On Jan. 22, Tunisians in the impoverished interior regions of the country took to the streets, demanding increased economic development. Five years ago, similar protests sparked a revolution centered on economic justice. The Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT), a working- and middle-class-based labor union, played a leading role in the transition process that followed, winning the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize as part of the group of civil society organizations credited with preserving Tunisia’s democratic transition.
For all these contributions, however, the UGTT is first and foremost a labor union, and the democratic transition has yet to achieve the economic gains of most concern to its constituents. Tunisia’s unemployment rate is over 15 percent, worse than before the revolution, with more than half of college educated youth out of work. In a survey last month, 86 percent of Tunisians said the economy was bad or somewhat bad, the highest since 2011. The emergency measures promised by the Cabinet and appeals for calm from the president and prime minister may have ended protests for a moment, but structural problems persist.
Later this year, the UGTT holds its national congress, likely to coincide with regional and municipal elections throughout the country. With no presidential or parliamentary elections until 2019, national power will remain split between the Islamist Ennahda party and the governing Nidaa Tounes, which is riven by internal divisions. This means that the local elections and the UGTT national congress will be an important moment in determining the politics of economic reforms over the next few years. These elections will reveal the balance between competing forces both within the union and the country: secular and Islamist, coastal and interior, left wing and conservative, with serious ramifications for the unemployed youth who drove the revolution and still await its material benefits.
The UGTT played an outsized role in the transition from authoritarianism to democracy in Tunisia. The idea of unions playing such a role in a transition isn’t a new one, but it cuts against some recent global trends. Unions played a key role in the so-called pacted transitions in places, such as Spain and Portugal, where elites cut deals to usher in liberal democratic rule. Unions have lost some of their power in an era of unruly transitions to — and away from — democracy. Globalization has also restricted some trade unions’ traditional power bases, leaving some to question whether they have any role to play.
The UGTT was a political force in the country before the country even existed, helping lead and organize the independence movement that freed Tunisia from French rule. During the long period of dictatorship under the regime of former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the union played a dual role: loyal part of the regime apparatus and protector of political life under authoritarian rule. The role was an uneasy one, and the union was pushed by its more activist members to join the nascent uprising from 2010 to 2011.
Like all national institutions, the UGTT faced pressure to reform following the revolution. Its efforts culminated in a national conference held in the city of Tabarka in December 2011. This congress selected a new executive board, including unionists with long histories inside the organization as well as some more militant rank-and-file members. Thirteen new members were elected to the leadership, a record for the organization. Throughout 2012, tensions rose between the governing “Troika” of the CPR, Ennahda and Ettakatol and other political forces in the country. The UGTT took up the mantle of opposition, calling for two national strikes during the transition process. The conflict polarized the rank-and-file and some Ennahda-affiliated trade unionists left the movement. The February 2014 ratification of the new constitution helped heal some if not all of these rifts. The strength of the UGTT, as well as their failure to build a robust Islamist alternative, led many Ennahda trade unionists to rejoin the organization.
These overlapping roles as independence-era champions, revolutionary leaders and vanguard of civil society often leave the union struggling to do its most basic job: provide better lives for its membership.
The members of the union span the working and middle classes and are concentrated in the public sector. Economic malaise following the revolution, exacerbated by several assassinations and terrorist attacks, has led to continued high unemployment, and a call for increased flexibility to hire and fire from business leaders, and for potentially shrinking the public sector from budget-conscious politicians. Yet it remains unclear to what extent the UGTT has a plan to deal with any of these issues.
The UGTT can claim several victories on behalf of workers. It has reduced some aspects of the corrupt labor brokerage system that functioned as a patronage network for the old regime. It has reduced the number of employees on short-term, insecure contracts, which often required employees to sign their own resignation letter upon hiring. Successful negotiations raised the minimum wage in the public sector.
In an interview I conducted in July 2015, UGTT Deputy Secretary General Belgacem Ayari laid out an ambitious agenda for the union. It included revising the labor code to come into compliance with international standards, introducing new clauses for gender parity, making it more difficult for employers to lay off workers, and representing more workers in small and medium-sized industries as well as those in the informal sector.
But these accomplishments pale beside the continuing and growing economic problems facing Tunisian workers. The UGTT struggles with its inability to increase employment or to bring about real change in economic development policies in the country’s struggling interior. The January protests starkly illustrated the mounting frustration with the failure of the UGTT to address this economic stagnation.
These failures have led internal critics of the UGTT to question its political focus. As Adnen Hajji, a longtime UGTT activist from the country’s industrial heartland, said, “The current situation is catastrophic. … The UGTT has changed its direction. … It is switching its role to a political one, which is sad.”
A similar tone is echoed by others across the political spectrum.
In a January interview, Mohammad Lakhdar Laajili, a member of parliament from the Ennahda Party who sits on a committee for regional development, stated, “The challenge is unemployment as well as local and international investment. …We had an article for positive discrimination for the interior regions but have failed to implement it.” When asked if long-standing issues of corruption in job placement in the interior region had abated following the revolution, Laajili said, “Of course not.”
One of the main problems the UGTT faces is that so few of those protesting in the nation’s interior are actually members. As Ayari reported earlier this month, the UGTT’s strength is in the public sector.
The vast majority of impoverished Tunisians are either not working — with unemployment levels at more than 40 percent for young people in the interior — or working in the informal sector. While the informal sector includes black market activities, such as drug smuggling and human trafficking, much of it is more benign. Selling small goods without a government license, smuggling cars or industrial parts across the Algerian border to avoid taxes and tariffs, and agricultural work outside the official structures could all be described as the “informal sector” or “parallel economy.”
In January, Mustapha Baccouche of the business federation UTICA said that “the parallel economy could grow to exceed legal commercial activity. … We need to bring it into the legal economy.” Much of this parallel economy is concentrated in the interior region, along the border with Libya where smuggling is common. But efforts to legalize and formalize these workers has been a challenge for both the union and the business community.
The UGTT therefore faces a stark choice about its future political role. If the union decides to keep its energy and attention focused on its own members, many of whom are middle aged and middle income, the institution will separate itself from the great mass of unemployed youth who helped drive the revolutionary project. On the other hand, the union could recognize these members as the future of Tunisian labor and take a more explicitly class-based role. However, to do so would likely open it to accusations of political partisanship and further alienation from the business community and center-right parties, including Ennahda.
As the union continues to grapple with its role in post-revolutionary Tunisia, the leadership balances its, sometimes conflicting, commitments to the state and its membership. However, if the UGTT fails to connect with disenfranchised youth and unrepresented workers, the recent protests will unlikely be the last.
Ian M. Hartshorn is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Nevada, Reno. You can follow him @imhartshorn.