The costly war between Tunisia’s government and trade unions

Tunisia deserves a better class of politicians and requires a deeper sense of political responsibility on the part of its leading elites.
Sunday 27/01/2019
UGTT Secretary-General Noureddine Taboubi gestures during a workers’ rally in Tunis. (Reuters)
Tug of war. UGTT Secretary-General Noureddine Taboubi gestures during a workers’ rally in Tunis. (Reuters)

The decision by the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT), the main labour union in Tunisia, to call another general strike in February confirms the wide gap between Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed’s government and the union and signals the escalation of the crisis with unknown political and social consequences.

The UGTT’s quick announcement, soon after the of strike January 17 of its more than 500,000 civil servant members, of a second general work stoppage February 20-21 contains several unsaid messages.

The first is addressed to Chahed to let him know that the union will not forgive his resorting to requisitioning public servants in many vital sectors. The second message is to the political troika in power, telling it that the basis for the demands that led to the January 17 strike is valid for coming work actions.

The third message is addressed to the public reaffirming that the UGTT is still a social force capable of mobilising thousands of people and affecting the balance of power in Tunisia.

Sources inside the UGTT insisted that the option for calling for civil disobedience was not absent from the minds of union leadership and that the choice of a general strike was the last warning to the government until social and economic demands of the union are met.

UGTT’s management team has other options for protest and escalation but, after the deadline of February 21, the situation will be different. The union prides itself on having resisted the power of some legendary national figures, such as President Habib Bourguiba and Prime Minister Mohamed Mzali, and therefore will not shy away from standing up to politicians it accuses of having sold their souls and the country to international donors.

The anger of the UGTT leadership is not directed only at Chahed’s government but also at official policy choices in public affairs, especially that of borrowing from abroad while squeezing and impoverishing citizens.

The government and parties composing it find themselves between the hammer of international donor organisations and the anvil of escalating UGTT protests. Chahed’s government does not possess many alternatives to appease the union other than those offered during the last minutes of negotiations January 16.

Ironically, the wage increase offered by the government was not a real one. The government had offered to reduce salary deductions, which gives employees the impression of increased income but really hurts social security and retirement funds. In other words, pensioners would end up footing the bill.

The fact is that the government would not have resorted to those options had it not been for the absence of the alternatives and for the International Monetary Fund’s heavy hand restricting the government’s capacity for social negotiations and manoeuvres.

Both the government and the UGTT have omitted from their considerations two very important aspects. The first concerns the tremendous cost, both material and immaterial, associated with the crisis.

At the economic level, one strike day incurs enough losses to cover the demanded increase in wages. At the public relations level, the strike and failed negotiations represent a tremendous blow to the international image of the country because it gives the impression that Tunisia is incapable of ensuring social harmony and therefore becomes less attractive to foreign investors.

Such a cost is very high, especially when there are competing countries more than ready to take advantage of the erosion of Tunisia’s soft power.

The second consideration concerns the possible emergence of a rejectionist social atmosphere that would condemn both the UGTT’s demands and the government’s handling of the crisis.

There is the emergence of actions and actors in escalating protests by students and parents in many schools and provinces. They are denouncing the tug of war between the union and the government because the threat of an incomplete school year represents a threat to their academic futures and robs them of the right to education.

This form of protest reflects the deep preoccupations of many segments of Tunisian society that believe this futile struggle between the government and the union has become a financial and moral burden.

Tunisia is footing the bill for delaying the creation of a council for socio-economic dialogue, either in the shape of the former quartet for national dialogue or in any one commensurate with the existing challenges. What is even more painful is that the country is paying with its future for some people’s obsession with power and preparations for upcoming elections.

Tunisia deserves a better class of politicians and requires a deeper sense of political responsibility on the part of its leading elites.