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Social Dialogue Under The Gun in Tunisia

[Image of graffiti in El Mourouj, Tunisia. Image by Wael Ghabara/Wikimedia Commons] [Image of graffiti in El Mourouj, Tunisia. Image by Wael Ghabara/Wikimedia Commons]

Tunisia’s democratic transition has been idealized as the bright light of the Arab Uprisings. In addition to avoiding the bloody crackdowns of Egypt, Libya, and Syria, the country held the promise of making real gains on the issues of social justice—low wages, unequal development, and crony neoliberal capitalism—that triggered the uprising. Led in part by the country’s powerful trade union, the democratic transition was supposed to provide a re-energized economy, tripartite negotiation on wages and work conditions, and possibly a new model of social pacts. Instead, the country finds itself struggling to restart the social dialogue that held so much promise in 2012 and facing a familiar cycle of terrorism and security crackdowns.

Social dialogues and national pacts have been a long-standing feature of European political economy. Traditionally bringing together (at least) labor, business, and the government, these instruments have a varied history of both institutionalization and success. Their boosters, including the International Labor Organization and global union federations, promise a more humane, collaborative, and just capitalism. Their detractors from the political right fear stymied economies, while critics from the left fear restrained and weakened unionism.

In Tunisia, the stakes are even higher. While observers in Europe have debated the outcomes of social negotiation and corporatist structures in social democracies versus more liberalized economies or in countries with centralized versus fragmented unions, these dividing lines themselves are likely to be decided through the process of social negotiation in Tunisia. Will the country see a social democracy? Will it empower or weaken its central trade union confederation? How far will political parties go to secure a base in working and middle classes? To what extent will these and other political economy concerns be subsumed under the emerging security paradigm? 

Tunisia has a long history of social dialogues, national pacts, and mutual agreements. Some, like the national dialogue launched in 2013, have been qualified successes. Others, like the social pact of 1977 that indexed wages to inflation, only set the stage for more unrest. These negotiations are universally seen as a key next step in the democratic transition. They also serve as one of the few examples of labor-business-government tripartite negotiation taking place in North Africa under comparatively free and democratic conditions. What shape the upcoming negotiations will take is still up for debate, with some calling for a simple resetting of the minimum wage, others calling for negotiation on a range of economic issues, and still more looking for a full-scale relaunch of the national dialogue with a complex slate of economic, political, and legal issues on the table. 

A successful social negotiation that produces real progress for Tunisians and forward momentum for the democratic transition will require three factors. First up will be settling the scope of the negotiations, including what topics are up for debate and who gets to participate. Second, it will require winning support for negotiations from political parties, some of whom have very different views of Tunisia’s future political economy. Finally, the negotiations will need sustained attention for topics that are not explicitly security related, a tough hurdle for a state increasingly concerned with domestic terrorism. The Tunisian revolution was born of both political and socio-economic demands. Its fate may well rest with the ability of a new social dialogue to deliver on both. 

Situating the Social Partners: UGTT, UTICA, and the State 

The positions of Tunisia’s traditional social partners—the state, the Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail (UGTT) representing workers, and Union Tunisienne de l'industrie, du commerce et de l'artisana (UTICA) representing business—were flipped upside down in the aftermath of the revolution. The UGTT and UTICA signed a social pact with much fanfare and international support in January 2013. They used the momentum (with a healthy dose of fear-mongering regarding the strength of the Islamist party of Ennahda) to launch a national dialogue later in the year. The national dialogue served as a parallel track to the official National Constituent Assembly (NCA), allowing the constitution to be completed in January 2014 in time for the revolution’s third anniversary. All political forces within the country recognize the UGTT’s remarkable role in guiding the constitutional process to a successful conclusion.

The UGTT’s political influence over the transition is undeniable, and its pact with UTICA has enhanced the stature of the business association as well. The UGTT not only played host to the national dialogue, but also took to the streets to tangle with Islamist activists following the assassination of leftist leaders Choukri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi. The state, on the other hand, has struggled with multiple successive governments, stalled reform, and a deteriorating security situation. What the union has not managed to do, however, is provide the bread and butter benefits hoped for by its own rank-and-file. The state has raised the national minimum wage, but the UGTT has its eyes on a broader set of issues including job security, wages at all levels, and ultimately a new labor code. For that, it needs the participation of both the UTICA and the government—participation that so far has been hard to find.

The Tunisian state has faced unprecedented challenges since the adoption of the constitution early last year. A terrorist attack killed fourteen members of the security services 16 July 2014, stoking fears that the instability in neighboring Libya would soon spread to Tunisia. Despite this, the country held successful parliamentary and presidential elections in the fall, returning a parliament dominated by centrist, nationalist party Nidaa Tounes, and their Islamists competitors Ennahda. Nidaa Tounes leader, octogenarian Beji Caid Essebsi, won the presidency. The cabinet is nominally inclusive with one portfolio going to Ennahda and several going to so-called technocratic independents. The government has struggled to deal with the deteriorating security situation, however, and political will and political capital have been focused on these issues, leaving questions as to whether it has the stomach for a social negotiation fight. 

Political Landscape and Support for Social Negotiations and Reform

To successfully launch and complete the reforms trade unionists in Tunisia desire, they will need the participation not only of the state's formal institutions, but of the political parties currently influencing the government. One of the paradoxes of Tunisian politics in 2015 is that most political parties declare their support and respect for trade unionism in general, and the UGTT in particular, but none seem prepared to move forward with social dialogue.

Nidaa Tounes, the centrist bloc that holds the largest number of seats in the parliament and the presidency, describes itself as a social democratic party. Many of its leaders have long-standing ties with the UGTT. The president himself served as a lawyer for the union. Nidaa, however, also has close ties to the business community, with its detractors describing it as a continuation of the former regime’s party. What this means for the party’s disposition toward restarting social negotiations and reforming labor relations in the country is hard to say. Mahdi Abdul Jawad, a member of the party’s executive office, compares the party to the Christian Democratic Union of Germany with a belief in traditions and customs and the necessity of social protections. He jokes that the party is “a mix of the Democrats and the Republicans in the United States.” Despite the big-tent rhetoric, the internal tensions, especially on economic issues, threatens Nidaa. The possibility of internal divisions over the future economic vision of the country remains high. While the party genuflects to the UGTT’s role in the country and is unlikely to cause any hindrance to social negotiations, its relationship to the business community may prove problematic in both resetting the minimum wage and any future revisions of the labor code. 

The second largest party in the country, Ennahda, emerged as the UGTT’s chief rival during the transition. Clashes between the two, both in the halls of power and on the streets, threatened to derail the process on several occasions. The use of general strikes (and even their threat) was a factor in Ennahda’s decision to relinquish control of the government in the days before the ratification of the new constitution. The Ennahda movement and Islamists in general, have no great base inside the UGTT, their members having been kept out of the leadership roles of professional organizations held by Islamists in other Arab countries. This is a matter of both internal UGTT resistance to Islamist politics, and the security services' intervention, especially following the rise of Ben Ali in the late 1980s. Even following the revolution at the UGTT’s agenda setting meeting in Tabarka in 2011, Islamist trade unionists failed to make a major impact.

To hear Ennahda leader and former Prime Minister Ali Laarayedh tell it, however, this rough history is water under the bridge. In an interview, Laarayedh, noted for his frequent clashes with the UGTT, suggested that the relationship between the two has healed. After recounting Ennahda’s exclusion from the UGTT and the union’s domination from leftist groups, Laarayedh states the relationship has improved but that both parties must “continue to find a solution to the crisis of trust.” When asked of the potential for social dialogue and new labor relations in the country Laarayedh called for blowing open the traditional social dialogue between the UGTT, UTICA, and the government to instead include these groups along with the Parliament, political parties, farmers, and other actors. While the intention may be to widen the scope, the effect would be to dilute the power of his old competitors in the UGTT.

When asked his thoughts on opening the social dialogue to political parties, Hamma Hammami of the leftist Popular Front stated that the goal of including more actors in the negotiation (farmers, political parties, and unnamed others) was an attempt to dilute their efficacy and create a “mixed-up” situation. He stated, “Ennahda wants to turn the dialogue into shakshuka,” and dismissed the idea. Hammami went on to say that Ennahda’s goal is to bring back a social pact, which would include a guarantee to end strike activities (a hudna, a calm or truce, in his phrasing). Indeed, Laarayedh mentioned a hope for a wage negotiation that would hold for five years, presumably with limited or no strike action during that period. A five-year period with diminished strikes would certainly serve as a blow to the UGTT as it seeks to expand both its street power and organize sectors traditional excluded from its influence. 

Hammami’s Popular Front, which includes traditional left wing, socialist, and Arab nationalist parties, supports the unity of the UGTT, its success in the social negotiations and eventual reform of the labor law. Making up the fourth largest bloc in the parliament, the group does not wield as much legislative influence as others, but has a demonstrated capacity to mobilize on the streets, as it did following the assassinations of two of its leaders in 2013.

The political landscape also includes two parties associated with neoliberal economic practices: Afek Tounes and the Free Patriotic Union. One of the Free Patriotic Union leaders, Mohsen Hassan, was quoted in Shems FM using the recent terrorist attack on a seaside resort as justification to eliminate wage increases, part of a broader hostility directed at the UGTT’s priorities from the party. There is no love lost between Afek Tounes and the UGTT either, with the party enjoying close ties to business leaders. Afek Tounes leaders stepped on a landmine during the 2014 electoral season having called for trade union pluralism, a contentious issue in the country, angering the UGTT. The party isn’t the only actor interested in breaking the UGTT’s monopoly on trade union politics, either. 

Trade Unionism Beyond the UGTT

Despite its historic role and current influence in the political landscape, the UGTT is not the only game in town. Three competitors (at present) are challenging the organization’s claim as the sole representative of workers’ interests, with some of them hoping to join any negotiations that take place with the government or UTICA. 

The group that has gone of the furthest in pressing their case for inclusion is the Confédération Générale Tunisienne du Travail (CGTT) led by former UGTT activist Habib Guiza. The group boasts more than 75,000 members, with ambitions to grow further. According to Guiza the group has recently obtained a court ruling directing the government to afford it the same benefits as the UGTT, including the withdrawal of dues directly from members’ paychecks, recognition of the CGTT as the covering union for certain workers, and hypothetically a government subvention currently only enjoyed by the UGTT. While not all of these provisions have been carried out, it is a promising outcome for the upstart union, and a potentially complicating factor in wage negotiations. A legitimately militant union challenging the UGTT might push the organization in a more pro-worker direction; however the CGTT has the potential to play spoiler in any negotiated social pact by demanding higher wages or carrying out industrial actions. The juridical approach itself could be contagious, suggesting a judicialization of the labor sector, which has been a characteristic of Egyptian labor politics for over a decade. The outcome has been a mixed bag for Egyptian workers, and likely would be one for Tunisians as well. Court orders often serve as little more than a rhetorical victory if the government is unwilling or unable to enforce them.

Despite this, in conversation Guiza focuses primarily on the CGTTs broad economic envision, including restricting the economy from the ground up, as opposed to prosaic labor concerns. He boasts that the union has ninety percent of its members under forty and many with advanced degrees and in prestigious positions but demurs somewhat when pressed on whether this could serve as a base for a mass movement. The union has also not seen significant growth in the last two years. 

A second competitor is the Union Tunisienne du Travail (UTT), led by Ismail Sahbani. Sahbani, a UGTT Director General more than twenty years ago, was indicted on corruption charges after running afoul of the Ben Ali regime. His union has an impressive membership, counting more than 175,000 members on the rolls, including many in the transport sector. Sahbani similarly decries the UTT’s exclusion from social dialogue, but also rejects the juridical approach, claiming court rulings are not worth much. “It is a matter of political will,” he states, suggesting that what ultimately matters is whether the current government will sit and negotiate.

Sahbani proudly touts his organization’s independence, claiming no ties to political parties. However, the leader and his organization also eschew direct action, calling instead for negotiation. Conventional wisdom among the political elites in the country suggests that the UTT enjoys close ties to international trade unions, notably the AFL-CIO, but this seems more a product of Sahbani’s history than of any current relationship. Interviews with the leadership of the Solidarity Center, the AFL-CIO’s international arm, suggest that most attention has in fact been focused on the UGTT. 

Finally, and perhaps most at the margins of the trade union movement in the country is the Organisation Tunisienne du Travail (OTT). The overwhelming opinion of other trade union leaders in the country is that the group is effectively a front for Ennahda and serves as the Islamist trade union vehicle. While the organization’s president Mohamed Lassaad Abid does not deny the Islamic reference in the organization, he denies that it serves at the pleasure of Ennahda. Lassaad Abid claims that like other trade unionists he took a more active role following the revolution, calling for democracy and pluralism within the UGTT. The reformist energy within the UGTT produced a new leadership team, made primarily of leftists and nationalists, with no increased voice for Islamists, many of whom had been members of the UGTT for years. Some of these members bolted for the OTT in 2011 and 2012, especially as conflicts piqued between Ennahda and the UGTT. These conflicts reached a fever pitch in December of 2012 when clashes broke out between Islamist forces and UGTT cadres outside the UGTT office in downtown Tunis. Lassaad Abid states that “the UGTT became a militia of the political parties,” and shows enlarged pictures of UGTT members carrying sticks during the confrontation. Contemporaneous media reports suggest Islamist forces attacked UGTT members. 

Regardless of the originators of street violence, the OTT’s rhetoric focuses on attracting more members and winning the recognition of the government and employers. Still, it appears to be a marginal actor despite its claim of more than 200,000 members (demonstrable membership rolls, even if the well-institutionalized UGTT are hard to come by). While the organization may not formally coordinate with Ennahda, Lassaad Abid’s call for enlarged social dialogue, to include farmers, business representatives, the state, and all laborer’s organizations, echoes that of Laarayedh. It is possible that Ennahda is using a page from the old regime’s playbook by keeping the possibility open of empowering an alternative trade union to the UGTT as a bargaining chip. In the waning days of the Bourgiba regime, the government empowered a new “Union Nationale Tunisienne du Travail” (UNTT) to send a message to the UGTT. The union did not last long, but the regime kept it ready to be pulled from the mothballs to keep the UGTT in check. Ennahda may have similar plans for the UTT, with limited formal support at present, but the possibility of pumping their considerable financial and organizational support into it should they want to challenge the UGTT’s supremacy. Lassaad Abid states that Ennahda hopes to “keep a toe in the UGTT until they get the leadership.” Time will tell.

These competitor organizations appear unlikely to edge their way into any social or wage negotiations taking place this year. They may, however, determine whether any agreement the UGTT reaches will be successful for the coming two, three, or five years by holding strikes or increasing wage demands outside the organizational structure of the UGTT. Political parties may also be willing to work directly with these competing federations for either ideological reasons (as with Ennahda and the OTT) or tactical ones (such as Afek Tounes’s embrace of trade union pluralism). 

The Perils of Informality 

One of the great strengths of the trade union movement in general, and the UGTT in particular, during Tunisia’s democratic transition (a loaded term unto itself) is the flexibility of national institutions. While the constitutional process was supposed to move forward in the official channel of the National Constituent Assembly, the UGTT was able to assist with a parallel structure of the national dialogue. While the UGTT had no reserved seats in the NCA, it was able to host and steer the national dialogue.

Similarly, the tripartite negotiations established in the social pact of 2013 are at best an ad-hoc agreement with no formal or constitutional role. While the 2014 constitution lays out lofty goals of social justice and guarantees the right to form unions it does not enshrine any particular role for the social partners in general, or UTICA and the UGTT in particular. The only document that does so is the 2013 social pact, which is surprising in its brevity. The agreement calls for the creation of a Social Dialogue Committee within a year. The deadline passed in early 2014, with the topic only making its way to the Tunisian cabinet in June 2015. The body was to have financial and managerial independence, but it has yet to take shape. Whether it will come together at all, and whether its decisions will have any real force remains to be seen.

This uncertainty is what has allowed political parties, competing union structures, and pundits to critique or suggest changes to the makeup of tripartite negotiations. While the flexibility and informality allowed Tunisia to maneuver out of catastrophe in 2012 and 2013, it may be hampering real social progress in 2015. The lack of institutional weight given the negotiations also leaves it open to being sidelined by the events of the day, something increasingly difficult 2015. 

Negotiations Under The Gun: Security Concerns and Social Dialogue

The actions of the government in the past year have been dominated by security concerns in ways that matter for the prospects of social dialogue. In March, the Islamic State group took responsibility for a major attack on the Bardo Museum. The attack was a blow to both the tourism sector, of which the Bardo is something of a crown jewel, and the Tunisian Parliament itself, which is mere feet from the Museum on the same plot of government land.  This focus on security only increased following the devastating attack on a tourist hotel in Sousse, which left 38 people dead. Unsurprisingly, general economic and political reforms long-promised by parties across the political spectrum, have taken a back seat to security issues. Tunisian politicians’ regular invocation of the “war against DAESH (Islamic State group)” can leave the impression the country is at the Syrian border instead of more than 1500 miles away.

The terrorism threat affects the potential for labor reforms in ways that extend beyond drawing away governmental attention. The security discourse has deeply penetrated Tunisia’s political institutions, with even a labor activist stating in an interview that his group’s “first role” was to “protect national security.” President Essebsi took the unprecedented step of declaring a national emergency giving him broad powers to crack down on militants and reign-in mosques accused of spreading extremism. It also has the effect of restricting the right to assemble, potentially hobbling the ability of the UGTT and other activists groups to protest, march, or even hold constitutionally protected strikes. 

The social actors in Tunisia have been operating under threat of political violence since at least the assassinations of Chokri Belaid and Mohammed Brahmi in 2013. In addition to these shocking acts in Tunis, a series of attacks on security services and bases in the country’s interior have evolved to a low-level insurgency. The feeling of crisis reached a fever pitch following the attack on 26 June 2015 when a gunman attacked the Riu Imperial Marhaba Hotel, killing thirty-eight people. 

While the attack itself was horrific, what it revealed about the Tunisian political landscape might have even longer-term impacts. The President, Beji Caid Essebsi, declared a state of emergency, but in addressing the nation, he controversially announced that another attack might make the government collapse. Whether hyperbolic or not, Essebsi’s statement suggests that at least some among the political elite believe even the institutionalized segments of Tunisia’s political order are fragile, to say nothing of the ad hoc divisions like social dialogue. 

The reactions to the attack also renewed calls for restraint on the part of workers. Tourism employs more than 400,000 Tunisians, with even more benefitting from service sector jobs only indirectly supported by tourism trade. Fourteen percent of the GDP comes from tourism, and the numbers following the attack have been grim. The government has stepped in to shore-up some of the largest hotels, providing utility subsidies alongside other discounts, but the benefits may not be trickling down to small shopkeepers or workers. Conservative parties have once again stated that the time is not right for major revisions to wages or labor contracts citing the need for social stability. The appeals to a long-term “social truce,” including wage restraint and an end to strikes, is sure to return as well. 

Conservative forces within the country are quick to elide the differences between cracking down on violent extremism and stopping legitimate protests and industrial actions. The tendency isn’t new, with former President Moncef Marzouki having called strikes “collective suicide” 2011 and President Beji Caid Essebsi stating “we cannot have strikes in sensitive areas” and specifically citing terrorist attacks a reason to prevent them earlier this year. 

Whither Social Dialogue? 

Where does the much-ballyhooed social dialogue go from here? On the positive side, options outside of negotiation have largely been eschewed by all but the most fringe elements of the political spectrum. Something called a social dialogue will almost certainly take place during 2015, and wage negotiations are already underway. The scope of these negotiations, should they be launched in earnest, will almost certainly be broader than wages and work conditions, and will help shape the economic direction and priorities of the country. At this point, no one has made a convincing political argument for expanding the dialogue beyond the government, UTICA and the UGTT, but that may change if Ennahda and conservative parties make common cause to weaken the UGTT. These outside parties can however play spoiler to any deals arranged, whether it be independent unions launching strikes, political parties scuttling the government’s end of the bargain, or businesses (with political allies) reneging on UTICA’s concessions. The most recent exchange of harsh words between UTICA and Belgacem Ayari in the press suggests that the negotiations will be hard-fought. A final concern takes the form of a proposed “economic and financial reconciliation” bill, thus far rejected by the UGTT, which aims to bring back to the country resources stolen by business elites associated with the old regime. It is possible that this issue too could make its way to the social dialogue.

International pressure many also shape social dialogue in the country. This month saw a visit from Christine Lagarde on behalf of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). While the IMF has approved the disbursement of more than 300 million USD at this meeting, it cited labor-stoppages in the same breath as terror attacks when decrying “slowed momentum” in the national economy. While the international financial institutions have moderated their thinking on structural adjustment with regards to labor flexibilization in recent years, Lagarde’s press statement cited a more “efficient” civil service and a “business environment more conducive to investor risk taking” as goals for the country. The UGTT is likely to take both as signals of international pressure for more austere budgets and less public sector employment. 

A broader question still at stake is whether this dialogue, when it coalesces, will actually produces changes for the working poor and other struggling Tunisians. The answer to this is harder to judge. The UGTT’s internal revisions since 2012 have brought more militant and rank and file members to positions of leadership, but they have been forged in the fires of political intrigue, not by the prosaic concerns of contract and labor negotiations. A social dialogue will be a real opportunity for the UGTT to demonstrate that the faith placed in it by Tunisians, not only as a force for democratic transition, but also as a trade union, is well founded.

[Quotes from the article come from interviews conducted by the author in Tunis, Tunisia and the surrounding area from 22 July 2015 to 4  August 2015.]

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