UGTT’s Position in Tunisia’s New Political Order

Tunisia celebrated the Quartet’s selection to win the Peace Nobel Prize for its role in steering the national dialogue on October 9. Composed of the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT), the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade, and Handicraft (UTICA), the Human Rights League, and the Tunisian Order of Lawyers, the Quartet successfully resolved a complicated political crisis, paving the way for the country’s first democratic parliamentary and presidential elections in late 2014. This award, however, is the tree that hides the forest. In 2015, UGTT’s relations with both the government and UTICA deteriorated considerably. Using its significant political clout—further supported by the Nobel Prize—the UGTT has entrenched its position and taken a harder line on labor issues.

The UGTT quickly built its political influence during the last days of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s rule by contributing to protests and launching the demonstration in January 2011, which led to Ben Ali’s departure. In 2013 and 2014, that influence grew as it led the national dialogue. Now, despite the UGTT’s claim to defend workers’ purchasing power, observers link the disruptive strikes in the country to the UGTT’s determination to occupy a dominant position in the new political landscape, particularly after its leading role in the national dialogue ended. Thus, the UGTT defies the government and organizations to remain relevant and sustain its influence.

With 750,000 members embedded across Tunisia, the UGTT outstrips all other organizations as the largest and most influential network in the country, granting it the power to paralyze the country—if it so decides. More than 125 labor strikes and protests in the private sector and twenty-nine in the public sector over wages and working conditions resulted in double the loss of working days in 2015 than the year before. The UGTT also blocked any attempts to change social welfare and labor policies. In one case, the government tried to raise the retirement age from sixty to sixty-two years-old to reduce a pension fund deficit, but the UGTT promptly scuttled the proposal by publicly condemning the policy and threatening more strikes. Labor unions also engaged in new types of strikes. The UGTT-affiliated General Basic Education Union boycotted exams to oblige the government to increase wages and grant exceptional promotions. The Public Health Workers’ Union also called a twelve-day strike, resulting in large financial losses for the state and a disruption in public health services.

Prime Minister Habib Essid and his government have tried to ration public spending toward macroeconomic sustainability and a favorable position with international lenders, but revolutionary pressures have paralyzed government reform initiatives. The government, already facing financial difficulties and a terrorist threat, warned of the negative impact that increased strikes could have on social stability and economic revitalization. Worried about the ability to provide basic services, the government has only hesitantly taken steps toward reform for fear of aggressive strikes in sensitive public sectors: health, education, and transportation.

As citizen resentment toward worker strikes and their damaging effect on the economy increased, Essid issued circular N°15 of May 25, 2015 regulating the length of time for strikes. The government continues trying to negotiate with syndicated unions to buttress its legitimacy and rebuild the public trust, but the UGTT’s refusal of truce agreements—even after the shocking terrorist attacks in Bardo and Sousse—have hardened political differences and paralyzed reform.

The conflict between employers’ union UTICA and the UGTT emerged after UGTT General Secretary Houcine Abassi’s interview in April 2015 with Al-Arabi Al-Jadid, in which he declared that most of businessmen in Tunisia evade taxes, do not invest in the interior regions, and call for public agencies to privatize, which would dramatically increase unemployment. UTICA quickly announced its displeasure with Abassi’s declarations, claiming that the attack threatened the organizations’ relationship and carried serious political and economic repercussions. UTICA has argued that the noticeable increase in strikes and protests discourages foreign investment and many firms have left the country. At the local level, employers from different economic sectors represented by UTICA also reported that protests have damaged the business environment in Tunisia. The UGTT, however, places the onus on the government and the private sector, with corruption and tax evasion as the main reason for the state budget deficit, economic stagnation, and unmet social demands.

The two organizations also diverge on the issue of wage increases in the wake of UGTT’s successful efforts to convince the government to increase public sector wages for 2015 and 2016. The UGTT claimed that wage increases were retroactive beginning in 2014, but UTICA had not made a decision on the matter and fears that increased public sector wages would limit government lending and hurt private sector development. The UGTT also hopes to expand this benefit to workers in the private sector, but employers adamantly refuse.

Although a classic struggle between workers and employers, some feel that UGTT’s outsized political weight has the potential to damage Tunisia’s transition and derail economic recovery in its narrow pursuit of labor benefits through strikes. Other observers argue, however, that the UGTT has lost control of some unions. The best example here is the continuous strikes at the majority state-owned Gafsa Phosphate Company, which caused production to shut down for several months—even after the UGTT called for an end to protests. The transportation sector also witnessed several strikes taking place independent of UGTT coordination.

In either case, the UGTT leadership has not abandoned its hope to institutionalize the national dialogue and maintain its role as mediator. Yet despite its powerful network in the different ministries, companies, and regions still influencing public and private sector activities, UGTT struggles to remain the most relevant organization on the Tunisian political scene—which explains its more hardline behavior. Abassi has argued repeatedly that the general union will play a political role whenever the situation in the country needs it, with or without the permission of any other power.

Union leaders consider the national dialogue a living organism, but the coexistence of an elected government alongside a dialogue body can negatively affect perceptions of decision making authority and legitimacy. While the national dialogue was and should remain a temporary instrument for hard political impasses, the responsibility lies with the current government to deal with political, economic, and security issues. If the UGTT continues to insist on taking the lead role in national issues, Tunisia’s nascent democratic government will have a hard time building public confidencein it as an institution.

Naim Ameur is a political and economic analyst based in Tunis. He specializes in North Africa, with a focus on Tunisian and Libyan affairs.

Image: Hussein Abassi, head of the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT), leaves his office in Tunis Tunisia, October 9, 2015. (Reuters)