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Why was the UGTT general strike in Tunis called off?

January 25, 2014 at 1:50 am

There is a long history of struggle, domination by leftist Marxists, as well as recent disputes between the old guard and the outcomes of the revolution in Tunisia. The call for a general strike on December 13 by the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT) caused a major stir in the country because of the challenges posed to security and other unimaginable consequences.

UGTT is the largest Tunisian union. It was established by the late labour leader Farhat Hached in 1946 in cooperation with the Zaytouna Sheikh Mohammed al-Fadel bin-Ashour. The cancellation of the strike after an agreement between the UGTT and the Government poses several important questions around the background and reasons for the strike which is, after all, the strongest card¬† available to workers in negotiations. For example, were there significant reasons for the strike to be called, such as the refusal of the government to negotiate workers’ demands or its obstruction of union work, or were there other reasons?

The 1970s witnessed struggles with the Bourguiba regime in Tunisia. They led to a labour strike on January 26, 1978, which was dubbed “Black Thursday” after hundreds of Tunisians were killed and Habib Ashour and other union leaders were arrested. The 1980s witnessed struggles between Ashour’s supporters and the leftist bloc inside the UGTT. The leftists were prominent in the secondary education and postal sectors. That struggle coincided with restrictions on the UGTT by the regime which encouraged a split in the union to weaken Ashour’s position. When ousted president Zain al-Abidine Ben-Ali took office in 1987, he imposed a new kind of balance inside the UGTT. The outcome was that Ashour was pushed into retirement.

The regime organised the first conference ever held by the UGTT resulting in a new kind of leadership structure which continues today. The conference was held in May 1989 in the coastal city of Sousse. That was just a month after the rise of the Islamist Al-Nahda Movement, in the general election the results of which, it was revealed later, were fabricated by the regime.

Throughout the conference, the leftist Minister of Social Affairs, Montasir al-Rouissi, interfered to damage the alliance forged between Ashour’s supporters and the Islamists. That alliance could have led Islamists to take significant leadership positions in the union, but the split resulted in a joint leadership of RCD members and extreme left-wingers.

Ismail al-Sahabani was chosen to lead the UGTT, a role he fulfilled until 2000 when a financial scandal about stealing union funds was revealed; he was found guilty and sentenced to 11 years in prison.

In the early 1990s, Islamists effectively vanished from the UGTT after a security crackdown and detention campaign. A new generation from the “Nasserite Arab nationalists”, who in the 80s had been student activists, joined the leadership of the UGTT.

The relationship between Ben-Ali’s regime and the UGTT never witnessed any kind of disagreement before Mohamed Bouazizi’s act of self-immolation which sparked-off the Tunisian revolution. The former president used to honour the UGTT leadership every year on Labour Day. A Tunisian academic has attributed that “accord” to the decision of the UGTT to relinquish any political role in fighting the dictatorship.

Moreover, during the revolution, the relationship between the leadership of the UGTT and the regime was not affected. Nevertheless, a number of union members in several governorates helped to organise anti-government protests in December 2010. Those protests, along with the solidarity actions in cities such as Sidi Bouzid and Gasserine, were what really triggered the revolution.

The UGTT was wary of any miscalculated adventure in order to avoid harsh consequences from an oppressive and violent regime. As such, it did not support any kind of confrontation, but felt that regional strikes would be enough. The biggest union branch, in Tunis, only called for a two-hour strike on the day when Ben-Ali escaped in January 2011.

Ben-Ali’s regime used to deal with political parties harshly. Only friendly or small parties were allowed to work, under close control, in the political arena; large parties, such as Al-Nahda, were not allowed to get involved in politics legally. When the regime fell, none of the political parties was well organised and regarded as credible but the UGTT was.

While the old regime tried to regroup post-revolution, UGTT was hosting meetings of once-blacklisted parties, which were discussing ways of operating in the new political climate.

The dominant leftist and nationalist parties in the UGTT secured a large representation in the committee for the protection of the revolution which led the Kasbah 1 and 2 protests. These led to the suspension of the old constitution and the call for a new National Constituent Assembly. The committee for protecting the revolution was recognised officially and tasked with preparing for the assembly elections.

At the time when polls showed that Al-Nahda would not get more than 20 per cent of the votes in the first elections it got 41 per cent, despite being targeted by a negative media campaign affiliated to the ousted regime. The shock result had a significant effect on the leftist trends which had not been in confrontation with the Ben-Ali regime. The image of the left-wing woman journalist banging her head against a fence on hearing the results was an indication of the impact on the elite by the Islamists’ victory; they thought that Ben-Ali had got rid of this “enemy” forever.

When Al-Nahda Party formed the coalition government with two secular parties from the centre left, all other leftist parties decided not to take part and instead waged an open-ended struggle against the new government. The language used between the Islamists and leftists was no different to that between them during their university days in the 1970s and 1980s; a quarter of a century under Ben Ali was not enough to make the rival parties coexist peacefully.

After he was chosen by the National Constituent Assembly, President Mohammed Moncef al-Marzouki called for a political and social truce. The UGTT responded with more strikes and encouraged protests in different sectors, even those which did not belong to its affiliates.

It appears that Marzouki and the troika government may not have read the UGTT’s message very clearly. Two days after the announcement of the election results, one activists, who was a far-left Marxist in the 1970s, said: “Those who think that the UGTT has become harmless are wrong.” That statement foreshadowed a fierce confrontation between the nationalist and leftist opposition and the government.

The current government was provoked by the opposition through a number of sector-wide strikes followed by general regional strikes under the slogan, “The Right to Development”. The Minister of Social Affairs, a leading member of the Democratic Forum for Work and Liberties and a former union man himself, took part in marathon negotiations with union leaders; they achieved nothing.

It is notable that all anti-government protests have emanated from the UGTT headquarters. Youth groups saying that they would stay on the streets “until the government falls” have started their protests from the same building. It is inconceivable that the UGTT leaders would not be in agreement with such a slogan. Many stood for election themselves as Communist or National Democrat candidates, with insignificant support.
Internal sources claim that the head of the UGTT, Hussein Abbassi, is influenced by the radical Marxist trend in the union. That explains his political support for politicised union protests and his statement to one of the radio stations that the UGTT cares little for the outcomes of public demonstrations. His words were understood to be a call for civil disobedience.

Observers also note that before the call for the general strike, there was a kind of rapprochement between “Nidaa Tunis Party”, which is made up of the remnants of the former ruling RCD party, and some of the leftists who might have forged an alliance to face a common enemy. What supports these doubts is that the first union to announce a regional strike was led by a former RCD party member.

Facing such behaviour from the UGTT, the government’s supporters felt that the role that the UGTT was playing in the country went beyond workers’ demands, and constituted a form of political and economic provocation and collusion with the counter-revolution. That led union members close to the government to protest against the UGTT’s actions. They called for the UGTT to be purged of radical Marxist influence working under the umbrella of the Popular Front. The protest was countered with violence by UGTT loyalists, according to the available photo evidence.

In the face of these developments, a number of leftist members of the UGTT might have called for the general strike in an attempt to oust the government.

However, at the last minute, the leadership of the UGTT backed down as the strike did not have clear popular support. That was obvious through the failure of regional strikes intended to precede the national strike. Tunisians could not understand how a union that signed an agreement in the morning with the government on salary rises could call for a general strike in the evening.

There is no doubt that the failure of the strike will affect the way that Tunisians view the UGTT, which is well regarded by most for its honourable history; its founder, Farhat Hached, was assassinated struggling against French colonisation. There is no doubt that the result could be more balance and an end to unfair exploitation by the dominant parties who use the union for partisan activities that are in no way related to workers’ interests.

Will this be the last lesson for the Marxist leftists hiding behind the UGTT to understand the dichotomy between the Tunisian reality and the writings of the founders of the political trends to which they belong? Will they recognise that history is moving on, or will they continue along the same paths, which would cost the UGTT its credibility among Tunisians, who are getting tired of endless strikes hindering the economic cycle?

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.