Algeria: Wave of strikes and social unrest

For workers’ unity, around a democratic socialist programme!

Algeria has been shaken by important strikes and protests in the last few months. The beginning of 2010 has ushered in a new phase of social turmoil, putting the country’s Bouteflika regime in a critical position. Large sections of the working class and poor are fed up with the continuing crisis facing the country, with low wages, lack of social facilities, endemic unemployment, attacks on democratic rights and generalised corruption at the top.

Despite the emergency laws, introduced by the regime during the ‘black years’ of the civil war and terrorism in the 1990s, which are used to criminalise protests and ban public demonstrations, the masses are defying the regime and its repressive apparatus. Protests, revolts and riots have multiplied in the last period throughout the country, revealing the continuing degradation of the living conditions of much of the population. The beginning of two indefinite strikes, hitting the two biggest Algerian industrial areas at the beginning of the year, marks a new phase of the class struggle in the country.

Police surround striking Rouiba workers

The Rouiba strike

“We are working in subhuman conditions. Our wages don’t allow us to feed our families, in a country full of wealth, while the people in power earn at least 20 times what we get”. (one of the leaders of the Rouiba strike movement, in “Alger Republicain”, 12/01/2010)

The most impressive struggle has undoubtedly been waged by the workers of the heavily industrialised area of Rouiba, in the eastern suburbs of Algiers, where there is the biggest concentration of factories in the whole country. This strike has paralysed economic activity in this area for about two weeks.

The Rouiba strike started on 3 January, in the workshops of the state-owned SNVI factory (National Society of Industrial Vehicles), where vehicles and trucks are produced. The main demands of the 5,500 workers of this factory were for an increase in wages and a reversal of changes in the retirement system, following a rotten agreement signed with the management by the trade union bureaucracy (of the CGTA – Confederation Generale des Travailleurs Algeriens – the official trade union confederation), which reduces pensions and prolongs the number of working years necessary before retiring. Being forced to work longer before getting a pension is a very sensitive issue in a factory where most of the workers have developed diseases linked to their working conditions and contact with chemical products.

Banners were put on the gates of the factory: “For a wage increase”, “For decent purchasing power”, “Don’t touch my pension” etc. On 7 January, several other public and private factories in the area (Anabib, Hydro Amenagement, Cammmo, Pepsi Cola, etc.) joined the movement, gathering more than 11,000 workers. The ten other SNVI units located in different parts of the country (Oran, Constantine, Tizi Ouzou, etc.) also went on strike. The mood in Rouiba was very militant, and the workers were determined to struggle until victory and for all of their demands to be met. They stated they were ready to spend “a whole year in the street”.

The regime deployed a huge number of police and security forces in Rouiba, surrounding the whole industrial complex to isolate the workers and to prevent workers from the outside joining them in solidarity. In the same way, they tried to isolate the different striking factories from each other and to stop workers from converging and meeting together. Thousands of men huge resources have been used to suppress the movement, and groups of workers and demonstrators were violently beaten. Ironically, the water pumps and trucks used by the police to repress the movement were built by the SNVI workers themselves!

The huge number of “anti-riot” police forces deployed in the area, the scale of which has never been seen in this area before, is an indication of the fears of the regime that this inspiring struggle could spread throughout the whole country. The establishment still bears in mind that the 1988 movement – a mass uprising, which lead to the end of one-party FLN rule – started from the same SNVI factory in Rouiba. But this brutal repression, as well as allegations coming from the Ministry of Work and Social Security, Tayeb Louh, implying that the Rouiba workers were ‘manipulated’, that “the strike has nothing to do with the workers” (!), or that “it is not the workers who are behind these demands”, have only contributed to increasing the anger and determination of the strikers.

Roubia workers

Treacherous role of the union leadership

This strike has also revealed the huge gap between the workers and their so-called representatives in the leadership of the CGTA, who have been working hand in hand with the regime since the beginning of the dispute. The majority of the workers have clearly denounced the treacherous role played by the union bureaucracy throughout their struggle. Sidi-Said, the general secretary of the CGTA, who first signed the rotten deal with management, was denounced by the strikers as a traitor. The national CGTA leaders refused to give any support to the movement, and eventually intervened in the struggle in an attempt to persuade the workers to finish it without any guarantee of gains, praising the so-called (inexistent) ‘efforts’ of the government and using empty promises and intimidation (such as threatening the workers who continued with the strike with being sacked). One union representative openly admitted that they had intervened “in order to avoid a new 1988”.

The outcome of the dispute seems unclear at the present time, but what is clear is that the workers will not be duped so easily. They have, for now, suspended their strike temporarily, but on the condition that all of their demands are satisfied, and with the preparedness to re-commence their action at any moment. This is absolutely vital; the Rouiba workers must stand firmly against any attempts to manoeuvre behind their backs. Through their example and their determination, in standing up against the repressive state, the official media and their own union leadership, the Rouiba workers have shown the way forward, opened the floodgates, and set the scene for the militant struggles that will develop in the coming period.

600,000 workers on strike throughout the country

The daily Algerian newspaper, “L’Expression”, in its 19 January issue, commented: “The social situation is boiling like a volcano which could wake up at any time.” The same paper estimated the total amount of workers on strike in the country at 600,000 in various sectors. Amongst them, teachers and public health workers have been on strike for the past three weeks, with an extremely high level of participation. In some hospitals and healthcare institutions, strikes are close to 100% solid.

Another front has been opened with the indefinite strike launched on 12 January by the 7,200 workers of the El-Hadjar steel complex in Annaba (East of the country). The El-Hadjar factory was formerly the property of the Algerian state, but was privatised in October 2001, when 70 % of the shares were bought by the Indian company Ispat, a member of the world steel giant, ArcelorMittal. The workers went on strike after the management announced the shutting down of the coking plant, threatening 320 jobs in the factory. In reaction, the bosses decided not to pay January’s wages to the 7,200 workers. The strikers showed their militant spirit by answering that they were ready to sacrifice even February’s wages, in order be successful sin keeping the coking plant open.

Youth protests

Growing social revolt

“We don’t have any other means to claim our right to work, housing and a decent life. We cannot bear the sea of misery anymore, while billions of dollars are hijacked from the oil company” (a demonstrator, reported in “El Watan”, 18/01/2010)

Meanwhile, the Algerian masses have demonstrated their anger in several cities and villages, which have exploded in local riots and clashes with the police, with the blocking of roads and occupations of local administrations. In the last weeks, demonstrations of several hundred young unemployed people have taken place in numerous cities and towns. Not one day passes without protests taking place somewhere in the country. Housing shortages, the horrific state of the roads, lack of drinkable water or public transport, deficiencies in healthcare provisions, and the miserable living conditions of the majority have triggered a wave of local revolts, spreading like wildfire.

Mass unemployment, the black market and emigration: dark future for young people

Young people, severely hit by the lack of jobs, are at the forefront of these protests and riots. Two-thirds of young Algerians are unemployed. The official statistics from the Algerian government speak of a 10% unemployment rate in the country. This is an absurd claim! Everybody knows that the real level of unemployment is far higher. The Algerian newspaper “El Watan” recently commented, “The presidents of the APCs (Communal Assemblies), interviewed about the issue of jobs in their localities, invariably answer that the level of unemployment is above 50%.” Youth unemployment has become an acute problem, offering absolutely no future to a whole generation, destined to survive through working in the “parallel economy”, drug dealing, or risking their lives by attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. The statistics show a sharp increase, in the last years, of the number of ‘Harragas’ – Algerian people who try to flee their country by any means, despite the the government’s heavily repressive legislation aimed at curbing this phenomenon.

Algerian President, Abdelaziz Bouteflika

Wave of corruption scandals

Big corruption scandals have also erupted in the last period, with some highly-positioned officials in the State apparatus and public institutions implicated. The latest scandal involved the Chief Executive of Sonatrach, the state oil company, accused of having received bribes in exchange for awarding contracts to Sonatrach suppliers. These scandals are fuelling the rage of ordinary people, facing growing poverty, with repression the only response from the government to their problems.

The Algerian regime is under mounting pressure; in a ‘presidential instruction’ on 13 December 2009, Algerian President, Abdelaziz Bouteflika gave some advice to so-called ‘controlling institutions’ – to take more serious measures against corruption and the hijacking of public money. This instruction orders officials to pay particular attention to the “exterior signs of wealth” of some high functionaries, which could appear as “too sudden and too ostentatious”. In other words: they can steal money, but it has to be done discreetly, to avoid any political or social inconvenience.

Nobody can trust that Bouteflika, who was re-elected in April of last year on the basis of a massive fraud, wants to tackle the problem of corruption seriously. Some officials suspected of massive corruption, but close to the President, have been protected from any form of punishment and are living in total impunity. This is the case for the Minister for Health, and of the ex-President of the National Assembly among others, who have both used their positions to hijack public money for their own purposes. The recent judiciary measures taken against some influential people in response to allegations of corruption are only destined to appease the tensions and growing anger against the corrupt rulers, putting the blame on the shoulders of a handful of isolated ‘irresponsible’ people.

Workers and youth need their own political voice

Bouteflika came to power for a third term, using vague populist promises to create jobs and social housing. However, the contrary has been the case. For years, the majority of the population have not seen any improvement in their living standards; the social situation has only become more desperate by the day. Through the dismantling of state-owned companies, privatisation and massive corruption, a thin layer of the super rich, most of them coming from the old established political and military elite, has developed on the back of the rest of society. The huge sums generated from oil revenues, which accounts for 97% of Algerian exports, have not been spent to improve living conditions and provide jobs for the majority, but have only benefited leaders closed to Bouteflika’s clan and military officials, who live luxurious lives, while working people and the unemployed fall deeper into poverty and hunger.

There is a ‘wind of 1988’ blowing through Algeria. The end of the one-party regime and the gains of the 1988 movement have been reversed by the Bonapartist clique in power. But new generations are now entering into struggle, determined to fight for a better future. The Algerian working class has a long history of fighting traditions. The workers, youth and unemployed will need to provide themselves, in the fire of events, with independent and democratic organisations, through which they can organise on a national scale, and develop a fighting programme to defeat the ruling class, and proceed to socialist change. Democratic socialism, a system society is run by the workers themselves, to meet the needs of all, offers the only way out. The CWI fights on a world-basis for such an alternative.

Our demands:

  • For the full recognition of independent and democratic trade unions! The cowardly “leaders” of the UGTA must be kicked out and replaced by a democratically elected leadership with the full confidence and trust of union members
  • Stop the brutal repression against social movements! Re-establish the right to public protest and all democratic rights
  • No to miserable conditions for the unemployed! For the universal right to unemployment benefits, linked to the real cost of living
  • For decent wages for all workers! For massive public investment in socially useful jobs and public services
  • For the organisation of a national day of protest. Struggle committees must be formed in the workplaces and in the communities to co-ordinate the struggle on a national level. An appeal for a 24-hour general strike could have an immense impact in unifying the different sectors in struggle into one powerful response against the policies of the government
  • Privatised companies must be re-nationalised. Public companies must be taken out of bureaucratic, corrupt mismanagement. Both must be placed under the democratic control and management of the working class, through democratically elected representatives, subject to recall, and living on a workers’ wage
  • For a new mass workers’ party, based on the struggles of workers and youth, to make the case for socialist change.
  • For a workers’ and peasants’ government, based on a democratically planned economy in order to use the resources of the country for the benefit of all, not for the profits and enrichment of a minority

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January 2010