Is Tunisia labor unrest a threat?

[Today’s article is a follow up to last week’s piece: Tunisia’s compact with labor is broken]

Tunisian labor unrest continues to tear at Tunisia’s new social compact with municipal workers staging a four day strike. This week’s strike, called by Tunisia’s largest union, the Union Generale de Travailleurs Tunisiens (UGTT), has already caused significant service disruptions for Tunisians. In particular, garbage collection has been suspended, leading to very messy (and stinky) streets.

This week’s events occur just days after a major disruption at one of Tunisia’s largest employers, Leoni, which shut down briefly over ongoing labor disruptions. Battle lines seem to have been drawn between the ruling party, Ennahdha, and the powerful Tunisian unions.

Tunisia Live reported yesterday  that UGTT offices had been targeted for vandalism, and one office was ransacked and burned in restive Kesserine. Tunisian blogger Mohammed Ali Charmi  reports: “The Echab (people) newspaper, voice of the UGTT, announced in its page in facebook that syndicalist militants arrested three militiaman who tried to attack UGTT office in Manouba in the west of the capital Tunis.”

Tunisia Live goes on to say that “Shems FM quoted Sami Tahri, a spokesperson for the UGTT, as saying “this is a political act, well organized by the Ennahda movement.”

While the retraction of inflammatory statements like Mr. Tahri’s seems to be commonplace in post-revolutionary Tunisia, his remarks point to a more open battle between labor and the new government. Ennahdha has frequently cited strikes and sit-ins as a principal reason for job losses since the revolution. According to Ennahdha spokeman, Samir Dilou:

les perturbations ont occasionné, depuis la révolution, des pertes de l’ordre de 2,5 milliards de dinars, ce qui aurait permis de créer 80 mille emplois.

translation:

[labor] disruptions since the revolution have caused losses in the range of 2.5 billion dinars ($1.66 billion USD), which would have allowed the creation of 80,000 jobs.

The party has two principal goals in bringing labor unrest under control. The first is their goal of kick-starting the economy through new investment, something which depends heavily on the stability of the labor market. The second goal is to show Tunisians that they are capable of governing. Had the Leoni factory ceased operations last week, it would have been a major blow to the former. The strike of municipal workers threatens the latter.

Charmi sees the threat of conflict between unionists and Ennahdha as an existential threat:

In absence of serious opposition to Nahda and his intention to include Islamic laws in the constitution, many Tunisians see the UGTT as an alternative opposition especially with its capacity to mobilize the Tunisian street. Note that UGTT played an important role the Ben Ali regime fall in January 14th after in successful general strike in different cities. It participated also a movement of protestation that pushed Mohamed Ghanouchi government to resign and lead to the constitutional elections that brought Nahda to power in Tunisia.

Tunisia’s secular elites have largely focused on issues that, while important, are not bread and butter issues (freedom of speech, women’s rights, censorship). Tunisia’s unions, however, have the ability to mobilize massive numbers of Tunisians. As of last year, the UGTT had a membership of over 500,000 workers, making it a formidable force in Tunisian politics.

While it has historically aligned with the ruling party (to the detriment of its workers), its statements this week show that it is showing its independence. And why not? Its membership demands it. A municipal garbage worker brings home 120 dinars per month (less than $80, or about $2.5 per day). Many workers are dismayed that the party that says it represents all Tunisians, especially the poorer class, seems to be ignoring substandard working conditions and pay.

Ennahdha has been the beneficiary so far of working class support. But as it is forced to take a stand on policy more and more, it risks alienating its constituencies. One can already see support for Ennahdha peeling off toward more conservative Islamist groups. It will need to tread carefully on the issue of workers rights – it may very well be its Achilles heal.

2 thoughts on “Is Tunisia labor unrest a threat?

  1. Pingback: Victimization without leadership – a new paradigm « A 21st Century Social Contract

  2. Pingback: More on Labor and Employment in Tunisia | Kefteji

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