Eyewitness to Tunisia’s unfinished revolution

Olivia Nigro reports from Tunisia on the challenges still facing workers in Tunisia after they toppled dictator Ben Ali

Historic May Day as workers fight in the unions

MAY DAY in Tunis following the recent revolution had a historical edge—it was the first public rank-and-file protest organised in the capital for fifty years.

While the bureaucracy of the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT) marked the day with formal celebrations and entertainment, a gathering of over 2000 union militants, students and supporters met outside the UGTT headquarters chanting, “Citizens, lets continue the revolution to remove the rest of the dictators!”

The UGTT is Africa’s oldest union and was the country’s sole union federation up until the revolution. It represents the majority of unionised workers in Tunisia, mostly from the public sector, and has a membership of around 517,000.

Workers rally on Mayday in Tunisia, as part of pushing to take their unfinished revolution furtherThe protest was organised by ‘”le Recontre Sindicaliste Democrat”, the Meeting of Democratic Unions (MDU), a group founded in December 2010 to campaign for greater democracy within the UGTT. Over 200 union militants joined the MDU following an attempt by the bureaucracy to alter the internal constitution to allow for indefinite appointments to executive positions.

The Executive Bureau were strong supporters of the Ben Ali regime until pressure from below forced them to break away just days before his departure, calling a general strike for January 14 that was decisive in toppling the dictator.

Unsurprisingly, the bureaucracy has since played a counter-revolutionary role and was described at the rally as the “strongest friend of the government to abort the revolution.”

Most significantly, it negotiated with remnants of Ben Ali’s party, the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD), placing three ministers in the Ghannouchi led government—later dissolved thanks to pressure from the National Assembly Commission within the UGTT.

A founding member of the MDU, Jilani Hammami addressed the May Day protest, saying, “We have to follow the militants and we have to be united to maintain and gain the independence as the [tendency within] UGTT who demand strikes.”

The MDU is compromised of unionists from significant industrial sectors such as municipal workers, transport, postal workers, and primary and secondary education.

Mokthar Ben Hafsa, a rank-and-file activist within the Secondary Education Union described to Solidarity how “The militants of the MDU were the most active unionists during the revolution. It was the first group to organise gatherings in [the capital] Tunis at the beginning of the revolution along with certain sectors such as the national sector federation and unions such as health, primary and secondary education, post and telecommunication.”

Since the revolution only three unions have been established independently of the UGTT: Confederation Generale Travailleurs Tunisiens (CGTT), Union Travailleurs Tunisiens (UTT) and the Sindicat National des Ingeneurs Tunisiens (SYNDIT).

The CGTT and UTT were formed by right-wing breakaways from the UGTT executive, Habib Guiza and Ismail Sabhani respectively, and represent nothing less than a bureaucratic power struggle. SYNDIT, on the other hand, was formed independently of the UGTT to “defend the specific rights” of engineering workers across sectors. It states an explicit anti-RCD position and has launched a campaign to support Libyan refugees crossing the Tunisian border.

At the May Day protest, Mohamed Ali Ben Ali from SYNDIT commented, “We must aid the Libyan people and above all Libyan workers who come into our home Tunisia. They are welcome. Libyans together with Tunisians need to seek unity in North Africa. The international workers must work hand in hand.”

According to the International Organisation for Migration, 339,000 have fled Libya for Tunisia. Many of the refugees are African workers who previously migrated to Libya in search of employment.

At the heart of the “unfinished” Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions and the waves of unrest sweeping across the Arab region is the question of unemployment.

Tunisia’s interim Vocational and Training Minister, Said Aidi, said last week that following the revolution the number of Tunisians without jobs had increased from 500,000 to 600,000.  Boats of economic refugees continue to embark from Tunisia toward Europe in the absence of any serious program for job creation.

The government elections, now scheduled for October 16, offer little hope to Tunisian workers.  Despite the creation of over 68 political parties since the revolution, there is a clear lack of a working class voice.

The Tunisian bourgeoisie is hiding behind the façade of a democratic revolution while they are cracking down on anti-government protests, imposing a curfew and severe police repression.

A 48-hour blockade of Tunisia’s largest natural gas producer in May, British Gas Tunisia, by local people demanding jobs, along with strikes of Tunis-Air workers, show that rank and file organisation can force jobs onto the agenda.

The MDU and Tunisian working class can take inspiration from, Egypt where independent trade unions have been founded, alongside a Democratic Workers Party to voice working class demands.

Textile workers: “we work like slaves”

IN POST-REVOLUTION Tunisia where high levels of unemployment persist, the textile and garment industry remains the country’s largest employer. In this industry grave working conditions, low unionisation and coercive practices continue to be the norm.

Solidarity spoke with two workers in a textile factory owned by the Italian company, ‘Charm SARL’, 45 kilometres southeast of Tunis. The workers requested to remain anonymous.

As we walked through the maze of loud machinery on the first floor, the workers explained, “Here we are in the ‘shit’. Our wages are no good.  Relations between the boss and the workers are no good. We are treated very badly.”

“In total there are 300 workers [in this factory]… Here we have 35-40 workers who do all the press, the ironing, [the final preparation] of garments for export to Italy, France, Germany, to all European countries.”

Tunisia is the European Union’s fifth largest textile supplier. As of February this year the industry directly employed about 200,000 workers, representing more than 34 per cent of employment in Tunisian manufacturing industries, according to the Tunisian Economic Commission. Of those companies, 84 per cent, representing 29 per cent of the country’s industrial base, produce exclusively for export.

One worker explained, “There are many problems here, with the manager, with the workers. For example, at the last minute, the manager will come and [intimidate the workers] saying you must do extra hours.” Overtime is often unpaid.

“We work like slaves. If you speak, if you ask to be paid, [the boss] will tell you to stay at home, that there is no need for you. He lifts his shirt to reveal a full torso brace, “I had a workplace accident. If I speak to the boss to ask to change positions, I can’t carry heavy things, he tells me that I am lucky to even be working here.”

With the ever-looming threat of losing his job, he describes himself as a “disposable worker.”

Do you have a union and does your union represent your interests?

“Before the revolution there was nothing, we were without a union here”, answered a second worker. “Now we have [rank-and-file] unionists who work with us. We have eight people who were elected after the revolution.”

These workers are members of the General Federation of Textile workers, a union that is part of the UGTT, the General Union of Tunisian Workers.

The first worker explained, “It is better than before but it is not sufficient. Even during these last few days, the boss collaborated with some union representatives to override the payment of overtime.”

Did you stage any strikes during the revolution?

“We did strike only once. After January 14, for one day. Afterwards the boss took eight or nine people and they discussed [the matters of concern]. Up until now, nothing has been gained. There is nothing new.

“We have not made any solid achievements on the social front, for example [in relation to] working hours, wages, working conditions, holiday pay,” the first worker said.

Is there more hope for your interests after the revolution?

The second worker responded, “It is too early to judge. We are not used to democracy or unions or any of this… We are waiting to see what results, what improves, what worsens, no one knows yet.”

“The country is still not good. There is no security, we don’t know what is to come. With this revolution many factories closed… there isn’t a lot of work. Many Tunisians are fleeing… 20,000 refugees arrived in Lampedusa, Italy. The future, in my opinion, is black, it’s not clear.”

In this post-revolutionary period, what needs to happen to realise workers’ demands?

“The UGTT, the unions [must] move closer to the workers, to be closer to the real problems, the real needs. [They must] envisage a strategy to struggle against the factory, against capital, against wages, against the politics of this workplace,” said the first worker.

“Workers have lost confidence”, he continued. “How can we give people back their confidence? By organisation, by having meetings, by utilising all methods of real struggle. All methods, all union rights, all rights of free expression, all rights to strike must be respected.”

Recent strikes by determined textile workers in the Egyptian towns of Mahalla and El Sadat, part of the wave of workers struggles that are continuing after their own revolution, can offer inspiration to their Tunisian counterparts.


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