One year ago in Tunisia workers were playing a vital role in the protests sweeping the country against the Ben Ali regime. “The trade unions’ role is one of the most striking aspects of the December protests”, wrote the Tunisia expert Christopher Alexander in the magazine Foreign Policy. On the 7th January thousands of lawyers went on strike. On 11th January a general strike began. Three days later, Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia.
Since then there has been a rising wave of strikes across the country. The political space created by the revolution has emboldened workers to take action over a whole range of issues. A good example came at the end of December 2011 following a train accident in Tunis in which two train operators died. After the management blamed the staff for the accident, the train operators struck claiming the management were failing to provide a safe working environment.
On the 8th January 2012 Samir Dilou, a spokesman for the Tunisian government, made a major speech addressing ‘the state of Tunisia in transition’. He complained that “Over 513 strikes have been held since the Revolution started. Only 460 were legal, the rest were random”, and warned against ‘incitements’ to strike.
It’s not hard to see why the government is worried. In August strikes spread throughout Tunisia’s southern ‘mining basin’ reducing production at the national phosphate company by 50%. This short video gives a sense of how even workers in remote areas with a fairly conservative outlook felt more confident to strike after the revolution:
The end of October saw a new wave of strikes by more groups of workers. Employees of the Brewery and Refrigeration Company struck for better working conditions, oil workers at the Italian-owned ENI comany struck for permanent jobs and Post Office workers struck for pay rises and the hiring of additional staff.
These strikes all took place just after the national elections where a festival atmosphere was reported. Since the revolution there has been a growth of political and cultural freedoms. But for ordinary people the economic situation has deteriorated. Unemployment and inflation have both increased.This report from Al Jazeera shows the anger which continues to exist over economic issues:
In January 2012 the Tunisian dinar fell sharply against the Dollar and economic analysts reported that economic growth in Tunisia in 2011 was either 0% or negative.
The tough economic situation increases the chances that the government will seek to crack down on the workers movement in 2012, and in doing so undermine the very freedoms which were won by the revolution. On December 8th 2011 security forces broke up a sit-in by striking workers and the families of revolutionary martyrs outside the offices of the Gafsa governante, a region in central Tunisia. In business, media and government circles there are calls to criminalise strikes.
There is a difference between the development of the workers movements in Tunisia and Egypt. Unlike in Egypt the official Tunisian union federation, the UGTT, broke with the regime, under pressure from its own activists, and played an important part in the revolution. A key question is whether the radical and revolutionary elements within the UGTT can organise to ensure that it continues to support workers in struggle, whilst also creating links with workers who have set up independent unions.
Tunisian workers are still fighting and will continue to require international solidarity in 2012 if, as seems likely, the economic struggles lead to more confrontations with the government.
By Jonathan Maunder