Tunisia: unions play a key role
In the month since Stronger Unions covered the first disturbances, unions in Tunisia have been at the forefront of the huge political developments. When demonstrations were raging in Tunis and around the country, unions were at the forefront – there was even a demonstration in favour of police unionisation – and were the target of attacks by government forces and later, after the government fell, by its supporters. At one stage, when a new government was formed as part of the transition process, the UGTT (the Tunisian TUC) supplied three Ministers. But they soon resigned because the UGTT decided the changes were cosmetic, and their resignation triggered the final collapse of the old regime.
The UGTT has a long history (and a long friendship with the TUC – the Ben Arous regional council is twinned with the TUC Yorkshire and the Humber region), and has been one of the few semi-independent institutions in Tunisia. They have had to tread a thin line between accommodation with the regime to avoid being closed down, and the independence needed to represent working people against the threats of globalisation which led Tunisia to the state where only a popular revolution offered any hope.
Unions often play a major role in democratic struggles – Solidarnosc in Poland, the ZCTU in Zimbabwe and the CUT in Brazil, to name just three. But often, the western media doesn’t recognise their key role, because the unions speak for ordinary workers and the media (often because of language issues) depends on intellectual voices to represent democratic forces. In Tunisia, the unions played such a leading role that it was impossible to explain what was happening without mentioning unions, although the Financial Times’s reports were more likely to mention them than most other outlets.
This week, the International Trade Union Confederation’s General Council will meet in Brussels – and support for our sisters and brothers in Tunisia will be top of the agenda, along with developments in Egypt, where independent unions have been springing up for the last few years, and which have been coalescing as part of the disturbances there. Although the unions in Tunisia have demanded that outside forces leave their revolution to the Tunisians, there may well be a need for more concrete solidarity than messages of support and protest.