Tunisia: Labour and the capital

Trade unions, representing about 30 percent of the labour force, have been protesting against the ruling Ennahada party.

Trade unions have been active in Tunisia's protest movements and are seen as a rallying point for secularists [AFP]

Protests are continuing into their second week in Tunisia’s capital and the towns of Sousse and Gafsa, where Tunisians are making clear that the murder of left-wing opposition leader Chokri Belaid will not be quickly forgotten.

The charismatic head of the Democratic Patriots Party and government critic was shot four times in the head and neck outside his home on February 6, sparking a wave of demonstrations against the ruling Ennahda party, who many are blaming for Belaid’s death.

The murder has initiated a political crisis in Tunisia with both President Moncef Marzouki’s Congress for the Republic party on one side, and the Ennahda Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali on the other, threatening to resign from government if their competing programmes for stabilising the country are not put in place.

Union power

In perhaps the most striking response to Belaid’s murder, the country’s largest trade union, the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT), called a general strike that brought the nation to a stand-still, from the phosphate mines of the south to Tunis’s Westernised Avenue de France.

Unionisation in Tunisia is generally high, with peak figures in the industrial production sector, which accounts for more than 30 percent of GDP. The UGTT claims total membership of around half a million workers in a country with a population of 10.6 million.

Tunisia’s west seethes over assassination 

In the poorer South – particularly in the mining town of Gafsa – trade unions are particularly active. Resistance against the January appointment of Ennahda members to key positions in the largest mining plants is ongoing.

During the mass protests that led to President Zine Abedine Ben Ali fleeing in the 2011 Jasmine revolution, the unions gave up their long-term support for Ben Ali. After criticism from within their own ranks, unions joined the opposition. 

Building on their experiences leading precursor protest movements in 2008 and 2010, the unions provided an organisational structure that helped make the scale and persistence of the demonstrations possible.

“Since Tunisia’s independence, the labour movement served as a rare legal conduit for expressing dissent… It played a key role in sustaining the 2011 protest movement, which it framed as rooted in economic grievances,” according to congressional researcher and Africa analyst Alexis Arieff.

This history of dissent in Tunisia, from independence in 1956 to Ben Ali’s departure in 2011, is well-known across the North African country. 

But the labour movement is by no means universally popular. For all its influence, the unions failed to win significant parliamentary representation in the 2012 constitutional elections.

Tunisia’s religious right have long opposed its programmes, in some cases by violence. In February 2012, the International Trade Union Congress reported that UGTT regional offices in Bou Salem, Ben Gardane, and Jendouba were burned down by Salafi groups, which labelled the organisation an “enemy of God”.

‘Escalating violence’

“Violence against union members is escalating in our country, and one of the aims of our strike was to send a message to stop such violence,” Sassi Nasseddine, a senior member of the UGTT told Al Jazeera.

“We have repeatedly asked the government to investigate attacks, but until now there have been no results. No one has been brought to trial, so there is anxiety and anger within the unions that those who use violence are not being brought to justice.”

Some have pointed to the “leagues for the protection of the revolution”, as an example of a group supportive of Ennahda that engages in political violence, and disruption against centres of secular opposition like the unions. 

In the case of Lofti Naqdah, a regional leader of the secular Nida Tounes party, accusations against ultra-religious groups have reached the level of murder. 

An autopsy released just prior to Belaid’s murder confirmed that Naqdah had been attacked by government supporters, contrary to the government line that he died of a heart attack. Said Chebli, head of the Tataouine League, was implicated in the killing.

”These people work in the name of Ennahda. They are people from Ennahda, close to Ennahda, former convicts hired by Ennahda, and people whose consciences Ennahda bought,” said Jilani Hammami, a member of the Workers party.

A spokesperson for the UGTT told Al Jazeera that in December their annual event commemorating the assassination of the union’s founder, Farhat Hached, was attacked by assailants the union allege to be Ennahda hardliners.

Ennahda denies any official connection between the party and the leagues for the protection of the revolution and has repeatedly denied sanctioning any attacks on activists or trade unions.

In a statement published on the party’s website, Sabhi Atiq, President of the Ennahda parliamentary group, said the party supports the “legitimacy of union activity” and condemned the attack on the Hached commemoration event.

“As a principle, Ennahda is against all violence,” Zoubair Chhoudi, an Ennahda spokesperson, told local news site Tunisia Live.

The UGTT said they would continue to pursue justice for attacks against them using all available political processes.

Expanding power

The union movement has found its reach extending even to places where it was not well represented prior to 2011, supporters said.

Tunisia’s Internal Security Forces were historically a central arm of dictatorial power, and are still an inescapable part of daily life. Military troops and armoured vehicles behind barbed wire permanently surround the statue of the great philosopher Ibn Kaldun on Tunis’s central Avenue Habib Bourguiba.

But with the sector’s recent unionisation, the security forces have begun to experience a level of independence, and an accompanying desire to become a properly neutral professional force.

This once again puts the unions in conflict with the government. At a police union meeting in January, members angry with interference from the top of the Interior Ministry, de rigeur in the old regime, even called for the resignation of Ennahda Interior Minister Ali Laarayedh.

“Unionisation of the security forces was a radical concept for Tunisia,” explains Monica Marks, an Oxford University Middle East Studies doctoral candidate based in Tunis.

“The idea of injecting more independence into the security forces, like unions or civilian oversight, is anathema to many of the old guard still working within the Interior Ministry. The UGTT also represents a significant base of oppositional power, and this threatens Ennahda.”

Marks made clear that the Interior Ministry, like many of Tunisia’s government departments, is a complex institution, and far from fully under Ennahda control.

Nonetheless, she added: “the government is increasingly seeing the unions as an adversarial political force bent on a mission of attacking them.”

Source: Al Jazeera