Although hardly reported in the mainstream media, the beginning of 2010 has been marked by an intensification of struggles by the workers and poor of Algeria. Enormous resentment and frustration is rising because of ever-worsening living conditions, sky-rocketing unemployment (some estimates put youth unemployment at 66%), and the ceaseless rise in the cost of living. Added to that is the lack of democratic rights, and the systemic corruption of the ruling class and officialdom. All these issues are coming more and more out into the open in every corner of the country.
Until now, the regime of president Abdelaziz Bouteflika has used a combination of carrot and stick to try to put an end to the numerous protests, youth riots and workers’ strikes. Strong repression, systematic threats and intimidation have been deployed, especially against strikes, including legal action, arbitrary arrests, suspensions of wages, threats to dissolve the unions calling strikes, and threats of exclusion from the ranks of the public services. After the eruption of important strikes in recent months, these methods have only revealed the weaknesses of the regime and its fears of losing control of the situation, especially if the ‘heavy battalions’ of the working class come onto the scene in a more generalised character.
On the other hand, the acute housing crisis – in the capital, Algiers, alone, more than 45,000 people live in 600 shantytowns – and the sporadic local explosions of anger linked to this question have forced the regime to take some measures to re-house families to dampen down the fire. In most cases, however, this kind of ‘concession’ has only convinced new layers to take their turn on the streets. Referring to the announcement by the authorities that new houses would be allocated to hundreds of families in the poor district of Diar Echem, in El Madania commune (Algiers), the newspaper, El Watan, commented that “the demands are now contaminating every ghetto of Algier”. The same idea was expressed by Le Jour d’Algerie: “The re-housing of the residents of Diar Echem after their uprising has finally set a precedent and raises the threat of the protests spreading. People think now that to qualify for a home, you must go out into the street.”
Alice in Wonderland or… highway to hell?
The official media conceal what is happening on the social front and praises the regime’s policies. But the reality is the opposite of these shameful lies. In one of its recent editorials, El Moudjahid, one of the official voices of the regime and ardent defender of Bouteflika’s policies, offered a picture of the country which seems to be taken from Alice in Wonderland: “In a decade, the impact on the ground of the improvement of the living conditions of the population, thanks to the programme of the President of the Republic, is incredible. Everywhere you go, there is not one area which has not benefited from an action or another of the numerous projects destined to struggle against the precariousness of housing, to improve the infrastructure in fields like transport, public works, education, healthcare, sport, tourism, culture, and so on.”
This just sounds like a cynical joke to the people, like the 12,000 inhabitants of the biggest slum of Algiers, who revolted against their miserable conditions and for the right to decent houses, only to be met by crude repression form the anti-riot forces, who fired teargas grenades into their homes. People from this slum described how their children, sometimes physically deformed and suffering from chronic skin problems because of the terrible, insanitary conditions, are forced to walk through waste water, dumps, old tyres, and nauseous smells on their way to school every morning. They said they made their children wear boots at night “to prevent them being bitten by rats”.
Workers fight back: teachers and healthcare practitioners at the forefront
For several months, public-sector workers, teachers and doctors in particular, have been engaged in massive and prolonged strike action, called by independent unions. These independent unions, although not officially recognised by the government, are becoming more and more the channel through which the working class expresses its anger. The official UGTA union is totally incapable of leading any form of resistance. It has long been utterly discredited as a servant of the regime, and openly betrayed the recent disputes.
By their stand and demands, those workers are expressing the feelings of wider layers of the population. That is why the government deployed a whole series of measures to prevent these ‘bad examples’ from spreading, and leading to further radicalisation.
Since the start of the school-year, teachers have been in intense mobilisation, with a long series of courageous strikes. Notably, they were demanding a revalorisation of their wages and the full recognition of their unions. Also, the lack of teaching staff has become a critical issue, with a national average of 44 students per classroom in secondary schools, sometimes reaching 65. This situation has reached such an absurd extent that some schools have been closed for years because there is insufficient staff to open them.
The strikes in the education sector have been met with constant intimidation from the regime. During their protests, some striking teachers have been savagely beaten by the police. This was accompanied by a propaganda offensive: a constant stream of lies, publishing fake figures of teachers’ wages, or depicting them as ‘privileged people’, sacrificing the future of their students by preventing them from studying. Despite that, the massive turnout on the teachers’ strike has been maintained. The last strike, which started on 24 February , saw 93% out of the 500,000 working in this sector nationally participating, with 100% turnout in almost all schools in the wilayas (regions) of Annaba, Guelma, Souk-Ahras and El-Tarfwas, 98% in Tizi-Ouzou, 93% in Bejaia, 95% in Boumerdes, etc.
The Ministry of National Education pretended that virtually nobody went on strike in some areas, and that the striking teachers were totally isolated. But why develop such a battery of intimidation and propaganda if the movement was so marginal? The government then used legal means in an attempt to break the movement. The strike was declared ‘illegal’ by a court verdict on 3 March. Despite these permanent and growing threats, the teachers continued their strike in large numbers. The education minister then called for the suspension of any teacher continuing on strike.
In the same vein, public health practitioners have been on unlimited strike for almost four months, for decent wages and a revision of their status. A strike on this scale in this sector is unprecedented. On the one hand, the strike has been met with an important wave of support and sympathy from ordinary people and workers. On the other hand, it has been hit with repression from the state, and with attacks against the right to strike. On several occasions, the doctors faced brutal interventions from the police during their demos, with some demonstrators being severely injured, combined with a campaign of accusations designed to isolate their struggle. However, these measures were not able to break the tenacity and combativity of the doctors. Finally, in late March, the health minister used the courts to declare the strike ‘illegal’, and announced the sacking of all the workers who continue to challenge the authorities.
Accompanied by other significant strikes at the beginning of the year (see our previous article: http://www.socialistworld.net/doc/4065), these disputes are encouraging other sectors to take the road of struggle with their own demands. At the end of January, 126,000 taxi drivers were on a two-day national strike. Workers from the professional formation engaged in a three-day national strike from 22 March. Train drivers in Alger spontaneously went on strike on 28 March to demand a wage increase. The local council workers, a 500,000 strong public workforce, have decided to go on a two-day national strike from 30 March, to denounce the “degradation of working conditions and purchasing power”. They plan to have a renewable three-day strike from the second week of April. The regime does not have the time to deal with one dispute before another is developing in another sector. “The disputes are beginning to look like volcanic eruptions from which the lava is spreading across the whole country.” (El Watan, 15 March)
More than ever, the vital need of a united struggle has to be put on the agenda! A national strike of all public-sector workers for an increase in real wages, the full recognition of independent trade unions, and for the defence of the right to strike, could be a first step to bring the different sectors together in a united front against the attempts of the government to silence the voice of the working class.
Low wages for the majority, enrichment for a thin privileged layer
The issue of wages has been the starting point for many of the disputes. Throughout the 1990s, on the demand of the IMF, the Algerian regime has steeply devalued the national currency (the dinar), reducing to the extreme the real wages of the workers and their families. Between 1990 and 2000, the value of the dinar has fallen by 500%! Moreover, the liberalisation of commerce has opened the door to all sorts of speculators who are artificially raising the prices of basic commodities, to make profits on the backs of the poorest. Algerian masses have suffered record price rises, especially in food, in products like fruit, vegetables, sugar, cooking oil, butter and coffee, etc. According to the National Office of Statistics, the prices of agricultural products rose by an average of 20.54% in 2009. For instance, in the space of only a few months, dried vegetables have seen their prices rising by more than 70%. “An ‘explosion’ of the population is seriously to be feared, because the families, the salaried workers, and even the middle class cannot manage to the end of the month.” (El Watan, 21 February)
While there is supposedly no room for increasing the miserable wages of the workers, or to give decent subsidies for the unemployed and pensioners, there is plenty of money to fill the pockets of company owners and politicians. During the Bouteflika era, MPs and ministers have been regularly rewarded with generous wages increases (the last one being 300%), while some of the poorest in society are starving. Also, foreign multinationals and a whole layer of ‘nouveaux riches’ have made fortunes by profiting from the neo-liberal reforms implemented in the last two decades, including the dismantling and privatisation of previous state-owned companies. An official source close to the Ministry of Finance admitted: “In fact, in the new and dubious fortunes being made, there is a bit of everything: money from terrorism, kidnappings, ransoms, informal economy. But there are also people enriching themselves legally. It is not forbidden.”
There has also been an avalanche of corruption and fraud scandals hitting the heart of the regime: cabinet chiefs, managers of national companies, members or ex-members of the government, etc. One of the most high-profile scandals involves the chief executive of the state-owned oil company, Sonatrach. Enraging working people and putting the regime’s credibility at stake, these scandals are also revealing that, at the top of society, there is an internal battle for power going on behind the scenes between factions of the army and the military intelligence service, and Bouteflika’s clique, to prepare the post-Bouteflika era.
For the unity of the working class! For a party of all the workers, oppressed, and poor!
The endeavours of the national football team are consistently used to trigger patriotic feeling. And the ruling elite (part of which still comes from the old generation of FLN leaders of the Algerian war) still tries to exploit the deep anti-colonialist sentiment in order to provide itself with a new dose of legitimacy. However, these attempts to find diversions from the social crisis will rapidly reach their limits.
The working class and poor are demonstrating a tremendous disposition to fight. Strike after strike, protest after protest, are transforming the country into a social cauldron ready to explode at any time. Whatever the responses from the government, they will not be sufficient in themselves to stop workers, the unemployed, young people and the poor from showing en masse that they are increasingly determined to fight for a better future. The social basis of the regime has been shaken. This forces it to increase repression along with propaganda which describes the struggles of the masses as the plots of a minority wanting to ‘destabilise the country’.
This could have a certain impact if the workers’ front remains divided, and their actions compartmentalised. The propaganda of the regime against the teachers’ strike was able to find some open ears, because they were somehow isolated and suffered a lack of coordinated action from their own unions. The striking teachers should have included demands to gain the support of other sectors, and connect with their struggles and concerns. For example, a clear stand on questions like the lack of public transport to send children to schools (especially in rural areas), could have found massive support from the students and their parents, presenting at the same time a way to create many useful jobs for the unemployed in those areas.
A more generalised and clear strategy to cut across the propaganda of the government and its divide-and-rule policies is absolutely vital. For this, the working class needs its own organisations and structures through which these strategies could be democratically discussed and put into place. The formation of democratic committees of struggle must be established in the workplaces and communities, to organise a general response from the workers, the poor, and all the people who are fed up with the present state of affairs.
Without a clear political programme and structures to unify the struggles, the energy of the masses runs the risk of being wasted. Worse than that, the despair in some layers of the population, and the alienation of some sections of the youth, could be diverted into conflict between working communities. This already happened last year with violent clashes of Algerian people against Chinese working immigrants in the capital and other areas. What is urgently needed is a party that can play the role of “concentrating all the drops and streamlets of popular resentment into a single gigantic torrent”, as Lenin famously put it. Such a party could become the junction between the different workers’ actions and the numerous local protests for the improvement of infrastructure and social conditions. In the final analysis, for these battles to be successful, they will have to confront the political power and the interests of the capitalist elite. In other words, they will need to remove the resources of the country from the thin layer which controls them at present, and put them in the hands of working-class people.