Tuesday Apr 07

Labor in Tunisia: SPECIAL REPORT Organizers’ Forum International Dialogue – Tunisia

On the second day of our recent trip to Tunisia, we found ourselves in a location all too familiar to those who work in the labor movement – a hotel boardroom, tables arranged in a circle, white tablecloths and pitchers of water.

We were there to meet with the leadership of the newly reconstituted Confédération Générale Tunisienne du Travail (“CGTT”), and the familiar ground shifted underneath us as the conversation soon made clear just how different the Tunisian context was for us North American trade unionists.

The CGTT was originally founded in 1924 and was largely eliminated by the French colonial authorities the next year. However, the CGTT reformed in 2006 and was finally permitted to register as a trade union following the 2011 Tunisian Revolution.

Beginning with 10,000 members in 2011, the CGTT has grown rapidly, currently representing approximately 90,000 members in both the public and private sectors.

The CGTT presents themselves as the more radical counterpart to the behemoth of the Tunisian labor movement – the 750,000 member, Nobel Peace Prize winning Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail (“UGTT”).

The CGTT leaders emphasized their dedication to community organizing principles, noting their interest in the work of Saul Alinsky and their alliances with radical French trade unions. These lessons have begun to pay off through innovative programs such as establishing workshops to train unemployed youth for new jobs, who then become dues paying members of the CGTT on finding employment.

However, the CGTT also faces significant challenges. These include factors common to all labor unions in Tunisia, like extraordinarily high unemployment numbers among Tunisia’s highly educated youth, as well as some unique to the fledgling labor central, like the facts that the CGTT has thus far failed to be recognized by the International Trade Union Confederation or the Tunisian government, who continue to recognize and bargain primarily with the more established UGTT.

Indeed, the antipathy towards the UGTT lay heavy in the air during this meeting, where the CGTT leadership repeatedly noted their commitment to trade union pluralism in contrast to the UGTT’s approach of, in their view, attempting to consolidate all of Tunisian labor power in their hands.

With all this background, we set out for our first meeting with the UGTT a couple of days later. As noted above, the UGTT has massive establishment bona fides in Tunisia. While long the only recognized trade union in Tunisia, the UGTT also emerged to play a pivotal role in the 2011 revolution and the transition to a more democratic society that followed that revolution, including in 2013 organizing the first Tunisian general strike since 1978 to protest the assassination of political leader Chokri Belaid.

This meeting was with leadership of a component of the UGTT which represents approximately 25,000 workers for the Tunisian Ministry of Public Service, many of whom work in sanitation.

The leadership discussed with us the issues facing these workers, many of which are also shared with those raised by CGTT. Youth unemployment is a major issue across the country, and the UGTT is engaged in a project financed by the European Commission to recruit more than 1,000 workers who they will then help train to perform work in the municipal public service in Tunisia.

We also questioned the leadership on the issues of union pluralism raised by the CGTT. The UGTT leadership made clear that, while they were “not opposed” to union pluralism, they do not view any other Tunisian trade unions as a challenge to their supremacy in the Tunisian labor movement. Indeed, they were quite firm that they do not have any interest in cooperation with other unions. They noted that, in wording that will be quite familiar to North American trade unionists, they simply could not as the “jurisdiction [between trade unions] is not clear”.

The next day we had a very different experience in meeting with another component of the massive UGTT, this time the leadership of 8,000 workers who work in the call center industry in Tunisia.

Call centers are a large employer in the country, employing approximately 30,000 workers. Many of these workers possess a post-secondary degree, a symptom of the high rates of youth employment in the country.

This group of leaders were younger and more militant than the other UGTT representatives we had met with, noting the many strikes they had organized in the past years, including a fifty-five day sit-it at the office of the Human Resources Director for Teleperformance, a major employer in the sector.

We were also interested to learn that Bell Canada has established a Francophone call center in Tunisia and were a particularly difficult employer to deal with for UGTT members.

However, we should be careful to note that the militancy of this group was not necessarily an outlier in the UGTT. Despite their prominence in the political area, the UGTT has also been willing to significantly rock the Tunisian boat since the 2011 Revolution.

This has included organizing widely covered general strikes in late 2018 and early 2019 to protest the government’s refusal to raise wages for Tunisia’s 670,000 public servants under pressure from the International Monetary Fund.

Overall, our visits with the CGTT and UGTT provided a fascinating view into the changing world of the Tunisian labor movement, as workers struggle with the forces of neoliberalism and austerity inside an economic and political structure that has been rapid change in the years since the Revolution.

Thom Yachnin is Director of Field Services and Negotiations at BC Government and Service Employees Union (BCGEU)and Matt Damario is a member of the Executive of the BCGEU for the Administrative Services component.

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