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The Impeccable Narrative Around Tunisian Workers' Syndicate

[Image of the headquarters of the UGTT in Tunis, Tunisia. Image by Democracy International/Flickr] [Image of the headquarters of the UGTT in Tunis, Tunisia. Image by Democracy International/Flickr]

[The below piece was written before the current wave of protests in Kasserine in the marginalized southern region of Tunisia. The protests, which soon expanded to the whole country, started after a young unemployed man climbed an electric power tower and was electrocuted. He was protesting in front of the local governorate after his name was removed from a list of possible jobs in the public administration. Five years after the ousting of Ben Ali, unemployment rates had risen especially in the South. In order to stop the protests, the Tunisian government announced a new employment scheme which is supposed to create 5000 new jobs. This piece is based on several interviews with the actual leadership of the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT), members of other Tunisian syndicates, and with local unionists. Interviews were conducted between 2014 and 2015 as part of a project on social movements in Tunisia after the 2011 uprising by the author and Erminia Chiara Calabrese.]

On 9 October, Seifeddine Khardani, a cigarette peddler, burned himself to death in the southern Tunisian city of Sfax. Like Mohamed Bouazizi, the fruit seller whose self-immolation sparked the "Arab Spring," Khardani's last gesture showed the powerless condition of those at the lower end of the country's economic structure. It was a symptom of their continuous frustration and persistent economic inequalities.

Khardani's immolation came just few days after the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, of which the most prominent member has been the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT), who claims to have more than five hundred thousand affiliates. The prize celebrated the Quartet's political activity, and helped reinforce a somehow misleading narrative which the current syndicate leadership propagates, of its impeccable behavior and prominent coordinating role in the uprising. A perfect example of this narrative was evident in the recent Guardian article co-written by UGTT Secretary General Houcine Abassi and AFL-CIO president Richard L. Trumka, where they ostensibly claimed that “as the largest and most cohesive civil society organization in Tunisia, the labor movement maintained its independence and had the network and infrastructure during the revolution to rally people to the streets behind the democracy movement."

With the press focusing on the fairy tale narrative around the magic of the Nobel Prize, outside of Tunisia, the ongoing harsh fight between the UGTT and the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts (UTICA), the other main organization of the National Dialogue Quartet, passed almost unnoticed. The UGTT’s battle against the representatives of private businesses has been ongoing for months, mainly in order to increase workers' wages in the private sector. The fight is also symptomatic of the union's continuing struggle for professional workers’ rights, something that, along with its political role, has characterized the union since its establishment.

But beside its direct involvement in the political arena and its continuous collective action to improve workers' wages, Khardani’s self-immolation also highlights syndicate's lack of more comprehensive policies toward different strata of the population. The union seems to have missed the opportunity, deliberately or not, to address the grievances of those unemployed and informal workers who have been the real social basis of the uprising. These grievances illustrate the consequences of decades of rough neoliberal economic policies.

UGTT's Pragmatic Historical Political Role and Ben Ali

Since its establishment in 1946, the UGTT managed to merge its social duties toward workers with a strong political role in the country’s internal affairs. The struggle against French colonial rule gave the union strong credibility as a political actor. In the decades after independence, the union continued to split its role between social and political activities. At the same time, it managed to survive thanks to political pragmatism and an awkward balancing act between the central national leadership, regional bureaus, and local militants.

During the Bourguiba era the syndicate oscillated between two tendencies. One was towards autonomy, characterized by sporadic fights against the presidential party, the Neo-Destour Party. On the other side, as the major protector of the social pact, the syndicate had the ability to unify workers' claims without producing a serious class struggle. A dire economic situation, also a consequence of the implementation of neoliberal programs, led to a deeper fight in the seventies between the syndicate and Bourguiba, finally leading to the January 1978 general strike, the first since independence and the last of this kind called by the union. Violent state repression, along with the union's leadership detentions, represented the main challenging point from the syndicate to the state in name of its autonomy. Indeed, the following social confrontations, like the 1983-84 bread riot, mainly caused by the International Monetary Found (IMF) request to stabilize the economy, and leading to an increase in bread prices, were more of a spontaneous popular outburst, mainly coming from the South of the country, and not really organized by the unions.

The UGTT's national leadership became more and more entrenched within the regime, especially with Ben Ali, who reached power in 1987 through a soft-coup against Bourguiba, staged with the help of several European countries. The union congress in Sousse in 1989 sanctioned its subjugation to the state. The regime imposed Ismail Sahbani as the UGTT's leader and managed, with the help of the union's bureaucratic apparatus, to repress those inside the union who were too critical of the pact with the state, or too far left. 

Beside discharging internal rivals and opposition, the pact was also convenient politically. Since the 1990s the UGTT leadership allied with the regime in order to establish a powerful bloc against the resurgence of the Islamic movement, predecessor of Ennahda, who at that time were almost completely purged from the union. With Sahbani in charge since 1989 and later in 2000 accused of corruption and malversation, the union's compromise with the regime came with a painful cost. The union came to the defense of collective contracts, but it almost let pass unchallenged Tunisia's economic liberalization and privatization process, along with the wide implementation in the country of work flexibility, in contrast with the desire's of its rank-and-file members. 

Ben Ali and his family managed to build a quasi-mafia-system based on a particular form of state capitalism. In many ways, it recalls that of Bashar Al-Assad in Syria when he inherited power from his father, or Hosny Mubarak's governments in Egypt when his son Gamal started to be involved in state affairs. In all these cases, people close to the regime and the family in power managed to get privileged access to contracts with foreign companies or had a prominent role in the privatization of state companies. The extension of “the mafia of Carthage” was revealed to the world by Wikileaks cables just a few weeks before the uprising in 2010, but that was not news for Tunisians who had seen the hands of the Traboulsi and Ben Ali clans in all of the country's major enterprises.

The Ben Ali regime's, and Tunisia's, supposedly excellent economic performance were considered  an example to follow not only for international agencies like the World Bank and the International Monetary Found, but also for several European countries and the European Union, with which Ben Ali signed a free trade agreement in 1995. World Bank and IMF policies were first introduced with Bourguiba, dating back to 1962. But the main and most forceful intervention was in 1986 with the joint WB and IMF Structural Adjustment and Stabilization Programs. This in fact continued a pattern of loans from international organizations and European countries that goes back to the colonial era, amidst the reform and modernization process which started at the end of the XIX century.

Ben Ali's model, the “bon élève” for European and international organizations, as political economist Béatrice Hibou told us for years before his fall, shaped a Tunisia with two faces. On one side was the relative wealth of coastal towns and the capital, and on the other side underdeveloped rural areas. One example was Sidi Bouzid, Bouazizi's town, where unemployment could reach forty percent of the population. It was no coincidence that the national press controlled by the regime, in the months before the uprising, was focusing extensively on supposedly innovative government development projects in underdeveloped areas of the South and the East. And it was also no coincidence that the 2010 uprising and major social unrest before that date always came from underdeveloped regions, mainly in the South.

The Bicephalic Character of the UGTT

In 2008, and for almost six months, Tunisians of the South witnessed the Revolt of the Gafsa Mining Basin and state repression. Beside unemployment, underdevelopment, and lack of state investment in the region, another main reason for the social unrest has been the accusation of clientelism against UGTT regional leadership, which pushed individual trade unionists and the population against their regional leaders. The spontaneous social movement was strongly critical of UGTT regional leader Amara Abbassi's favoritism in public hirings for those close to him or part of his clan. While the UGTT leadership at the national level did not support the social movement which was taking shape with the events, events finally showed its pragmatism in dealing with the demands of the local ranks and militants in search of social justice, and the will of the regime not to make wide concessions to the protesters. In 2010, political analysts Larbi Chouika and Vincent Geisser, with a certain foresight, saw in the events of Gafsa the perfect representation of the dissonance between the bureaucratic syndicate and local revolutionary unionists, and they were already wondering if regime change could have come from a movement such as this, one which had originated in the economically depressed South of the country. 

Something quite similar happened at the end of 2010 in Sidi Bouzid, a few miles from Gafsa, after Bouazizi's self-immolation. The regional bureaus and local trade unionists and militants, acting as citizens and not in the name of the syndicate, started playing an important role in the organization of the unrest. After a few days, the UGTT national leadership sent delegations to the South and considered in a statement the unrest as a “consequence of an unequal model of development.” But besides the prominent role played by militants and regional bureaus, the national bureaucratic executive committee and the secretary general had been quite cautious in their demands until January 14, when the union called for a demonstration starting from its headquarter in central Tunis. According to Houcine Boujarra, secretary general of the General Federation of Higher Education and Research - UGTT, “until the day before Ben Ali left the country, the union's leadership was visiting the Presidential palace in Carthage, to mediate with the regime, even if the base of the syndicate was for the revolution." The great role of the UGTT in the uprising mainly came from its individual affiliates', trade unionists', and regional bureaus' effective coordination of the protest movement on the field. Not from its national leadership. “The revolution has been made by young people, not from the UGTT, which helped, but not led the protests." According to Héla Yousfi, the author of a recent book on the Tunisian syndicate, the UGTT has always had a double tension between the “union bureaucracy” submitted to the government and those opposed to it, the latter gaining the “upper hand in times of crisis."

Leadership Change, but Continuity in Practices

The Tabarka congress at the end of 2011 led to an effective change in the leadership, mainly promoting militants coming from lower ranks, but without considerable structural changes. Besides a change in leadership, the union maintained its political role and focused on continuity with the past -- mainly, concerning the increase of workers wage. The new UGTT leadership took important political stances against the assassination of leftist figures, especially by rallying thousand of people in protest down in the streets, and it helped establishing a national dialogue, even if the union's fight was predominantly against the elected Ennahda government, by far the most prominent force in a government also composed by leftist parties Ettakatol and Congress for the Republic (CPR). As a result of national and international pressure, the Ennahda government, which in any case maintained intact the neoliberal economic model of the country, resigned and was then substituted by the technocrat government of Mehdi Jomaa and then, in the following elections, by Nidaa Tounes, a new party composed of remnants of the Ben Ali regime.

In the last four years the union used the threat of mobilizations to consolidate its political power, and alienated a large part of the population that saw strikes as unnecessary, and sometimes just a instrument for the union's political goals. The ongoing fight between UGTT and UTICA actually reminds many in Tunisia of the usual operetta of fight and accord that was going on during Ben Ali era between the two forces. 

UGTT showed, too, a certain adversity toward the establishment of other unions. Habib Guiza, who spent several years in prison during Ben Ali and defected at that time from the UGTT, established the Tunisian General Labor Confederation (CGTT) in 2006, and vehemently criticized UGTT's dominant and authoritarian role among workers. Its syndicate was finally recognized in 2011. But according to Guiza, “it is quite unfortunate that we managed to end with authoritarianism and the main syndicate has been doing everything possible in order to thwart pluralism within the workers movement.” Other unions were established since 2011, which mainly put their focus on specific professional categories or worked as political forces to counter UGTT in the political arena, like the Tunisian Labor Organization (OTT), close to the Ennahda movement. The new unions did not considerably challenge, for the moment, the neoliberal economic structure of the country. 

By playing a prominent political role, threatening opponents with strikes, and maintaining its predominance among the workers, the UGTT managed to achieve considerable power, which in Tunisia goes almost unchallenged, and which the leadership was able to capitalize outside of the country on international level. Considering the powerful position of the union, the end of authoritarianism and its change in leadership, could oneexpect an end to its political pragmatism and compromises? Could one expect a strong turn against the neoliberal model of economic inequality typical of the Ben Ali era, one of the main reasons behind the uprising?

Toward more Economic Reforms, Neoliberalism, and Privatizations

In the last years, the country opted for continuity in terms of neoliberal economic policies. The free exchange treaty with the European Union, signed in 1995, has been rleading to an EU-Tunisia Deep and Comprehensive Free trade Agreement (DCFTA), part of the Privileged Partnership between the EU and Tunisia, also signed in the aftermath of the revolution in November 2012. The Nobel Prize coincided with the European Commissioner for Trade Cecilia Malmstrom's visit to Tunisia. Beside Malmstrom's call to renew and finally define the partnership in order to “help Tunisia in such historical moment,” many criticized the agreement, since Tunisia was not ready to compete with European products. They contended that this would lead to the destruction of Tunisian agriculture production, and the overwhelming influx of subsidized European products. 

But besides the already established trade partnership with the European Union, which has been for decades Tunisia's main export market, the United States has also begun to focus on Tunisia. The US attempt to achieve a more direct influence in the North African region hides, behind business deals, the Obama’s administration interests in terms of defense and international security in the region. In March, Madeleine Albright, as Chair of Partners for a New Beginning-North Africa Partnership for Economic Opportunity (PNB-NAPEO), and Penny Pritzker, United States Secretary of Commerce, wrote a letter of support for Tunisia's democratic process published in Al Jazeera America. Besides the declaration of open love, the letter aimed to invoke US private business investment in Tunisia and implicitly asked the government to facilitate commerce between the countries. The letter was backing the Investment & Entrepreneurship Conference organized a few days earlier by the private American Chamber of Commerce in Tunisia (AmCham) and which included a message of support from Barack Obama. In a later meeting in Washington between Pritzker and members of the new Tunisian government, the Secretary of Commerce asked Tunisian counterparts to implement specific economic reforms in exchange for private investments, and prepare the field for a free trade agreement with the US. US interest in Tunisia needs to be understood, too, with the confirmed designation in July of Tunisia as Major Non-Nato ally (MNNA).

The current Tunisian government, like all the previous ones since Ben Ali's departure, recently asked for more funds from the International Monetary Found. Christine Lagarde's recent visit in Tunisia unblocked the funds, but also came with a call for more economic reforms in the bank system and the public sector. The World Bank was actually touring Tunisia in early November to implement the recent Country Context and Development Agenda 2016-2020. In the document presenting the brand-new plan, the Nobel Peace Prize award is often used as the representation of the end of the political transition and as legitimization for new investments in the country, as well as more funds coming from the World Bank along with economic reforms and privatizations.

The Bouazizis and Tunisian unions

Since Bouazizi immolated himself in December 2010, there have been copycats, even if the international press has not always covered them. Setting themselves on fire has been the last possible way for some among the more marginalized strata of the population, informal workers, and unemployed, to make their voice heard. The trend highlights that the previous economic neoliberal structure has not been addressed, and little progress has arrived for this segment of the population. The Bouazizis presence and tragic gestures in today Tunisia represent the failure and continuing implementation of neoliberal economic programs in the country. 

If the various governments which took power after the revolution have continued to implement neoliberal economic policies, continuing in the trail of Ben Ali, should the UGTT have worked more on challenging that entrenched neoliberal structure, and addressed the condition of depressed regions and unemployed youth? 

The plight and grievances of informal workers and marginalized people, the best representatives of the side effects of neoliberal policies, have gone almost unheard. Only a small part of the syndicate has been interested in defending this marginalized and fragile part of the population from neoliberal aggressive policies. 

No doubt the UGTT's focus on political activity has been beneficial for the country's stability. There's no reason not to celebrate the syndicate's continuous struggle to improve workers' wages. But as Hibou suggested a few months after the uprising in 2011, the simple focus on wages has been good, but has acted to the detriment of a focus on increasing state budgetary spending for needier people. It has also overshadowed any attempt to develop structural projects for impoverished areas, where public services are deficient: “In the current struggle, the UGTT has been more anxious to show its strength, to respond to its base and win influence in the political arena so as to count for something and affect the balance of power, than it has behaved as a social actor representative of a general interest attentive to the popular demands of the demonstrators.”

By focusing on national politics, the UGTT has scarcely touched upon the root causes of the uprising -- the country's neoliberal economic structureand its particular form of State capitalism. The UGTT has missed the opportunity to capitalize on its power in order to achieve real social and economic changes. As Yousfi admitted during the presentation of her new book, the UGTT political stance most of the time serves to maintain a certain power and defend the interests of its affiliates, who are mainly coming from the middle class. The uprising in 2011 asked for “bread, freedom and dignity” for all Tunisians, not for a general “increase in wages” for professional workers. Besides international prizes and political power, unemployed and marginalized people who have no access to the labor market and are victims of neoliberal policies are still setting themselves on fire. The UGTT, as a major social force in the country, needs to honestly reconcile and admit past mistakes or its collaboration with autocratic regimes implementing a neoliberal economic model, and publicly take a clear stance -- if indeed its priority is to challenge the inequalities rooted in the current economic model of development.

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