Tunisian trade unionists elect new leaders
What were you doing on Christmas Day? Your colleagues in Tunisia were holding the first day of the 22nd Congress of the UGTT, the national trade union centre that played a key role in the Tunisian revolution last January, and had for years before that maintained an uneasy – and occasionally compromised – role as the only venue for criticism and opposition to the Ben Ali dictatorship. Over four days in Tabarka, northern Tunisia, 518 delegates debated a range of issues such as the economic future of the newly democratic Tunisia, revised their rules (eg regional structures and the role of women) and elected a new leadership led by former teacher Houcine Abbassi, the new Secretary General.
The revolution and the freely elected government that took office on Boxing Day while the Congress was underway have not made the UGTT’s job any easier. There have been several bitter industrial disputes since the Ben Ali regime was overthrown. The revolution has further dislocated an already suffering economy, but the new freedom it brought provided workers with the scope to protest and the knowledge that they could change things. Ministers have regularly called for the unions to enter into a voluntary suspension of the right to strike while the economy recovers. The UGTT recognises that strikes can indeed cause problems, and wants a social partnership with the government – but not at the cost of failing to represent workers’ legitimate demands, as this news report demonstrates.
So there is a familiar tale of Ministers oscillating between threats (using the usual helpful language – blackmail, treason, that sort of thing) and praise (both the President and Prime Minister sent positive messages to the Congress), and unions trying to help a newly elected Government (which includes a former union activist as Finance Minister and many left-of-centre politicians) while still fighting for workers’ demands such as job creation, action against vulnerable employment contracts, and a regional rebalancing of the country’s economy (demands which pre-date the revolution). On the side of moderation, Transport Minister Abdel Karim al-Harouni was quoted in Middle East Monitor saying he ruled out any direct government conflict with the UGTT:
“The current government is a government elected by the people; it is not interested in getting into a confrontation with the Labour or other Unions. The role of the Union is to protect workers and defend their rights, and the role of the government is to respond to and fulfill workers’ demands.”
The TUC has had long-standing relations with the UGTT, including a twinning arrangement between our Regional Council in Yorkshire and the Humber and the UGTT’s Ben Arous region, and we are currently discussing joint projects which could be funded under TUC Aid’s MENA appeal.