The UGTT, Tunisia’s powerful national labor union, began a countrywide strike on Thursday. The union is the most powerful in any Arab country, and it was a co-recipient of the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize for its work in guiding the country through the turbulent post-revolutionary transition. The strike will raise suspicions about the UGTT’s role moving forward as the country deals with fracturing ruling coalitions and a rise of “independent” candidates in the recent local elections.
The UGTT, or the Tunisian General Labor Union, has been a bulwark of Tunisia’s transition to democracy following the 2010-2011 revolution that ousted long-standing dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. This is not the first time the UGTT has used the power of the strike, and the country is no stranger to socioeconomic protests. Nationwide public-sector strikes, however, have been rare. This strike may mark a turning point in the ruling bargains that have guided the country over the past several years.
The Tunisian government’s confrontation with its workers was a long time coming. During the post-independence years, Tunisia, like many countries, used the public sector as a “pressure valve” for the labor market. In recent decades, government jobs have not kept pace with the number of educated workers, and despite a hiring binge after the revolution, they have become more scarce.
The Tunisian government signed an International Monetary Fund loan worth $2.9 billion in 2016. In its most recent report, the IMF continued to call for “strict controls on public sector hiring and remuneration.” The threat of less public hiring and efforts to hold the line on salaries have alienated the public sector, the backbone of UGTT membership. Frustration with the IMF was evident on the front page of the union’s newspaper, showing IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde as a puppet master to Youssef Chahed, the country’s prime minister. The criticism is in stark contrast to the days of the Ben Ali regime, when a more co-opted UGTT was open to economic reforms supported by the IMF.
The prime minister has sought to return striking workers to the job with a requisition order. In his address to the nation Wednesday, he tied demands for wage increases to inflation and public debt. Despite his appeal, the UGTT claims that up to 100 percent of workers in striking sectors have adhered to the strike.
A union, a party or something else?
The decision of the UGTT to undertake a major national strike is likely to draw extra attention because of the country’s political turmoil. The ruling parties, Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes, faced a rocky road in 2018. Both were challenged in local elections by “independents” of various stripes, while Nidaa Tounes has seen major internal fracturing as part of a long-running fight between Chahed and Hafedh Caid Essebsi, son of President Beji Caid Essebsi. With the secular bloc in disarray, the UGTT has increasingly signaled its willingness to pursue a more political path.
As detailed in my book “Labor Politics in North Africa,” many in the UGTT leadership rejected the possibility of forming a party, and while it did not officially endorse parties in recent elections, many of its former leaders were affiliated with Nidaa Tounes. A national strike at a critical time will raise discussion of the UGTT running as a party or (at least) endorsing an official “list” in the parliamentary elections of 2019.
UGTT General Secretary Noureddine Taboubi made a defiant speech at the start of the strike, with significant criticism of the prime minister. Despite this, persuading his own leadership to pursue a “political path” may be more challenging than it first appears. Taboubi faced down internal dissent during the union’s General Congress in 2017, and entering more directly into politics may open more cleavages between those who would support some version of Nidaa Tounes vs. rank-and-file members who might support one of the left-wing parties.
Another interpretation of the recent strike, however, is that the UGTT is addressing a classic union issue: workers’ wages. During interviews conducted in 2017, political activists and unionists both discussed a desire to see the UGTT return to “union work.” The sentiment is echoed in Ennahda, the Islamist party that has clashed with the UGTT despite sharing some members. Any direct entry into politics for the UGTT would ensure an increase in conflict with Ennahda and bring with it echoes of the fractious transition.
If the government gives in to UGTT demands, it will be spun different ways. Those who want the UGTT to enter politics will say it is the only institution that can get results for everyday Tunisians. Those who wish to focus on union work will see it as a success of traditional strike tactics. The UGTT has grappled with how to be involved in politics before, with forays into electoral politics under the regime of Habib Bourguiba. What form a new electoral push might take varies, whether it’s a move as mundane as a “voter guide” or running candidates on a joint list with an existing party.
More than just Tunisia
Tunisia has been held up as an example, not only in its new democratic era but also historically as a star pupil of IMF reforms. If the round of IMF reforms is provoking a backlash that threatens the government and transforms the roles of social actors, it may be another opportunity for the IMF to consider its goals. In a one-year celebration of the start of the Arab Uprisings, the IMF’s Lagarde stated: “Let me be frank: We were not paying enough attention to how the fruits of economic growth were being shared.”
Today Tunisian workers are addressing their discontent with the IMF. There remains an unanswered question of whether the government can pursue the reforms the IMF calls for — and whether those reforms in general ask too much of the governments that carry them out.
Ian M. Hartshorn is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Nevada at Reno and the author of “Labor Politics in North Africa: After the Uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia.” He gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Issrar Chamekh on this article.