A uniting union

Behind Tunisia’s ongoing presidential elections, with a run-off already scheduled for December 28, lies an intricate web of power conflicts and mediations.

Moving beyond the traditional labor federation role, Tunisia’s Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail (UGTT) has been playing a pivotal role in helping to resolve national political disputes, as it has been widely credited with helping the country avert bloody power struggles since the revolution.

The UGTT has been an integral mediator in Tunisia’s National Dialogue sessions since 2012. Following political assassinations and heated governmental conflicts, it succeeded in resolving a deadlock between the Islamist Ennahda Party and secular parties in October 2013. This is when the UGTT moved a crisis-solving initiative that preserved the National Constituent Assembly drafting the constitution, formed a technocratic government and set the dates for the elections.

UGTT’s position in the Tunisian political landscape today sits in stark contrast with that of Egypt’s Trade Union Federation (ETUF), which closely remains within the state’s sphere of influence.

After the July 2013 military-led takeover from the Muslim Brotherhood, it campaigned for a “yes” vote in the January 2014 Constitutional Referendum, a move that also acted as an endorsement for the pro-military regime that followed its toppled Brotherhood predecessor.

In 2014, the ETUF commemorated the third anniversary of the January 25 uprising by campaigning for the presidential bid of military strongman Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

Acting ETUF President Gebali al-Maragahi announced in his official address: “All of Egypt’s workers and populace call on you o’ Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to nominate yourself for the presidency.”

ETUF would officially join Sisi’s presidential campaign in May. Since then it has organized labor conferences to support the general-turned-president, Armed Forces and the police.

Moreover, the federation has echoed governmental calls to end strikes and industrial actions. In May 2014, ETUF signed a “code of honor” with the Ministry of Manpower to “halt strikes and all other forms of labor protests” until the election of a president and parliament. Parliamentary elections have been slated for 2015.

Some point to the basic difference in the independent outlook, since their inception, between the two workers’ organizations.

“There’s almost no common ground on which to compare the ETUF and UGTT. In Tunisia their federation was established for the defense of workers’ rights. While the ETUF is a state-controlled apparatus that has always remained in the embrace of Egypt’s ruling regimes and the Ministry of Interior,” says worker-activist Nagy Rashad, who served as caretaker bureau member of the ETUF.

Secretary of the UGTT’s Educational Workers’ Union, Qassem al-Afiya, echoes Rashad’s conviction. During his 23 years in power, he says, “[former Tunisian President Zein al-Abidine] Ben Ali managed to manipulate much of civil society to support his regime, with the exception of the local UGTT unions. The independence of our unions from the government is of paramount importance to us.”

The UGTT’s independence was played out during the revolution where its supportive stance was a major player in breaking Ben Ali’s regime in January 2011.

In late December 2010, scores of UGTT secretaries along with rank-and-file members participated in Tunisia’s protest marches and occupations. However, the UGTT’s executive leadership was reluctant to move against Ben Ali.

The UGTT’s upper rungs were finally pressured into launching a general strike on January 14, 2011 – the day on which Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia.

Not only did the UGTT call for a general strike during Ben Ali’s last days as president, it also opened its doors to protesters injured on the streets of Tunis, along with making demands to release imprisoned political activists.

The Teachers’ Union was particularly involved in these street protests. “Following great pressures from lower-ranking membership, the top leadership found itself forced to ride the revolutionary bandwagon and support the popular demands of the uprising,” says Afiya, a teacher and trade unionist.

Egypt was different. According to Rashad, the ETUF openly stood against the revolution.

Following Tunisia’s lead, Egypt’s January 25 uprising would be joined with public bus drivers’ strikes, labor protests along the Suez Canal and nationwide industrial actions beginning on February 7 – until Mubarak stepped down on February 11.

Meanwhile, Rashad explains he was summoned to the ETUF headquarters along with other workers and unionists two days prior to the revolution – on January 23 – where “the federation’s leadership and high ranking police officers called on us to refrain from joining the planned protests, or engaging in any strikes.”

During the 18-day uprising, ETUF headquarters closed its doors to anti-Mubarak protesters, while its leadership denounced the uprising in media outlets.

Rashad claims to have witnessed evidence of ETUF leaders actively organizing attacks against the January 25 uprising.

ETUF President Hussein Megawer would later be implicated in organizing attacks on anti-Mubarak protesters – specifically on Tahrir Square, including an attack on February 2, dubbed the Battle of the Camel, resulting in 11 fatalities and over 1,000 injuries.

Megawer was arrested in April and jailed pending trial on charges of instigating the attack. However, in October 2012, the court acquitted Megawer and his 23 co-defendants – mostly figures from Mubarak’s inner circle.

Meanwhile, additional purges and democratic renewals within UGTT ranks are responsible for pushing it forth, while additional governmental intervention has kept the ETUF stagnating in its traditional role, analysts argue.

The UGTT Secretary General Abdelsalam Jerad, and ETUF President Hussein Megawer, were both deposed shortly after the downfalls of Mubarak and Ben Ali. Their executive leaderships have since been replaced – but through very different means.

During the UGTT’s 22nd Congress in December 2011, Jerad and the federation’s old executive bureau were purged and new leaderships were chosen – via elections involving rank-and-file members.

In Egypt, however ETUF’s executive bureau was dissolved on August 4, 2011 – by decree of the interim cabinet. The Ministry of Manpower appointed caretaker committees to replace this executive bureau, and has been doing so for the past three years. Although ETUF elections were scheduled for October/November 2011 they have repeatedly been postponed.

The last time the ETUF held nationwide elections was in 2006.  The decision to dissolve the ETUF’s executive bureau was backed by an Administrative Court verdict in November 2006 – ruling that these elections were invalid due to mass violations and irregularities – including the absence of judicial supervision. 

“We initially had hopes and aspirations regarding our ability to reform this federation. We quickly realized that it is resistant to reform,” says Wael Habib, worker at the Mahalla Textile Company and former caretaker member at the ETUF.

For Habib, the ETUF is doomed to remain a state-controlled entity, “especially if no progress is made in reforming the outdated Trade Union Law (35/1976.)”   

In 2014, several of the ETUF’s constituent unions have filed lawsuits to ban or outlaw independent unions in accordance with this law. These unions have sprung up in response to the state’s control over ETUF.

The UGTT’s relevance today arguably stems from its ability to serve the interests of the workers it represents, which is considered to be less the case with ETUF. The 750,000 member union represents a national workforce estimated at four million people and includes nationwide professional associations, industrial and service workers’ unions, with blue-collar and white collar workers, in both the public and private sectors.

“The UGGT has always stood by our side and our demands, although we sometimes wish they’d act quicker to resolve our problems of punitive sackings and increased unemployment,” says Abdel Qader Selim, a Tunisian textile worker and unionist.

With the official unemployment rate in 2014 at 15.2 percent, Tunisia has the highest rate of joblessness in North Africa.

As for the ETUF membership, it has declined since the 2011 uprising. It currently claims around 4 million members – from Egypt’s national labor force of approximately 28 million – and consists of 23 general unions and around 1,900 local union committees, largely industrial and service sector unions – primarily in the public sector.

The history of both establishments gives reason to understand the level of their independence today.

The UGTT was freely and officially established on January 20, 1946, coming into existence a decade prior to independence from France, and prior to Tunisian state control.

Armed with a long history of strikes and labor resistance against French colonialism, the UGTT has aligned with national independence leaders. Nevertheless, it was subjected to crackdowns in the late 1970s at the hands of Tunisia’s first president, Habib Bourguiba.

Subsequently the UGTT’s upper rungs would be coopted to some extent. Its executive bureau endorsed Ben Ali’s presidential bids and re-elections. However, the more independent lower rungs were subjected to dismissals, arrests and police harassment under both Bourguiba and Ben Ali.

As for the ETUF, its origins date back to 1957. Established by the regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser as the only legally recognized union federation, it has remained under the influence of the Ministry of Manpower since then.

Since the 1950s, tens of leaders from the ETUF and UGTT served as members of parliament in both Egypt and Tunisia, typically representing the ruling party. While several of their top leaders have served as ministers.

Meanwhile, the ETUF and UGTT have entirely different track records when it comes to labor strikes.

While thousands of strikes have taken place in Egypt over the past few decades, the ETUF has officially authorized only two: the national miners’ strike in 1993, and the Tanta Flax and Oils Company strike in 2009. The ETUF has not staged a single general strike in its 57-year long history.

In contrast, the UGTT continues to authorize both local and general strikes for its members’ rights – as it has over its nearly 70-year history.

Jano Charbel 

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