With opposition parties and civil society groups enfeebled by decades of repression, and the country’s Islamists only now emerging from hiding or exile, the powerful UGTT union federation is proving to be a serious political force with currently-unmatched organizing capacity and national reach.
The unions “not only helped topple Ben Ali, but are also serving to determine the future of the Tunisian interim government and civil society,” said one analyst, noting that democratic contagion is unlikely precisely because neighboring states lack an independent labor movement.
One of the principal reasons Tunisia is ripe for a more inclusive political system is “the existence of strong trade unions throughout the country,” according to Nabila Hamza, president of the Amman-based Foundation for the Future, which promotes democratic reform across the Arab world.
The cabinet resignations which rocked the interim government followed pressure from the UGTT (Tunisian General Labor Union) – four of the ministers are union members – which wants the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) expunged from the government.
The union mobilized last Friday’s demonstrations – the largest since the protests which prompted Ben Ali’s exit – and is pressing its demand for a national salvation government through strikes and demonstrations, including a Caravan of Liberation march on the capital from the country’s provinces.
Security forces today fired tear gas and demonstrators overturned police cars as protests resumed in the capital Tunis. Union-led protesters last night defied a nationwide curfew to stage a sleep-in near the offices of Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi.
Other opposition groups criticize the unions’ stance, arguing that the new government needs both stability and the experience of former RCD officials to ensure a genuine democratic process. They fear that continuing unrest is damaging the fragile economy and could play into the hands of anti-democratic forces.
But the unions insist they are simply giving voice to public opinion, reflecting concern that reforms could be quietly stifled and the old order restored if former regime stalwarts remain in office.
“We support the demands of the people,” a teachers’ union representative told AFP. “The UGTT will never abandon the people in their struggle to demolish the old regime.”
The unions are also under pressure from rank-and-file members exercising new-found freedoms and taking strike action to demand the resignation of RCD-appointed bosses tainted by corruption. Even police officers have taken to the streets to demand the right to unionize.
“We’re tired of taking orders,” one officer shouted, demonstrating outside UGTT headquarters this weekend.
But organized labor is not taking a purely oppositional stance.
The UGTT wants to be represented on the new government’s policy commissions examining political reform and corruption, and is establishing its own expert forums to propose measures for “ensuring freedom of choice and paving the way for… a parliamentary government and credible press
While it is an exaggeration to claim that the revolution was led by the workers, unions were clearly instrumental in channeling and politicizing the largely leaderless revolt against Ben Ali’s rule.
“Tunisian labor unions and professional associations played a critical role in sustaining the uprising and expanding it beyond the remote regions,” according to Carnegie analyst Amr Hamzawy.
Local union activists helped organize the initially spontaneous rage that followed the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in the provincial town of Sidi Bouzid, the catalyst for the subsequent wave of unrest.
“The unions got involved, teachers, lawyers, doctors, all sections of civil society, and set up a Popular Resistance Committee to back the people of Sidi Bouzid and back the uprising,” said a local head teacher.
Labor’s emergence as a democratizing force goes against the grain in a region where union federations are often controlled by the state or ruling party, akin to communist-style “transmission belt” unions, and some analysts remain skeptical.
Tunisia’s unions “are closely tied to the old order, the products of state corporatist strategies for containing and demobilizing any organized interests that might threaten the regime,” wrote Steve Heydemann, a leading expert on Arab authoritarianism.
“Their support for today’s opposition notwithstanding, we should be cautious in viewing the union leadership as incipient democrats,” he warned.
Like the legal opposition parties and professional syndicates, the unions failed to play a major organizational role in the unrest, wrote the Carnegie Endowment’s Michelle Dunne, editor of the Arab Reform Bulletin.
Yet while many UGTT leaders were RCD officials and appointed by Ben Ali, the union was never a government-run operation for conveying the party line and imposing workplace discipline. The UGTT and its affiliates continued to function as bona fide unions – representing workers, raising grievances and conducting collective bargaining.
Relations between the unions and the government were often turbulent, breaking out into open conflict in January 1978 when the UGTT called a general strike. After the labor unrest escalated into a wider revolt, some 200 people were killed, several hundred wounded and over 300 jailed, including most of the UGTT’s leadership, during the government’s “Black Thursday” suppression of the strike.
The UGTT’s ability to maintain its independence explains why “through the party apparatus, the regime carefully tracked the activities of labor unions, student associations, women’s rights groups and media outlets,” amongst other civil society groups .
Yet while the government closely monitored the unions and co-opted or cowed UGTT leaders, activists at the local level and within sectoral affiliates eked out a significant degree of autonomy. This proved to be vital space for acquiring the training, confidence and organizing capacity which became such rare and valuable assets in mobilizing and politicizing the recent protests.
The rank-and-file union activists in Bouazizi‘s hometown of Sidi Bouzid – and the chain of provincial towns through which the unrest gained momentum – were well-positioned to articulate the grievances of neighbors, colleagues and the communities in which they are rooted, known and enjoy credibility.
“The fear had begun to melt away and we were a volcano that was going to explode,” said Attia Athmouni, a union leader and official of the opposition Progressive Democratic Party in Sidi Bouzid. “And when Bouazizi burnt himself, we were ready.”
Labor unionists helped channel the violence into organized protests and to politicize the unrest by linking general demands for justice and jobs to the ruling party’s all-pervasive graft and cronyism.
“Protesters demanded payback for the blood of Bouazizi and this developed into economic, social and political demands,” said Athmouni. “We started calling for an end to corruption.”
The experience illustrates how labor unions serve as “schools for democrats” – empowering the otherwise disenfranchised even under authoritarian regimes. Unions tend to have representative structures that instil democratic habits and values, a characteristic absent from other civil society groups which, recent research suggests, are more likely to echo the positions and behaviors of funders and/or political patrons.
The Tunisian case also helps explain why labor unions were significant actors in earlier democratic transitions in such places as South Korea, Indonesia, South Africa, Brazil and, of course, Poland, where the emergence of Solidarity proved to be the catalyst for 1989′s democratic tsunami.
The UGTT leadership may have made its political compromises during Ben Ali’s rule, but it managed to retain a degree of autonomy that left affiliated and local union activists with the organizational capacity and political credibility that few, if any, other civil society groups can match.
The Caravan of Liberation march from the provinces to the capital also indicates that the unions are currently the only organization with active nationwide networks and a capacity to mobilize that cuts across social classes.
The country’s Islamists are perhaps the only other group with comparable political attributes, although the extent and robustness of their structures is unclear. The main Islamist group, Nahda, was only legalized a few days ago after decades of repression, and its principal leaders are only beginning to emerge from prison or exile.
While Tunisia’s Islamists are relatively moderate by regional standards, it remains socially conservative and some union activists fear that Islamic strictures will lead to the erosion of civil liberties and women’s rights.
“That’s the danger. I’m against political Islam,” said Habib Jerjir, a leader of the Regional Workers’ Union of Tunis. “We must block their path,” he said.
But the labor movement is unlikely to enter into direct political conflict with the Islamists as representatives of social democratic and religiously conservative agendas, respectively, not least because the UGTT itself is not politically monolithic.
As a mass-based organization which recruits and represents workers irrespective of political or sectarian allegiance, the UGTT’s ranks include members and supporters of the RCD, the communists and other left parties, and the Islamists.
As Tunisia’s only politically pluralist movement, the UGTT will likely remain a significant force for promoting and facilitating the democratic transition to which it is committed.
But as the parties emerge, compete and eventually govern, the unions will need to remain above the partisan fray if they are to retain the political leverage and moral capital accumulated over recent weeks.