Tunisian general strike shows potential to resist coup and IMF together

by Jawhar Tounsi 

The Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT), Tunisia’s largest trade union defending public and private sector employees, went on strike on 16 June in protest against the austerity measures including freezing public wages and reducing subsidies on basic goods.

The general strike across the public sector paralysed traffic across Tunisia after heavily disrupting all forms of public transport.  All flights scheduled for June 16 by the national carrier, Tunisair, were cancelled and rescheduled.

This is the latest escalation in a series of industrial actions. A strike hit the government sector and public administration on May 31. The workers were demanding that the government abide by previous agreements signed with the UGTT regarding employees’ contracts and salary increases. The strike in Sfax governorate was organised under the slogan of “Day of Rage.”

The Tunisian government hopes that the austerity measures will lead to an urgent $4 billion loan agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The UGTT rightly rejects the conditions imposed by the IMF and demands wages that ensure a decent life for people.

The government has described the demands for a decent life for people as unrealistic and unattainable. The UGTT has so far been opposed to the current government’s policy but remains unwilling to take the fight against the President who appointed the government undemocratically after a coup d’état on July 21, 2021.

Almost 11 month ago, with the protection of the army and the police, Tunisia’s president Kais Saied launched a coup against the last remaining democratic gains of the Arab Spring. The new Tunisian dictator sacked the prime ­minister and several top officials, froze parliament, and handed himself a raft of new powers.

The coup has been successful partly because it tapped the anger of people who made the revolution in 2010. A decade later, many of them were feeling betrayed and deeply angry. Saied, elected ­president in 2019 as an independent, managed to portray himself as anti-establishment.

Using his reputation as a ­professor of constitutional law, he presented his planned reforms as a way of culling corruption and fixing the system. Up to the coup Saied benefited from relative popularity despite the fact he hasn’t done anything meaningful for the people.

Much of the left in Tunisia—as well as the leadership of the UGTT —have supported the coup. Even though there has been growing criticism of Saied’s drive towards dictatorship, the UGTT and the left are not taking a principled position against Saied’s power grab.

On June 19, the National Salvation Front (NSF) – a coalition of political parties including the Islamist party Ennahda – called for a new protest in downtown Tunis in defence of freedom and democracy. But the UGTT and left are refusing to work with the NSF who are currently leading the fight for democracy.  

The UGTT is unwilling to turn the workers’ struggle into a political fight.  It hopes to put pressure on the President and its government to resist the conditions imposed by the IMF.

This is a very dangerous strategy as the purpose of the coup is ultimately to implement the austerity measures where the previous government failed.

Unless the working class takes the fight for democracy forward, the UGTT will end up negotiating the terms of its surrender.

On the other hand, the democratic movement, which does not strive to link the demands for freedom with those for bread, is unable to mobilise the people and reflects the narrow perspective of its leadership.

Yet an economic struggle which does defend democracy politically is doomed to failure. Tunisian workers are correct to fight back for economic demands but to win they must link their struggle with the fight for democracy!

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