blessed this move by releasing $560 million worth of loans on the same day to form a new government, further increased doubts regarding the persistence of the same liberal economic approach against which the poor revolted on Dec. 17, 2010.

While the Tunisian General Labor Union continued to lead several sector-related moves and ensure the interests of the organized middle class, the national dialogue focused on political issues, which raised internal disputes within the union.

Under the dictatorship, the historic dispute was about the union rules. In fact, many confronted the executive offices of the union, which was associated with the authorities, and demanded the union’s independence from the state. However, this historic dispute was replaced by another kind of dispute. Today, the dispute revolves around the extent of importance that should be accorded to social issues, including the privatization of public services, the abolition of public debt, or the unemployment issue.

The main sponsor of the national dialogue, i.e. the union, ought to reconcile between the old elite in the power and the new one that was elected and save the country from the Egyptian scenario. However, the social movements do not see the political battle as urgent and pressing as the union does. The biggest challenge for the union and the political party is to be able to re-integrate the revolution’s social and economic demands into the heart of the political battle, so as to avoid widening the gap between social and political spheres.

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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