Tunisian Labor Leaders Reflect Upon Revolt

by Chris Toensing
published in MER258

The Tunisian revolution of January 2011 drew upon the participation of nearly every social stratum. Organized labor threw its weight into the struggle early on, in an important sign of the breadth and depth of opposition to the rule of the dictator, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. In mid-March, the Sacramento Central Labor Council (AFL-CIO) hosted a delegation of leaders of Tunisia’s powerful labor federation, the Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail (UGTT), on a visit to the United States. The Council co-hosted the Tunisians with the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center. Abdellatif Hamrouni is secretary-general of the country’s federation of public works employees and a member of the UGTT general assembly. Najoua Makhlouf, a physician, is head of UGTT’s national women’s committee. Sami Aouadi is secretary-general of the higher education union. Kheireddine Bouslah is a UGTT veteran of many years. Chris Toensing spoke with the delegates in Washington on March 25, 2011, and translated the interview from Arabic.

Let us begin with some history. The UGTT has long been distinguished from labor federations in other Arab countries for its relative independence from the regime. What accounts for this degree of autonomy?

Bouslah The labor movement in Tunisia began in the 1920s. That does not mean that the 1920s were the birth of labor activism in the country, but this decade saw the activities that culminated in the founding of the UGTT in 1946, during the era of French colonial rule. The establishment of the UGTT under its first president, Farhat Hached, was connected to the genesis of the nationalist movement for liberation of the country from France. Hached was in fact assassinated in 1952 for his work on behalf of Tunisian independence. The French-backed terror gang, the Red Hand, killed him because he had assumed a key political role in the nationalist movement, whose leaders had mostly been arrested. Earlier in 1952, Hached had been the only Arab union leader to attend the San Francisco meeting of the AFL and CIO that led to the two federations’ official merger three years later. He had done so to request American labor’s support for the Tunisian nationalist movement. So the history of Tunisian unions is bound up with the history of Tunisian liberation from colonialism.

In 1956, Tunisia won its independence. The UGTT and its cadres participated heavily in the building of a modern, post-colonial state.

Amidst the storms of the 1970s, conflict erupted between the UGTT and the ruling party, the Neo-Destour, the successor to the main nationalist force before liberation. This conflict -- sometimes overt and sometimes hidden from view -- continued for years afterward. The federation refused to be controlled by the ruling party, and so in 1978 the state under Habib Bourguiba hit the unions hard. Many union activists were jailed; others were dispersed, but continued their work in secret. In January of that year, the federation had called a general strike to protest the rising cost of living, which was caused by various neoliberal policies adopted by the state at that time. Bourguiba had a choice between responding to the demands of the general strike and persecuting the unions -- and he chose the latter.

In the 1980s, a group of army officers forced change in the regime. The prime minister most responsible for sowing the conflict with the UGTT was dismissed. His replacement, looking for ways to gain legitimacy, declared an amnesty for the imprisoned labor leaders. Through a series of conferences, the UGTT rebuilt itself. In 1985, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund imposed a program of structural adjustment upon the Tunisian government. The UGTT rejected the program; the state cracked down again.

Then, in 1987, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali got rid of Bourguiba and again there was a new man in charge looking for legitimacy. He released the top federation leaders from their house arrest, and the federation held conferences to reconstitute itself anew. The outside media says that in the succeeding period the UGTT was an ally of Ben Ali’s regime, but that is not quite right. The federation did back the ruling party’s political line, because there was no meaningful multi-party system, the other parties being mere formalities. Whenever there was a presidential election, the UGTT leadership would back Ben Ali (just as it did Bourguiba before him). All civic actors in Tunisia did this at the time. But every year the federation would bargain hard with the state and businessmen to improve the material conditions of workers. So while this relationship may look like collaboration, it was not really an alliance. In a country so lacking in political pluralism, there was no choice but to adopt a two-pronged approach.

When the 2011 revolution broke out, the UGTT was solidly behind it, to the degree that one might say that, in some places, the UGTT was the strategic ally of the social forces that rose up against Ben Ali.

Hamrouni The question of the relationship between the UGTT and the regime is a complicated one. The federation’s independence has indeed been relative. It has ebbed and flowed; there have been periods of estrangement from power and periods of strategic alliance. Under Ben Ali, the federation filled a social void, though we might criticize it for its political positions while the regime was crushing all attempts at forming parties and so on. There was give and take. Even at the times when Ben Ali was demanding support for his highly centralized rule, there were voices inside the federation calling for the opposite. And the federation did not back down from its defense of workers’ rights during any of these periods.

The regime’s surveillance must have been intimidating.

Aouadi Yes, though there was nothing secretive about it. Ruling-party people would approach you directly and let you know what they had heard about your conversations with friends and colleagues. Ben Ali was spying on us, but we knew he was spying on us.

Hamrouni In all honesty, one of the issues each of us in Tunisia faces is how to get rid of self-censorship. Even now that Ben Ali is gone, two months later, we still feel that we are practicing it sometimes. We have all learned to speak in code. And we have learned to doubt everyone -- even, sometimes, ourselves.

Bouslah The great thing about our revolution, though, is that fear moved from the people who were accustomed to feeling it to those who had sown it. When fear seeped into Ben Ali’s belly, he fled.

Was there any hesitation on the part of the UGTT in backing the revolution?

Hamrouni Well, the union activists on the ground were not awaiting orders from above. No one met in union halls to decide whether to support the revolution or not. The solidarity of unionists with the revolution was spontaneous. As for the federation’s leadership, it met at least five times during the mass demonstrations and issued statements, the first of which demanded the immediate release of political prisoners. When the regime began to kill protesters, the stance of the federation shifted to demand immediate formation of an independent commission to investigate the responsibility for the killings. So the attitude of the federation evolved along with the developments on the ground.

Have some unions been more militant than others over the years?

Aouadi Certainly, yes. Historically, some unions have spoken louder than others about the need for political change and the corresponding need for the federation to take a firmer political stand. That sentiment grew under Ben Ali, who completely lacked political legitimacy. Bourguiba was no democrat, either, but he did not rule with steel and fire like Ben Ali did, plus he held onto residual legitimacy from his anti-colonial past. Ben Ali had a bit, too, but he lost it. So, in the last period of Ben Ali’s rule, there were certain unions -- strong, educated, politicized unions -- that argued for greater UGTT independence from the regime and for closer UGTT ties with the civil society organizations working for freedom of expression and democracy. At the same time, there was great pressure on the federation to toe Ben Ali’s line. Among these unions, one could cite engineers, doctors, university professors and teachers, as well as health care workers and postal workers. The women’s sector has also been strong. Altogether, about two fifths of the member unions have tried to push the federation forward politically.

In addition to sectors, we can also mention provinces that have been more vocal than others, not just about the federation’s ties with the regime, but also about regional issues like Palestine and the war in Iraq. These would be the provinces of the south, where the mines are; the large industrial centers like Sfax; and the places with the largest concentrations of population, chiefly the capital city, Tunis.

How has the federation’s political stance developed since the departure of Ben Ali?

Makhlouf The federation took a very firm stand against the first government that took over after Ben Ali left, because it was riddled with remnants of the old ruling party, including the caretaker prime minister himself, Mohamed Ghannouchi. In all sectors and provinces, the labor movement came out into the streets to demand the resignation of this government. In addition to the ruling-party figures among the ministers, 16 of the 24 provincial governors were also from Ben Ali’s old apparatus. Under pressure from the street, including workers, that government stepped down. Now we are with the new government formed by Beji Caid Essebsi, an old nationalist figure who has satisfied all the major currents for the time being.

Hamrouni All of that is true, but it is important to note that you will find all political trends represented in the federation -- Baathists, nationalists, Trotskyites, Stalinists, social democrats, even a few Islamists. So, even if the UGTT has a lowest common denominator stance, my reading of the political situation might differ from that of the colleague to my right or the one to my left. And the same is true of others. In general, the federation is with the provisional government insofar as it is running the affairs of the country in preparation for elections. And then elections will decide the government.

Do you have a position on the Western intervention in Libya?

Bouslah Of course, yes. We support the decisions of the Arab League and the UN Security Council to impose a no-fly zone. But we oppose the dispatch of foreign troops to Libya, because we do not want to see a repetition of the experience of Iraq. A foreign army in Libya might have mercenary aims, because Libya is an oil-rich country. But we hope the countries that have responded to the UN resolution destroy the military capacity of Col. Muammar Qaddafi’s regime, so that he is unable to kill more people than he already has. When Qaddafi is gone, we will find that he has committed massacres. In Tunisia, our hearts are with the Libyan people, and we were quicker than the international community to mount relief efforts for refugees on the border.

Filed under: