The one-million-strong Tunisian General Labour Union known by its French acronym the UGTT brought the country to a standstill for one day last week in a strike intended to protest against government policies.
On 16 June, Tunisia’s public sector observed a massive nation-wide strike that meant that flights were cancelled, Tunisia’s Carthage International Airport standing empty aside from a few helpless passengers, public transport was unavailable, and government offices were closed.
According to UGTT Secretary-General Noureddine Taboubi, the strike enjoyed a 97 per cent success rate, as 159 state enterprises and three million public-sector workers stopped working on that day.
The strike was declared after the government of Tunisian Prime Minister Najla Bouden announced significant salary cuts in response to the country’s economic crisis, escalating since 2019 as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and Russia’s war on Ukraine and paving the way for a bailout from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
The UGTT is demanding negotiations to defend the social and economic rights of workers.
In a telephone interview with Al-Ahram Weekly, UGTT Deputy Secretary-General Samir Echafi said the strike was a reminder of the union’s strength but was also a last resort driven by its responsibility to protect workers’ rights.
It was followed by protests organised by a coalition of political parties including the moderate Islamist Ennahda Party on 18 June against Tunisian President Kaies Saied’s plans for a new constitution that is expected to be put to a referendum on 25 July.
Meanwhile, Tunisia’s judges extended their national strike for a third week after Saied sacked 57 judges earlier this month accusing them of corruption.
Saied froze the country’s parliament on 25 July 2021 and proceeded to suspend the 2014 Constitution before announcing a “roadmap” for a “new republic” some months later.
A committee formed by the presidency then drafted a new constitution, which was presented to Saied on Monday. The UGTT rejected an invitation by the presidency for a national dialogue last month that excluded opposition groups.
What follows are edited extracts from the Weekly interview with Samir Echafi.
Has the government responded directly or indirectly to the UGTT strike or communicated with its leaders since 16 June?
No, nothing so far. This is something we have against the Bouden government, which is now commonly described as the “mute government.” Even when Najla Bouden became prime minister, she did not address the Tunisian people to introduce herself, her vision, or her platform.
The UGTT has never sought a confrontation with the government. On the contrary, we have tried repeatedly to push for a dialogue and for solutions that would be satisfactory for both sides. But while we pursued these efforts, we were surprised to receive the government’s so-called “Circular No. 20” of December 2021 that violates all the local and international agreements that guarantee the freedom of union work and simply reflects the limitations of this government that cannot conduct a social dialogue.
How will the UGTT move on?
The UGTT has its democratic institutions and an executive bureau that will meet in the next few days to assess the 16 June national strike and evaluate next steps. These will be largely determined by the government and whether it will indeed engage with our legitimate demands that protect workers and should avert social tensions.
The timing of the strike comes at a time of political turmoil in Tunisia and an escalation of dissent against president Kaies Saied’s policies since his 25 July 2021 action. Critics say your union has only opted for a vague position on this.
Our position was very clear before and after 25 July. We were the first to support [Saied’s] intervention and announced this in a statement at the time. But our support was conditional. The UGTT wanted a time frame for these exceptional measures realised as part of the [president’s] roadmap and wanted to see the protection and respecting of general, individual, and social freedoms during the transitional period.
Most importantly, we wanted to see this involving all the parties that believe in reform and a democratic, independent, and civil state to craft the contours of the coming period.
The UGTT never ceased to protect these freedoms even during dark times. The union organised two national strikes in 2013 following the assassination of two opposition figures. Then we called for the public-sector strikes in 2018 and 2019. The union has therefore stood up steadfastly during the past decade of failure, corruption, violence, and terrorism.
Critics accuse the UGTT of missing opportunities, either by rejecting the national dialogue or refraining from any action to halt the constitutional amendments that will be put to a referendum next month.
This is an unfair assessment. The UGTT has never abandoned its national or political roles in preserving Tunisia’s [revolutionary] gains. I cited our conditional support for the 25 July action by the president that placed us on the path of reform. But the main point of contention between the UGTT and the presidency is focused on the unilateral nature of the latter’s management of the current situation and its rewriting of the features of the coming stage. This is why the union adopted the clear position of refusing to partake in the dialogue and the drafting of a new constitution.
The UGTT aspires to a comprehensive dialogue and the inclusion of all peaceful civil-society organisations, those whose hands are not smeared with corruption or blood. But the dialogue as offered was merely a consultative process, and it was at this point that the UGTT decided to separate the social and political aspects. There are social demands related to the purchasing power of workers. It is important to emphasise that the UGTT wants to distance itself from the machinations of the political parties.
Some tendencies in Tunisia today want a return to the pre-25 July order, including the ruling elites of the Ennahda and Karama parties. Others want to see an inclusive democracy not associated with the ruling elites of the past decade.
Does the UGTT fear seeing a situation it cannot influence when the draft constitution is put to a referendum?
We believe that there is no turning back the gains of the revolution, among them freedom of expression, freedom of the press, economic rights, and workers’ rights that no one in Tunisia or outside it can influence or compromise. We hope that the draft constitution – which we have taken no part in – is an advanced one that will respond to these aspirations. However, since we have not read it yet, we cannot judge its intentions.
Needless to say, we consider any document that compromises any of the civil, economic, or social gains of the [2014 Constitution] or Tunisia’s Arab, Islamic, and African identity to be unacceptable. The UGTT will adopt whatever it finds appropriate once the draft constitution is made public on 30 June. If it is acceptable, we will call for a yes vote. But if it is not, we may call for a no vote or possibly a boycott. It would be premature to discuss our options at this point.
A version of this article appears in print in the 23 June, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.