‘We strike for dignity’: Algerian workers in revolt

A powerful wave of workers’ struggles has rocked Algeria in recent weeks. Shelagh Smith investigates how battles in the workplaces have evolved alongside the Hirak protest movement.

More than two years since the Hirak protest movement erupted in Algeria against a fifth mandate for President Bouteflika and the regime which has ruled Algeria since independence in 1962, the struggle continues. The coronavirus epidemic of 2020 did what the repressive police and military apparatus couldn’t – it forced the twice-weekly protests from the streets.

President Tebboune was elected in December 2019 despite an abstention rate of over 60 percent. His referendum on Constitutional reform organised in the midst of the health crisis had an abstention rate of 77 percent. Now the regime is trying to gain legitimacy through talks with leaders of pro-regime, liberal and Islamic parties in advance of legislative elections on 12 June, which it is claimed will usher in a government of national unity. “Neither the presidential elections nor the referendum failed to solve the problem of democracy or legitimacy. These elections will only worsen the crisis” said the veteran lawyer and human rights activist Mustapha Bouchachi.

Indeed, repression has increased against the popular movement the Hirak, which returned to the streets on 22 February, its second anniversary, although the numbers are reduced from pre-Covid times. The regime released around 40 prisoners of conscience on 22 February, with the aim of preparing the ground for its roadmap. But as protests resumed, dozens of activists were detained.

There have been many arrests, long prison sentences, brutality and sexual harassment of demonstrators, the most recent being of a 15-year-old boy Saïd Chetouane. At the end of April there were 72 political detainees, according to the CNLD (National Committee for the Liberation of Detainees).

We are standing firm:’ school teachers have joined the strikes Photo: Cosyfop via Facebook

The end of the march in Algiers on 30 April was met with brutal repression, just like that suffered by the demonstrators in Oran, Tiaret and Annaba in recent weeks.

Most of those arrested on the marches are released soon afterwards, but many are kept in preventive detention. 23 demonstrators arrested on 3 April have been on hunger strike since then and refuse to give up.

 A collective of several human rights organisations has launched an open letter to national and international opinion on their case “before it is too late.” They affirm that “their detention is an attack on the fundamental principle enshrined in the Constitution and the human rights texts ratified by Algeria, namely, freedom of expression and peaceful demonstration.”

At the same time there has been a springtime of industrial disputes and strikes since April, against a background of social and economic crisis. The main issues are wage increases, payment of wage arrears, the protection of jobs, respect for union rights and retirement after 32 years of service.

A beacon of this revival of workers struggle is the 10-month-long strike at Numilog in Bejaïa, part of the Cevital group owned by oligarch Issad Rebrab. 196 workers remain sacked, despite 13 court decisions in favour of their reinstatement and respect for the right to organise. The strikers face police repression and lack of support from the leadership of the UGTA union.  Dozens of families have been without pay for several months in the midst of the economic crisis. Despite this they continue to organise sit-ins and marches.

On 7 April there was a nationwide strike by health workers who provided only a minimum service. The turnout varied but reached over 90 percent in some hospitals. Unions are demanding decent salaries, and pointed out that 220 health workers had died during the crisis, of whom 176 were doctors. The president of the SNPSP (National Union of Public Health Practitioners) said: “We want real and radical solutions. Enough of the ad hoc solutions. We need living wages worthy of the White Army”.

The president of the SNECHU (National Union of Teachers, Researchers and Hospital Academics) added: “We have been campaigning for dignity for years. We had pledges from a dozen ministers without any real change. Today we are saying ‘no’ for the umpteenth time. We are prepared to go far beyond a single day of protest. Do not expect us to be silent until we see our demands met.”

“We are prepared to go far beyond a single day of protest. Do not expect us to be silent until we see our demands met.”

In addition to better salaries, the unions are demanding the creation of a public service for the health sector, the fulfillment of President Tebboune’s promises of Covid bonuses which have still not been paid, and recognition of Covid as an occupational disease. The president of SAP (National Paramedics Union) said that health workers faced the situation as soldiers and some left their lives in the arena of the fight against the virus, yet their children are left with no insurance.

A strike by teachers in Oran in mid-April has spread across the country to become a movement. In some areas, such as Setif, this is independent of the trade unions, who some teachers feel are not defending their interests. The strike is open ended, and classes closed, with some administrators joining in. At the end of April, hundreds of education workers besieged the Education Directorate to express their determination to continue the “fight for dignity.” They threatened to boycott future examinations if their demands are not met. “Too many broken promises, too much contempt from the authorities!” said a teacher to explain the persistence of the movement.

For the demonstrators, the whole education system must change to restore respect, and give pupils access to a quality education. Their demands include an increase in the basic salary, with wages to be paid on time. But they are also calling for the revision of school curricula and the content of school books. Many teachers, especially contract workers, feel treated with contempt, hence the call for dignity, and for the creation of permanent posts.

At the end of April three education unions called a national one day strike: SATEF, UNPEF and CELA. “More strikes are to be expected. We are not done yet,” threatened the general secretary of the Algerian high school council (CLA). “The sector has been in turmoil for two weeks, characterised by strikes and rallies of different unions without anyone worrying. The cup is full and the education workers can no longer take it. They are on the verge of explosion and everyone has been warned.”

Protests continue despite repression Photo: Zoheir Aberkane

In April the SAFI (Autonomous union of tax officials) held two strikes, due to their miserable wages and deplorable working conditions.

For the second time, commercial control and anti-fraud officers in the SNTC (National Union of Workers in the Ministry of Commerce), affiliated with the UGTA central, held a four-day nationwide strike in April, causing a blockage of goods at ports and airports.

On 25 April hundreds of firefighters struck and staged sit-ins at their various headquarters.  The protest had started in El-Herrach on 18 April and then spread to all cities a week later. More than 800 firefighters and civil protection agents responded to the strike call launched by their colleagues “independently and not through a union,” according to strikers on social media. They are demanding an increase in their very low basic salary, financial compensation for the 80 hours worked per week, and a Covid bonus, as is the case in the medical profession.

Then on 2 May one thousand firefighters demonstrated in Algiers in a “march for dignity.” They were met with a wall of riot police, tear gas and rubber bullets. They managed to reach their headquarters, where they refused any negotiation until one of their colleagues was released. They also demanded the reinstatement of 36 sacked colleagues, and backdated Covid bonuses. The Minister of the Interior accused them of destabilising the country.

Nine union sections affiliated to the regional office of SNAPAP, the National Autonomous Union of Public Administration Staff, called for a day of protest on 6 May against the insecurity and mismanagement suffered by workers, teachers and students at Mouloud Mammeri University in Tizi Ouzou. Technical staff in the ATS union struck for almost a month, the rectorate was closed for two months by students, most departments of the university have been paralysed, and yet the university claims all is well. Several months after the start of the strike movement, SNAPAP is now calling for the rector of the university to go.

Postal workers began their protest movement on April 12. Despite threats from the management of Algeria Post to fire all those who continued the strike, the postal workers remain determined to “wrest back their rights” and “eliminate injustices.” Even though the strike started on the basis of calls launched on social networks, not a trade union, there has been a growing and significant mobilisation.

Other strikes have taken place by port workers in Algiers, workers in BASP and SONATRACH (Petroleum Sector) as well as workers in construction, textiles, industrial vehicles, construction and universities.

A thousand firefighters demonstrated in Algiers in a “march for dignity.” They were met with a wall of riot police, tear gas and rubber bullets.

Added to this are the struggles over unemployment, especially in the south of the country, and over housing and other issues. The absence of a unified struggle of the labour movement, social movements and the Hirak has enabled the regime to use repression against activists and journalists, often under the pretext of attacking “national unity” and “security of the state.”

 A call was made in March in Bejaia to establish a national committee in defense of the public sector, public enterprises, jobs, the gains of workers,  and the social gains of independence,  by the CST (Workers’ Solidarity Committee), which involves worker activists from a number of trade unions. The CST points out that the government’s offensives have augmented since the damage inflicted by the Covid-19 pandemic: thousands of businesses have closed, hundreds of thousands of workers made redundant or left without wages for several months. The list is long:

ENIEM (electrical goods manufacturer), a public company in Tizi-Ouzou; ENAD in Bouira (manufacturer of detergents and cleaning products) where workers threatened mass suicide in February; NUMILOG, a subsidiary of CEVITAL (transport of goods); EPB port company in Bejaia; SOMACOB brickworks in Seddouk; steelworks El-Hadjar in Annaba; Africaver glass company in Jijel; a Renault factory in Oran; and the Brandt home appliance factory in Sétif, whose workers are fighting to maintain their business and their jobs.

The CST also says the government intends to privatise the public banks, to “reform” and to privatise the public industrial sector. It has announced the end of state subsidies for basic necessities and for health, education, universities, water, transport, housing, fuel, etc., which are the basis of the social nature of the Algerian state. This will further worsen the already precarious situation of workers and their families.

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