First published in Issue 7 of Middle East Solidarity (Autumn 2017).
A major strike in October 2016 by workers in state-owned heavy industries has to be understood in the context of a much wider social rebellion, writes Gianni Del Panta
On 31 October 2016 workers began an open-ended strike at the huge state-owned factory in Rouïba that produces industrial vehicles. The SNVI plant (known by its French acronym) is located just a few dozen kilometres away from the capital, Algiers, and remains one of the few important manufacturing sites in a country that has lost much of its industry in the last few decades. Although the incredible concentration of workers in this area during the 1970s and 1980s is gradually fading from memory, today more than 75 productive units still employ around 32,000 workers. The SNVI with its 7,000 employees is the crucial element in this industrial environment. Several of these enterprises are its suppliers, dependent on the fortunes of the state-owned company. The relevance of Rouïba, however, goes far beyond these mere numbers.
The strike which paralysed Rouïba in October 2016 follows a long history of revolt. In October 1988, for instance, it was in the factories in Rouïba that a radical protest movement took off, leading thousands into the streets before being eventually repressed by the armed forces, which more than 500 people dead. On 7 January 2010, Rouïba’s workers were once again at the forefront of demonstrations against dire working conditions and meagre salaries, when 500 of them blocked one of the main roads to the capital and confronted lines of riot police.
The October 2016 strike went on for a whole week, attracting solidarity and participation by workers well beyond the SNVI, as well as great attention from the Algerian press. Moreover, in sharp contrast to the previous strike in 2010, which was an isolated protest at the end of a decade characterized by economic growth – or, to be more precise, high hydrocarbon prices – and apparent social peace, the 2016 strike followed the development of an increasingly powerful opposition movement, and thus has been followed by further and more radical protests by workers in the hydrocarbon sector.
As is often the case, the strike was born out of a complex set of social and economic grievances. The general framework was provided by the austerity measures that the Algerian government has been forced to implement due to a sharp decline in oil and gas prices and the rapid decline of the country’s hard currency reserves. In particular, a new law passed last year that raising the retirement age from 55 to 60 years (making no exception for hard manual labour) has become the focal point of anger and resentment for many blue-collar workers in Algeria. SNVI employees also showed specific concerns about the state of their factory, which has been completely abandoned by the state and mismanaged by a corrupt and inefficient bureau directly appointed by the government. This has led to sharp falls in production. By the end of October 2016 only 554 lorries and buses – that is, barely upon one-fourth of the expected total output of over 2000 vehicles – had been produced. Workers’ worst fear remains that the government’s gradual disengagement from SNVI is an attempt to close down the factory step by step, avoiding therefore any direct confrontation with its militant workforce.
Many commentators have tried to draw parallels between the protest in Rouïba and what happened in Mahalla al-Kubra in December 2006, when the Egyptian labour movement launched a strike that played a transformative role in the decade-long process that led to the outbreak of a mass-based revolutionary uprising some years later on. To be sure, there are several and significant similarities between the two cases. Both protests were strikes that erupted in the cities that have symbolized the main productive branch of the two countries – that is, textile in Mahalla al-Kubra and heavy industry in Rouïba. Although the concentration of workforce was more than three times greater in the Misr Spinning and Weaving Company than in the SNVI, the two factories represented gigantic wrecks of a period in which state-owned companies were the main actors in fostering an accelerated process of industrialization. Moreover, whilst both the two protests started as reactions to unfulfilled promises, they rapidly went up to the point of asking for the resignation of the executive bureau of the factory.
But analogies should not be overstressed. In Mahalla al-Kubra, workers were not even able to use the lowest level of the trade union structure and were forced to establish ad hoc strike committees to carry out their mobilization. In Rouïba, on the contrary, the situation for worker activists resembles more closely the history of the labour movement in Tunisia than in Egypt. As in Tunisia, the main trade union federation in Algeria, the UGTA (Union Générale des Travailleurs Algériens), is a complex and two-headed apparatus. It is completely co-opted by the regime at its apex as well as in many regional and local sections throughout the country, however under pressure from mid-ranking trade unionists and rank-and-file militants, the UGTA has swung between being a powerful instrument of the regime’s control over workers and a mobilizing channel for their protests.
This pressure from below over the course of ten days from mid-October 2016 eventually propelled a direct confrontation between the industrial proletariat in Rouïba and the Algerian state, breaking down the rigid hierarchical structure within the UGTA. There is, however, another element that differentiates markedly the Algerian context from Ben Ali’s Tunisia. Whilst for about twenty-five years, the UGTA was the only trade union allowed to operate in the country, in the aftermath of the October 1988 mass street protests which led to the collapse of the old one-party system it has been joined by a set of independent sector-based trade unions. The economic and social protests that anticipated the October 2016 strike in Rouïba were championed and supported by this amalgam of independent trade unions, often sharply discriminated against and repressed by the regime.
As is well known, Algeria missed the Arab uprisings bandwagon. Although there were protests and riots for nearly a week in the first days of January 2011, the regime was never seriously threatened and was able to weather the storm quite easily. Whilst for other countries in North Africa, the mass-based uprisings that broke out in late 2010 and early 2011 were the product of the reciprocal fertilization between ‘political’ struggles and ‘economic’ strikes that had gone on throughout the previous decade, the extraordinary social and political ferment of the whole Middle East became the starting point of a new cycle of protests in Algeria, which have followed, nevertheless, a specific and peculiar trajectory. The first sign of new workers’ activism was actually marked, as already seen, by the strike in Rouïba in January 2010. This marked the end of a long-lasting period in which workers’ protests had become rare, plummeting from an astonishing 2,290 episodes in 1989 to just 23 in 2003 and remaining at a such low level for the whole 2000s. The new cycle of protest that has speeded up markedly since 2013 has mainly been the product of two new actors, both of whom were not traditional blue-collar workers.
First and foremost, there are public sector workers employed in the educational and health sectors, organised through independent trade unions. The number of protests, sit-ins, petitions, and even strikes in Algerian schools, universities, hospitals, and clinics is simply uncountable. Up to now, however, the most significant event has been by far what has become known as the ‘March of Dignity’ – that is, a 250 kilometre-long protest by temporary teachers, who were demonstrating against their precarious working conditions, the lack of new hiring in the public sector, and the chronic under-financing of schools and state-provided services. The march from Béjaïa to Algiers lasted eight days, attracting great media coverage and fostering visceral solidarity among participants and between these, on the one hand, and people living in the numerous villages and towns that were touched by the long journey, on the other. Food, water, blankets, and even medical assistance were provided by trade unionists, political militants, and ‘ordinary’ citizens as well to teachers who had transformed themselves into marathon runners.
The second new actor that has appeared on the Algerian political scene has been the lower classes of the south. Two main factors are worth nothing here. The geographical location is probably the most striking one. Traditionally, the south of the country has been regarded as politically docile and culturally backward. Despite its huge oil and gas reserves providing the source for the bulk of Algeria’s national wealth, the region has received extremely limited political attention and economic investment from elites based in the capital, Algiers. This stereotyped image started vanishing in 2013, when the unemployed movement CNDDC (the French acronym for the National Committee for the Defence of the Unemployed) was officially formed in the southern province of Ouargla. The eruption of an anti-fracking uprising, following the government’s decision to allow oil and gas companies drilling the soil in Salah and in the Ahnet Basin, confirmed the south’s new pattern of activism. The anti-fracking protests lasted four months, touching several towns of the south. The social composition of this new social movement also needs to be taken into consideration. The engine of the protests were the ever-growing informal workers, students, and the unemployed. It was, however, their inability to attract other social classes – first and foremost, blue- and white-collar workers, as well as middle class elements – and groups – trade unions and professional categories – that limited the spread of the uprising after its initial dynamic development.
The October 2016 strike in Rouïba has to be located in this long wave of protests, strikes and political engagement. The strike ended under pressure from the UGTA central bureau after management agreed to consider workers’ demands, although tension remained high in the workplace for weeks. Then, on May 2017, a new march organized by trade unionists brought more than 500 workers onto the streets in the industrial area of Rouïba. What is more, the October 2016 strike seems to have been the springboard for a new cycle of mobilization in the crucial hydrocarbon sector. This sector accounts for about 97 percent of the country’s exports, two-thirds of government spending, and one-third of Algeria’s GDP.
Only a tiny percentage of the Algerian working class – less than 2 percent of the total once managers and high-ranking foreign workers are excluded – works in this sector, producing such astonishing wealth that the regime has granted relatively better social and economic conditions to buy off hydrocarbon workers. This has produced a kind of aristocracy of labour, which has often shown lack of solidarity with the other workers, perceiving that its own interests are better served by supporting the government rather than challenging it. The austerity measures recently implemented by the regime, however, have not spared workers in the hydrocarbon sector, whose living conditions and real salaries have been seriously affected. Protests in this sector have been challenged by unusually high levels – even by Algerian standards – of state violence. On January 3, 2017, for instance, Raouf Mellal, president of the independent trade union in the electrical and gas sector (SNATEG) was sentenced to six months in prison, whilst at the end of March, nine prominent figures in the same union were arrested in Tizi Ouzou, decapitating therefore the organization. In spite of this ruthless wave of repression, SNATEG militants staged a new strike on July 2017. Not less than 40 workers were arrested by the Algerian police in a seemingly endless cycle of mobilization, repression, and new mobilization.
The sharp increase in the number of workers’ strikes and protests is taking place during a period of acute economic and political crisis. On the one hand, the country has been led by president Abdelaziz Bouteflika since 1999. After having changed the Constitution, which posited a two-term limit on the office of the president, he has been re-elected in flawed and illiberal elections other two times. However, after a stroke in May 2012, Bouteflika has been scarcely seen in public, being forced to use a wheelchair and to travel frequently to Europe for medical reasons. Algeria is therefore ruled from behind the scenes by an implicit alliance between the armed forces and a parasitic bourgeoisie, concentrated in unproductive and speculative activities.
Moreover, the country is affected by a never-ending intra-elite power struggle, which recently culminated in the fall of the once powerful chief of the military intelligence agency (DRS), Mohamed Mediène, better known as General Toufik. On the other, the wealth of the country is strongly dependent, as already seen, on the hydrocarbon sector, which remains mismanaged and highly corrupt. This problematic aspect has been exacerbated by the sudden and violent collapse of oil prices, which began in the second half of 2014. Having lost half of its industrial capacity since the late 1980s, the Algerian regime has introduced austerity measures and cut important subsidies in several sectors, diminishing therefore its capacity to co-opt key constituencies of the population and relying much more on brutal repression. In other words, the narrowing of the regime bases are taking place at the same time that a vital and militant labour movement is emerging. History has already provided several instances in which the combination of these two factors has led to revolutionary uprisings. Will we see a perfect storm of social protest and political crisis hit Algeria in the coming months?
Read more on the protests shaking Algeria in March 2019 here