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The Tunisian Labour Union, better known by its French acronym UGTT (Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail), has played a continuous historic role in post-colonial Tunisian history.

Struggle for Tunisian independence

The Tunisian labour movement (prior to the UGTT) started in the early 20’s during French colonial rule with organized labour activism. Until independence in 1956 Tunisia became a French protectorate in 1881. In 1946, still being a French protectorate, the UGTT was founded. Instead of other existing unions that were mastered by the French, the UGTT was an independent (from French rule) labor union, taking the rights of Tunisian labourers and their social issues at heart. However, right from the start it was also directly involved in the national cause of independence. The UGTT, autonome as it as, would directly be the epicenter in the struggle for Tunisian selfrule and soon alligned itself with the national movement for independence. Independence was finally achieved in 1956 and (leader in the national movement) Habib Bourguiba would a year later become the first president of the newfound Tunisian Republic.

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Farhat Hached (picture above) was unanimously elected as the first secretary general of the UGTT being only 32 years old. He would lead the union from 1946 until 1952, when he was assassinated by La Main Rouge (the Red Hand). La Main Rouge was an armed organization aimed at protecting French interests in Tunisia and oppressing the call for independence. A now retired French intelligence officer acknowledged having taken part in the assassination, although from the moment he was killed they were widely believed to be responsible for the assassination. Due to his popularity among Tunisians, now and then, he is considered a national hero and if not killed might well have been the first actual president of the Tunisian republic. Hached’s assassination provoked angry demonstrations far and wide throughout the Arab World and Europe at the time. Trade unionists in Casablanca, in a number of Algerian cities and elsewhere throughout the world demonstrated for over a week following the assassination.

Farhat Hached started labour activism with the existing unions in his time and would soon work himself up to become a leader. Though originally from the small Island of Kerkennah (next to Sfax), he became popular among Tunisians from the (rural) South as well as the (urban) coast. Always committed to social issues he became increasingly vocal in arguing for Tunisian independence. Once fed up with the existing unions, who were in his eyes lacking in providing “real and appropriate solutions to Tunisian workers”, he and some of his comrades resigned in 1944 from the existing union accusing them among other things of “ignoring the legitimate aspirations of the Tunisians for independence.” From that time on, and the coming into existence of the UGTT, the cause of independence would become an openly proclaimed demand. Farhat Hached, the UGTT as whole, and other leaders – such as first president of the Tunisian republic Habib Bourguiba – who would later form the national movement became all involved in the struggle for independence. Hached met in the latter period of his life other union leader’s abroad to support them in their struggle for independence as well.

Union activism & toppling the former president

The relationship between the UGTT and former presidents Bourguiba and Ben Ali have at times been tense, whereas at other times peaceful with a somewhat submissive attitude of the union towards the regime. The union has nowadays approximately 600.000 members, includes 24 regional unions, 19 sector-based unions and 21 grass roots unions. It brings together a wide range of political persuasions and has members in every part of the country and many different social groups, including factory workers, civil servants and doctors.

In general two currents are said to have existed within the union regarding its relationship with the Tunisian regime; one, represented by what is commonly called the “union bureaucracy”, or better known as submission to the government. The other is better known as resisting the government. Taking a closer look at history this second one (resisting the regime) seems to gain the upper hand in times of crisis and is able to play a decisive role due to the fact that the union is nationwide well represented. It is now – after many witnesses and testifications – save to say that during the revolution that started in the southern impoverished city of Sidi Bouzid in December 2010 and would topple just 4 weeks later former president Ben Ali, the local branches of the UGTT have played a very important role in mobilizing people to demonstrate against the Ben Ali regime. From interviews with union activists it becomes clear that local union leaders did not hesitate to join and organize demonstrations expressing their dissatisfaction with Ben Ali’s 23-year oppressive rule. In many demonstrations throughout the country pictures of former secretary-general Farhat Hached were shown reminding Tunisians of the struggle for independence. Not only did the UGTT play a decisive role in the strikes, rallies and demonstrations that led to former president Ben Ali’s flight. It also lent vigorous support to the occupations of Kasbah Square, which in January and February 2011 led to the fall of the first two transition governments. Two transition governments that were composed of former Ben Ali ministers and were also by the UGTT considered to be a “threat to the revolution”.

New role and tensions with the Troika-government

The UGTT is since 2011 led by current (its 13th) secretary-general Houcine Abbassi. In the aftermath of the revolution the union continued to play an important role in mobilizing people to demonstrate against two transition governments that were led by former ministers of Ben Ali. Nevertheless, after the first and free elections in Tunisian history it had to deal with a legitimate government composed of Ennahda (Islamist), CPR and Ettakatol (both center left).

The relationship between the union and more specifically Ennahda has at times been problematic. Considering the history of the union there is generally seen nothing new to (sometimes ) a problematic relationship between the UGTT at one hand and the government at the other. Nevertheless, the problematic relationship that at a certain moment looked like having become an open power struggle might be deeper than mere political differences. Due to the fact that Ennahda (and other Islamists) have been severely persecuted by the former regime they never really had a chance to become involved in the UGTT or any type of labor activism. It is therefore fair to say that although the UGTT is politically neutral in its outlook it does bear more non-Islamists (such as nationalists or socialists) among its members than it does Islamists, or “Nahdaouis” to be more specific (a term used for members of sympathizers of Ennahda). Although after the revolution Islamists have also joined the union with most of them coming from the private sector. Examples of the open power struggle between the UGTT and Nahda-led government are numereous, from continuous nationwide demonstrations demanding salaries to be increased that visibly annoyed (back then) Nahda prime-mister Hamadi Jebali, to the demonstrations in rural Siliana – backed by the union – demanding that the mayor should be replaced that led to days of clashes between security forces and demonstrators. Some of the increasing tension between the union and Ennahda led to attacks on UGTT offices or meetings and accusations that Ennahda “or one of its militia’s” is responsible for the violence, followed up by the union declaring that it would hold a “national strike”. Ennahda and some of its politicians on the other hand accused the union of becoming “too involved in politics” and trying to “obstruct the government’s work”.

Coming to terms

For the last six months it seems the UGTT and Ennahda have come to terms with each other. After tension between the two increased a dialogue was held “to spark the crisis that doesn’t benefit Tunisia in any way”. Other political parties were also involved in the national dialogue and all parties involved (including the union) came to a common understanding in how to solve the crisis. From that moment on the open power struggle between Ennahda and the UGTT decreased. President of Ennahda, Rashed al-Ghannoushi, expressed in an interview with a foreign journalist his faith in the neutrality of the UGTT and dismissed the possibility that it would take the role of the Egyptian army in staging a coup against Nahda-led government. Moreover, it now seems that the UGTT becomes more important in its role as a mediator between the government and the opposition. After the second assassination last month of Member of Parliament (MP) Muhammad Brahmi a crisis swept the country that still has to be resolved. President of Parliament Mustapha Ben Jaafar suspended the parliament temporarily while reaching out to the UGTT in helping to solve the crisis through its mediation.

It is walking a thin line between struggling for labor rights and social-economic issues and not trying to be too involved in politics. Although the relationship between the UGTT and the government (pre and post-revolution) has at times always been problematic it seems promising that the union is getting closer to fulfill a (national) role as a mediator between different parties.

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