The Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail (UGTT - Tunisian General Labour Union), the sole union in Tunisia up to now, has for many years played an ambiguous role as part of the dictatorial state apparatus with multiple links to the ruling party while being at the same time the centre of combative, independent trade unionism.
Both poles have coexisted because they needed each other. The UGTT's bureaucratic leadership apparatus has needed, and now needs more than ever, this veneer of militancy and struggle that the militant sector gives the union in order to maintain its share of power within the state apparatus and to survive the dictatorship in circumstances such as those at present. For its part, the militant sector has found in the UGTT the infrastructure that is essential if it is to reach the workers and enjoy legal coverage, even though that coverage has often not prevented repression in such a context where there is a total lack of freedoms.
A little history
As in most North African countries, the first Tunisian trade union was created following the example of French syndicalism. In 1924, Mohamed Ali El Hammi and Mohamed Tahar Haddad created the first workers' organisation in Tunisia, the Confédération générale des travailleurs tunisiens (CGTT - General Confederation of Tunisian Workers), which was quickly repressed by the colonial authorities.
In 1946, after a process of union-building lasting two years from south to north, the UGTT, the first union in North Africa, with Farhat Hached (later killed by extremist French colonists) and Ahmed Tlili leading it. From its birth the UGTT was closely linked to the nationalist movement and marked by the subordination of the class struggle to the struggle for national independence, a condition which determined its dependence on the new national state apparatus.
During the Bourguiba dictatorship there were ongoing tensions between its submission to the single party and a certain autonomy that allowed it to put pressure on the power in the '60s and '70s. The general strikes of '78 and the bread revolt of 1984 amounted to the highest levels of confrontation and repression against the UGTT by the State, and many union activists suffered long years in prison.
The UGTT and Ben Ali
In 1989, Ben Ali's regime imposed direct submission on the UGTT leadership, led by Ismail Sahbani, who collaborated in the implementation of neoliberal economic policies and fought the trade union left fiercely. Tried and convicted for embezzlement, he was replaced at the congress of Djerba in 2002 by the current secretary general, Abdessalem Jerad.
The double game played by the UGTT leadership
The history of the leadership of the UGTT is a story of betrayal and manoeuvring. From its support for Ben Ali's candidacy in the elections of 2004 and 2009 to social welfare reform, from the implementation of neoliberal economic measures to their abandoning of the Gafsa UGTT activists, jailed during the 2008 uprising, when they limited themselves to a simple request for the release of the prisoners.
Surprised by the uprisings in Sidi Bouzid and Kasserine, the leadership only permitted strikes at the local or regional level and demands for democratic reforms once the rebel movement had spread throughout the country and many local unions had become directly involved. A general strike in Tunis was not called until 14th January. And on the 13th, Abdessalem Jerad, secretary general of the UGTT, was in talks with Ben Ali, looking for solutions to the situation. A week earlier, he had allowed students and unemployed workers who had locked themselves into the premises of the UGTT in Tunis to be violently evicted by the police, and many of them were tortured and imprisoned.
After Ben Ali had fled, the leadership agreed to participate in Mohamed Ghannouchi's provisional government of national unity with 3 ministers, before withdrawing their representatives under pressure from the people on the streets and the UGTT's more radical wing. While people were fighting Ghannouchi's government on the streets, the leadership of the UGTT called for a "government of national salvation", without clarifying what it was to be or how it was to be made up, in an attempt to please everyone.
UGTT involvement in the Tunisian revolution
As I said in the first paragraph, the UGTT has always been an area of convergence for militant trade unionism and the struggle against power. With most opposition political parties banned, with any other trade-union option prohibited and with any organised structure not controlled by the government suffocated (such as the Tunisian League for Human Rights - LTDH, restricted to its central premises in Tunis, always guarded by the political police and prevented from organising any public event), the UGTT remained the only place from which it was possible to struggle against the system and where the various militant sectors were obliged to work together in order to deal with the union bureaucracy. This historical reality has allowed the formation within the UGTT of a current that for years has struggle for common goals - the radicalisation of the UGTT, an end to the dictatorship and internal union democracy, at a price of enormous sacrifice (prison, exclusions, etc.) - and has reinforced its presence in the intermediate levels (general unions, regional unions, etc.) and, consequently, the National Administrative Committee.
All this has resulted in the UGTT playing an important political role in the popular revolt in Tunisia. Involved from the start of the uprising in Sidi Bouziz, its premises have been open, in most cases, for the purpose of organising demonstrations - often being the starting point of marches. It has organised rallies, marches and regional general strikes in various governorates and is currently committees involved in the committees to safeguard the revolution.
Whither the UGTT?
The coexistence of such conflicting trends within the same organisation has been possible due to the situation of dictatorship and lack of freedom. It is still too early to know what the outcome of the Tunisian democratic transition will be and, indeed, the outcome of the next UGTT congress, but it is clear that both issues will influence the maintenance of UGTT as a single union.
The processes of popular self-organising that are in progress, such as the Union of Unemployed Graduates or the committees to safeguard the revolution, to the extent that they are maintained and consolidated, will influence the future of the UGTT. Even taking into account the weight of a tradition of trade union unity in the UGTT, in terms of democratic freedoms, sooner or later the impossibility of the coexistence of bureaucratic unionism controlled by the state and autonomous, militant trade unionism will manifest itself.
Other options: the CGTT
In 2006, a group of former leaders of the UGTT decided to create the Confédération Générale Tunisienne du Travail (CGTT - Tunisian General Confederation of Labour) as an alternative to the UGTT's dependence on the state.
However, the failure to legalise the union meant a cessation of its activities, and it focused almost exclusively on the celebration each year of a summer school for union training through the Association Club Mohamed Ali de la Culture Ouvriere (Mohamed Ali Club Association for Working-Class Culture, the name Mohamed Ali being a reference to the founder of the original CGTT).
On 1st February 2011, the CGTT was finally legalised and began organising. However, it is still developing a clear union line and, more worryingly, its seems to be somewhat aloof and uninvolved in the current revolutionary process. From 3rd to 5th December, it is due to hold its first congress, where the line will be established together with its trade union practice.
The former secretary general of the UGTT, Ismail Sahbani, has also created a third union, the Union of Tunisian Workers (UTT) as a bureaucratic apparatus more for the sake of competition within a possible framework of purely formal democracy.
If the Tunisian revolutionary process continues to progress, Tunisian workers will know the best way to organise themselves. If it retreats or comes to a halt, the various union bureaucracies will continue to play their role in order to avoid any autonomous self-organisation by Tunisian workers.
North Africa Working Group of the CGT International Secretariat