Tunisia: Hands off the UGTT trade union!

For a mass one day general strike, against the attacks on the trade unions and for the full implementation of all the objectives of the revolution!

In the last few days, several offices of the Tunisian trade union federation – the UGTT – have been attacked, ransacked, burned down, firebombed, or been the target of different acts of vandalism, such as the dumping of garbage in front of the unions’ offices. Not coincidently, these acts, repeated in different areas of the country, came after the start of a three-day general strike by the UGTT municipal employees, including the garbage workers, which started on Monday 20th February, to demand an improvement in general working conditions and pay.

At the union’s local office in Feriana, in the governorate of Kasserine, some of the aggressors have demanded of the local UGTT official to open the office, and threatened to burn it down otherwise. Subsequently, the office was ransacked and burned, and official union documents destroyed in the fire. The central union headquarters in Tunis, as well as several regional and local union offices in Monastir, Kairouan, Kebili, Ben Arous, Douze, Thala, La Manouba and Nabeul have been subjected to similar attacks. (see the pictures and the video below)

As long as the leadership of the UGTT was dominated by slavish right-wing pro-Ben Ali bureaucrats, the capitalist class could get away with it. Since the recent Congress of the union in December, however, and the election of a less compromised Executive Bureau and its subsequent move to the left, things have changed. Industrial actions have been on a steady rise, and tensions have piled up between the UGTT and the new coalition in power, which relies on the old state machine which, despite having some of its most notorious figures removed, is still in essence the one of Ben Ali’s dictatorship.

The systematic character of these attacks suggests that these are not isolated incidents, but a series of planned and coordinated attacks all over the country, with the aim of intimidating and breaking the spirit of resistance which animates broad layers of the working class, and is symbolised by their powerful trade union organisation. Indeed, it is all the people who persevere in fighting for their social and democratic rights, all the organisations and individuals who are willing to continue and deepen the revolutionary struggle against the attempts of the present rulers to roll it back, who are being indirectly targeted through the UGTT.

These pre-meditated and vicious attacks are aimed at crippling workers’ opposition to the new government and its pro-capitalist agenda of restoring “order” at the expense of the rights and living conditions of the majority of Tunisians who have been at the heart of the revolution. It is a calculated offensive by the new ruling establishment and its thugs, seeking to put the UGTT under the heel of its anti-working class regime.

Attacking the UGTT buildings is highly significant, as they have always been a form of refuge against the repression engaged in by the different Tunisian authoritarian regimes in the past. The UGTT affiliates have played a key role in the mass movement that brought down Ben Ali’s dictatorship. In the beginning of the revolution especially, in different areas, it was from the UGTT branches that the first mobilisations were organised and departed from.

Already in January 1978, when the call for a general strike by the UGTT was the spark for a popular uprising against Bourguiba’s regime, the latter tried to smash the trade union. It sent its militias to attack the UGTT headquarters. These methods were repeated in 1985, after the so-called ‘bread riots’ of 1984, during which a massive campaign to destroy the trade union followed. Now, once again, the Tunisian regime, this time under the façade of a ‘democratically’ elected government, has decided to move onto the offensive in an attempt to intimidate its biggest threat: the organised working class.

Recent figures displayed by the Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali revealed that the last 12 months have seen 22,000 ‘protest movements’, with 600,000 lost days of strike. This is exactly what the capitalist class, the interests of which the new ruling coalition led by the religious party Ennahda has pledged to defend, wants to end. The present government prefers indeed to defend the interests of its billionaire Qatari friends than to improve the social conditions of the majority.

The UGTT is unique in the Maghreb in its organisational strength; that is why the capitalist exploiters, their new political representatives and the remnants of the old regime, all dream of breaking its neck.

The general secretary of the UGTT regional union in Kasserine says that on Tuesday morning a group of activists belonging to Ennahda came to the headquarters of the union to protest against the municipal employees’ strike and that they fire to the building in the aftermath. The communiqué released by the UGTT accused the present ruling parties of wanting to “restore a dictatorship”. Sami Tahri, a spokesperson for the UGTT, commented that “this is a political act, well organised by the Ennahda movement”.

Though the exact identity of the perpetrators of such attacks are not known, there is no question that the primary responsibility for these attacks lies on the shoulders of the present government, its big business backers, and their mouthpieces in the media and the state apparatus. The ideological campaign of denigration against the union and against the strikes and sit-ins has been systematic and endless since the 14th January of last year – the day Ben Ali was overthrown with the decisive involvement of the organised working class. It consists of accusing the workers, the unemployed and the poor who struggle for their rights of being responsible for the economic crisis, the chaos and the destruction of jobs, and it has been increasingly aggressive in recent weeks.

At the end of January, Sadok Chourou, a prominent leader of Ennahda, declared in the National Assembly that strikers were “enemies of God”. He has openly declared that the best solution for putting an end to the constant strikes and sit-ins is force. Quoting a verse of the Qur’an, he suggests execution or crucifixion, or getting a hand or leg cut off.

That is all that the rich leaders of Ennahda have as an answer for people who fight to end their dangerous and unhealthy working conditions, in particular the garbage workers who play a major role in ensuring the cleanliness of the towns and neighborhoods.

Are the governmental partners of Ennahda – the CPR and Ettakatol, who were in the opposition against Ben Ali – going to continue participating in a government that is tackling head-on the rights of workers, young people and the poor masses, a government that is working to put in place, bit by bit, a new dictatorship?

Zoubeir Ch’houdi, a spokesperson for Ennahda, said that the Ministry of Justice has been instructed to open an investigation to determine who is behind the recent attacks. No trust can be put in such a body which has hardly been reformed at all since the revolution took place. Only an independent body, made up of genuine elected representatives of the workers and the local trade unions themselves, should be in charge of such an inquiry.

But this will not be sufficient. Besides finding those responsible for these barbarous attacks, there is a much wider question which is at stake here. The question of how to strengthen the working class movement and to avoid such counter-revolutionary attacks being repeated in the future.

Already in June of last year, the CWI commented: “Workers defence forces need be established to protect the strikes and occupations from the scabs of all sorts. All demonstrations, sit-ins and other protests need to be systematically stewarded by volunteer activists; trade union buildings, which have been attacked or raided several times in many areas, have to be defended in the same way”. This has kept all its relevance in the light of recent events.

Already several local demonstrations, such as in Bizerte, have taken place in the last few days against these attacks. A big demonstration, under the slogan “Everybody with the UGTT against violence” is called for this Saturday 25th February. The CWI fully supports these initiatives, but also thinks that a much bolder response will be necessary. These attacks are indeed taking place in a wider context of increasing threats, violence, repression and intimidation against left political activists, organisations and associations, against women and all those who represent progress and the fight for a better future.

A massive one day general strike is what could really put the stamp of the workers’ movement on the situation and reaffirm its strength. It would give a new impetus to all the oppressed who have been tenaciously fighting for months on end, to reinforce all the local industrial actions and protests, and unite them in a powerful and nationally-organised response that would give a solid lesson to all the enemies of the working class, as a warning of further action.

General assemblies and neighborhood meetings should be organised by the UGTT and its supporters, to mobilise for such an action. All those who do not want a new dictatorship to be established need to collectively organise and discuss together about the continuation of the struggle and the demands, and how to make of the present movement a sustainable one to continue the revolution until victory.

This implies a consistent struggle not only for the defence of democratic and trade union rights, but also for the achievement of the numerous social demands against poverty, low wages, unemployment! For a decent job with a living wage for everyone, for adequate housing for all, to improve infrastructure and for quality public services accessible in all areas of the country, against the payment of the debt, for an effective cleaning out of the state apparatus and for a workers’ and poor masses’ government. To achieve all this, ultimately, a complete break with capitalism and a socialist change of society will be necessary.

The CWI expresses its full solidarity with all the workers, youth, women, unemployed and ordinary people of Tunisia in their continuous and courageous battle against the exploitation, misery and violence imposed by the present system.

You can send your messages of protest and solidarity to the UGTT to ugtt.tunis@email.ati.tn and send copies to solidarity_ugtt@hotmail.com

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February 2012