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Issue #1610      September 11, 2013

Can Tunisia’s labour union ride to the rescue?

Tunisia is gripped by its most serious political crisis since 2011, caused by a breakdown of trust between the government and its opponents and compounded by growing terrorism and a collapsing economy. Last week saw a rise in tension, with protestors filling the capital demanding the immediate resignation of the Islamist government.

Yet one local trade union may save the day, and not for the first time. The Tunisian General Union of Labour (UGTT) has affected the character of Tunisia as a whole since the late 1940s.

It impacted significantly the 2011 revolution and the transition period and is likely to impact the future. Its current role as mediator between the government and opposition must be seen in historical perspective, as, arguably, the role of Tunisia’s labour movement is what sets it apart from the rest of the Arab world.

Child of protest, midwife of revolution

Trade unionism in Tunisia goes back to 1924 when Mohamed Ali al Hammi (1890-1928), the forefather of the movement, founded the General Federation of Tunisian Workers.

But it was under the guidance of the charismatic and visionary Farhat Hached (1914-1952) that a strong home-grown organisation would emerge. Hached learned union activism and organisation within the French colonial union, the CGT, for 15 years before splitting from it to start UGTT in 1946.

The new union quickly gained support, clout and international ties, which it used to pressure the French for more social and political rights for Tunisia and to consolidate its position as a key component in the national liberation movement. The union’s inception in the midst of an independence struggle cemented its political character, a line it has kept and vigorously defended ever since.

Since then, UGTT has been a continuous presence in the country. During the one-party rule of Presidents Habib Bourgiba and Ben Ali, it constituted a credible alternative to the party’s power and a locus of resistance to it, so much so that being a unionist became a euphemism for being a member of the opposition.

Next article – Russia warns of nuclear disaster

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