Tunisian unionists protest attacks, call for new government

Over the weekend, more than 4,000 trade unionists and their supporters took to the streets of Tunis, the capital city of Tunisia, to protest mounting attacks on the trade union movement. After a two-hour peaceful demonstration, police used force to disperse the protestors.

“They want to terrorize us and instill fear in our hearts to keep us from defending our causes and rights,” said Houcine Abassi, secretary general of the Tunisian General Workers Union (UGTT, the French acronym) to the Associated Press. “But we will not let them.”

Since the new Tunisian government came into office in November, UGTT has come under intense fire. Its leaders have been arrested and harassed, and most recently, its offices fire bombed and vandalized. Union leaders say that the attacks are retaliation for the UGTT’s insistence that the government change the neoliberal economic policies that it inherited from the deposed Tunisian dictator Zine el Ben Ali and implement a new development model that includes public investment in the under developed areas of the country.

UGTT, the nation’s largest labor federation, also opposes the privatization of government resources that began under Ben Ali’s rule.

The most recent attacks on the UGTT are related to a three-day strike of municipal employees, including sanitation workers, who belong to a UGTT affiliated union. The strike caused garbage to accumulate on the streets of Tunis and other cities. During the strike, vandals dumped garbage in front of five UGTT offices. One of the offices was set on fire.

Unionists suspect that the vandals are affiliated with Ennahda, the Islamist party that is the dominate force in the present coalition government. “The people want the regime to fall,” chanted demonstrators at this weekend’s march. They also chanted, “Employment! Freedom! National dignity!” indicating their displeasure with the current government’s economic course.

UGTT has been a vocal proponent of a new development strategy that veer’s away from neoliberal orthodoxy. For example, the union wants more public investment in undeveloped regions of the country. Under Ben Ali, 65 percent of public resources during the last decade were invested in the relatively well off coastal region of the country, where tourism and foreign-owned light manufacturing enterprises are the main economic drivers.

But much of the country received little public investment and their local economies were allowed to shrivel. Take the Gafsa district in the west central part of the country. The area is rich in phosphate and human capital, but the people are poor. In some parts of the district, the unemployment rate is as high as 60 percent. In the city of Gafsa, the unemployment rate for college educated youth is 37.5 percent.

At one time the phosphate mines provided employment to many, but as the mines became more mechanized, employment opportunities dried up. When the mines first opened, their owners used their influence with the government to divert the region’s meager share of government resources toward supporting the mines. Much of the region’s electricity and water were routed to the mines

As a result, other economic activity such as agriculture that could have supported a more diverse and stable economy were allowed to wither. The mines today remain the area’s primary source of jobs.

Labor unrest has rocked the region. Several mines have been shut down by work stoppages. Young people and miners recently demonstrated at government offices in the region demanding jobs and better conditions at the mines.

Labor unrest has not been limited to Gafsa. Since the ouster of Ben Ali, Tunisia has seen 22,000 labor protests that include strikes, demonstrations, and other protest activity, most of which have either been supported or led by UGTT.

UGTT has sought to bargain with the government over wages, working conditions, and a new development strategy, but the government has been reluctant to do so. UGTT representatives were supposed to meet with the government ministers of industry and social affairs and the CEO of CPG, Gafsa’s largest mining company, but the first two meetings were postponed. When the two sides finally met, the best that the government would offer was a joint commission to the study the labor problems.

Speaking at the weekend rally, Abassi told the demonstrators, “They want to make us shut up so they can have a monopoly and decide our fate alone, but we will never bend and never surrender.”

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