Hèla Yousfi, Trade Unions and Arab Revolutions: The Tunisian Case of UGTT (New York: Routledge, 2017).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Hèla Yousfi (HY): Two main motives made me write this book: First, the Tunisian Revolution was often painted as a sort of “divine” event, during which the united “Tunisian people” succeeded in getting rid of their “dictator.” As if by the force of some quasi-magical act, all it took was the coming together of the people screaming a unified dégage on 14 January 2011 for the dictator to suddenly take flight. In using this lens, the causes and consequences of the revolt itself are glossed over. This had the effect of making the diverse collective mobilizations that emerged in the past two decades as well as the role of civil society organizations invisible. That is why I wanted to shed light on the role played by the powerful trade union UGTT (Tunisian General Labour Union) in Tunisian politics from 2011-2014. That role has continually elicited passionate debate, to say the least, between three sets of people: those who benefitted from the UGTT’s actions; those who criticized the union (especially its central leadership for failing to meet its duties as a union in meeting the social and economic demands); and those who they thought the organization embodied the surviving wing of the former ruling power. All these debates highlighted the influence of the UGTT—the country’s oldest and largest national organization—on the transformation of Tunisian politics, and they contrast with the narrative that depicts the revolution as the abrupt, untimely advent of a new political and social order. At the same time, this debate came at an opportune moment, as it raised questions about the media’s focus on controversies between Islamists and secularists and the theory that Tunisia’s political challenges boiled down to constitutional reforms or simply achieving a positive outcome in the elections. This state of affairs leads one to attempt to answer two recurring questions: what was the UGTT’s role in the revolutionary process, and why does the union evoke such strong reactions?
The second consideration integral to the work is to understand how individuals organize themselves under authoritarian regimes. One of the key characteristics of authoritarian regimes is to destroy the possibility of any collective action. The UGTT is not solely a political and social force that lent broad support to the popular uprising and influenced the direction of Tunisia’s political transformation. It is also the only space for collective organized action in Tunisia that managed to resist the authoritarian regime’s attempts to eradicate all forms of resistance. The very existence of the UGTT refutes the belief that members of societies subjected to an authoritarian regime become shadows of their former selves and succumb to apathy and demotivation. Analyzing the organizational culture that underpins this union—which has hundreds of thousands of members from a wide range of social strata and political backgrounds, regions and sectors—is key to understanding what it means to organize in a society dominated by an authoritarian system. Finally, the UGTT provided an innovative laboratory for exploring Tunisians’ expectations for a legitimate mode of government acceptable to all. The union was instrumental in establishing institutional experiments to exit different political crisis, against a backdrop of resurgent tensions caused by competing sources of legitimacy and power systems. This is how the union came to take part in instituting consensus building as the preferred conflict-mediation method.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
HY: The aim of this book is not to present the historical record of three years of social and political change in Tunisia, but rather to understand the nature, operation, and evolution of the largest national organization in Tunisia. More specifically, I locate the UGTT in the protest and revolutionary dynamics and analyze the controversies surrounding its position as a balancing power—as many labor unionists like to emphasize—negotiating uncertain power relationships between social movements, successive transitional governments, civil society’s organizations, and political parties. This book seeks to bring out diverse voices of the UGTT, not only in presenting the official positions of the organization and the statements of its leaders, but by analyzing the outlooks and discourses collected during interviews and discussions I had with the UGTT members over the past three years.
In this light, I have adopted a traditional approach within the sociology of organizations: considering a system of interdependent actors (the unionists of UGTT); looking at what constraints to which each was subject because of their organizational and political environment; and analyzing the strategies they adopted. I opted for an ethnographic approach to conducting the research for this book. This involved traveling regularly and extensively in the field to conduct interviews, capturing as closely as possible the mobilized local frameworks of meaning given to the role of the UGTT and the strategies pursued by the actors in the different episodes of the mobilization.
Unlike some perspectives that would reduce the revolutionary process to an event overthrowing a political order and establishing another, my intent is to make sense of the organizational dynamics of UGTT—as a space for collective action as well as a physical and symbolic refuge for social and political movements—during the revolutionary episode, the nature of its contribution to the transformation of the Tunisian political field, and its interaction with different organizations and social movements. The ethnographic observation of the UGTT over time and during these crises avoids teleological pitfalls and restores the fluidity and the contradictions of a context characterized by uncertainty and an ongoing reassessment of strategies facing an order of constraints as well as rapidly changing power relations. Historical departures can supplement this observation by offering the possibility of contextualizing the mobilization of the UGTT in the time, space, and the political and social order prevailing in Tunisia. It can highlight what remains of the conventional operation of the UGTT and hint at the forms of differentiation that are beginning to unfold along with the transformation of Tunisian politics.
In addition to relating the history of this momentous period in Tunisian politics, this work intends to provide in-depth analysis of the unique characteristics and development of one of the largest trade unions in the Arab world and an investigation into the social movements that set the Tunisian revolution in motion, which will largely determine Tunisia’s political future. This insight into the UGTT can help improve our understanding of the impact of spaces for organized collective action on changes that affect politics. More generally, this work sheds light on the new social and political dynamics afoot in Tunisia and raises questions—via examples of continuity and change—about the region’s ability to reinvent politics.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
HY: My work falls within the tradition of research developed by Gestion et société (Management and Society), a research team at the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) led by Philippe d’Iribarne. The main research focus of the team is developing an ethnology of modern societies through the comparative study of organizations. The UGTT is akin to a micro society that brings together a wide range of political views and social categories, offering an exceptional laboratory for exploring the conditions required to establish viable democratic institutions. The interviews with the unionists—who are often active in associations and political networks outside the organization—are all the more valuable for their insight into issues related to the revolutionary process and the conditions for regime change, above and beyond issues pertaining to the UGTT. This has led me to develop the hypothesis—rooted in my research work in other private and public sector settings in Tunisia and other Arab countries—that the meanings the unionists assign to the organization’s various political positions and the manner in which they dealt with so many internal conflicts and outside attacks result not only from the organization’s unique culture, but also reflect the expectations shared by many Tunisians with regard to good and legitimate government.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
HY: This volume will be of key interest to scholars and researchers of social movements, labor movements, organizational studies, political transitions, and Arab revolutions. It will also likely to be of interest to practitioners, especially among activists, unionists, and advocates within civil society.
I hope that the book’s analysis of the challenges faced by the UGTT in meeting the economic and social demands championed during the revolutionary process lead those who are interested in Arab labor movement and its unions to reconsider a number of fundamental questions about their role in society and their relationship with the state, political parties, and new social movements. It should also lead them to question their role in shaping economic and socio-political decisions, as well as to reexamine their identity, structure, and organizational resources in order to cope with the fast-moving political and economic environment. What is happening on the ground today, in workplaces and public spaces in Arab countries, represents a historic opportunity for the labor movement to reconnect with its emancipatory social and political mission and to support the opportunity for the region to reinvent its politics.
Recent uprisings in the Arab world remind us that faced with the diversification of forms and seats of power new types of political opposition, activism, and collective resistance are emerging in the form of local social movements. At the same time, the case of UGTT shows that in each specific context, power relations are affected by multiple dialectics between existing repertoires of action and domination, existing institutions, and established strategies of resistance, on the one hand, and the emergence of new forms of dominant power, contentious politics, and collective action, on the other. The interconnections between established actors and organizations, and those between the social movements and challengers, offer a promising avenue for exploring the emerging dialectics between old and new forms, construction and deconstruction, and strategies and counter strategies.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
HY: I am working on three research projects. First, I just finished a field study on socio-cultural and institutional challenges of the decentralization project in Tunisia. Second, I am also following my work on the organizational challenges of resistance movements based on two ongoing studies:
- The organizational dynamics of “Manech Msamhin” (we won’t forgive) in Tunisia: a social movement against the law on economic reconciliation with the old regime.
- Contentious politics and resistance movements in Arab countries: The case of BDS and anti-normalization movement.
J: What are new challenges faced by UGTT in the new political landscape?
HY: New challenges have emerged for Tunisia’s longstanding associations such as UGTT, and which were originally created to resist the stranglehold of the single-party state and campaign for a democratic society built on new foundations. The new civil society, financed by international NGOs, aims to create autonomous spaces outside state control or to replace government completely on issues such as the vital task of decentralization. The rise of NGOs has been made possible by the lack of serious debate on the role of the state, the competition between the old guard embodied by Nidaa Tounes and the new elite associated with Ennahdha, and the general weakness of political parties as such. The new NGOs have secured their grip on power by becoming the main intermediaries between international aid donors, who demand increased economic liberalization, and local players in search of a place in the sun. Finally, this international support for the new civil society has also resulted in a de facto exclusion of informal associations and those deemed not to be civic bodies, such as religious and political associations. This has created a defective vision of civil society as it actually exists, one that is blind to the various forms of opposition to the power of the state and economic and political elites, as well as non-conventional forms of political activism (e.g. the Salafist movement, small employers’ associations, and football clubs).
There are a number of issues that organizations such as the UGTT must contend with, namely the role of government in post-January 14 Tunisia and the allocation of roles between the state, elected officials, political parties, and civil society, ensuring new social and political dynamics achieve the recognition they deserve, and resistance to the neoliberal agenda imposed by the international aid donors. The traditional organizations of Tunisian civil society will have to make progress on all these fronts if they wish to recover their ability to emancipate the people and neutralize financial backers’ attempts to sweep aside the social and economic demands of those who initiated the Revolution of Dignity (and not the “Jasmine Revolution,” as the Nobel Committee put it). The actors leading these new social dynamics have not yet had their last word.
Excerpt from the book:
The unionists recognize that they are not the ones who instigated the popular uprising on December 17, 2010, but they all stressed that they had provided logistical and political “guidance” to the movement. The balance of power favored the popular uprising but the movement lacked leadership, so the unionists stepped in to provide the material, organizational and political resources required to gradually transform a spontaneous intifada into a revolutionary process that hastened the fall of Ben Ali. They drew from experiences in past movements and strategies for adjusting to unforeseen developments. The unionists’ challenges, goals and expectations were regularly thrown into disorder by the unpredictable reactions of the regime and the shifting dynamics of the protest movement.
At the same time, the unionists’ accounts reveal how they carried out all their collective actions within an organizational framework that provided a stable point of reference for the movement. The political crisis led to unexpected events, such as violent police repression and the rapid spread of the movement, but the codified system of roles, rules and procedures provided a blueprint for action for the unionists, who were charged with establishing coordination mechanisms and assigning roles, as well as devising methods for pressuring the Executive Board into changing its stance. The unionists’ strategy appears to have resulted from both foresight gained from their intricate knowledge of the organization and the unpredictability of the effect their actions would have on the course of events and the other actors in the movement. The Executive Board, which had successfully controlled and refocused past social movements, was taken by surprise and, for the first time, was compelled to cede to pressure from the base and attack the regime head-on. The revolutionary process, which pushed certain regional unions and federations to distance themselves from the Executive Board and make decisions independently, set a precedent that paved the way for new relations between the intermediate sections and the central leadership. This created an opportunity for a more equal balance of power and an end to the hegemonic excesses of the Executive Board.
More broadly, the case of the UGTT raises questions about the role of organizations in transforming an uprising into a revolutionary process capable of establishing a long-term alternative to an incumbent political regime. There is no doubt that the UGTT’s centralized hierarchical structure—several local, regional, federal and national levels with more than half a million people from all walks of life—gave the union political sway and an ability to unite Tunisians on an unparalleled scale. Backed by a long history of activism and a unique organizational culture that combined strategies for pressure and negotiation, the UGTT was able to both maintain cohesion despite internal tensions caused by the uprising and serve as the driving force behind a coordination network comprising several groups of actors that focused the protest movement and hastened the fall of Ben Ali.
Lastly, the collective memory of the UGTT’s struggles supplied unionists with the resources needed to interact, communicate and attribute a shared meaning to the movement. This collective memory is also what led the unionists to depict the end of Ben Ali’s reign as the expected, predictable result of an “accumulation of struggles.” That rhetoric featured prominently in the events that followed, when it was used to negotiate the union’s role in the fast-changing Tunisian political landscape.
While the national dialogue did run into some stumbling blocks, it successfully established the conditions for a certain degree of political stability and resulted in a consensus among political actors. Ennahdha avoided the risk of being permanently removed from power and losing all legitimacy in government, through the continued existence of the National Constituent Assembly. The opposition, under the controversial, imposed leadership of Nidaa Tounes, was finally able to force the Islamists to step down. The opposition was then able to secure power by taking part in appointing the new “technocratic” government under conditions that were clearly more favorable from their perspective.
As the events unfolded, the opposition strongly urged the UGTT to take political action, but the union succeeded in remaining within the boundaries it had set and avoided shifting toward a biased position by calling for the dissolution of the NCA (National Constituent Assembly). The union’s most hardline members were compelled to clash intensely with the Troika government, while the more moderate unionists increasingly felt that the union was in danger of overstepping its role. During this tense period at the UGTT, the union’s desire to negotiate a balanced agreement with the government consistently won out. Social pressure mounted and could have caused the UGTT to implode, but instead of destroying the union, it helped lend credence to those who were seeking a political and institutional breakthrough. Now firmly entrenched in politics, the UGTT drew strength from the protest movements, which gave the union both a unique means of rallying support and an invaluable resource for negotiating with the sitting government. In this way, the UGTT was able to cement its place as a central stakeholder in Tunisian politics despite the turbulence inside and outside the union.
What is more, the UGTT, a singular forum for collective action that was spared the worst of the dictatorship, developed various institutional experiments that it was able to implement in a makeshift manner in order to effectively mediate internal and external political conflicts through consensus-building. This approach was also a stepping stone to the drafting of the constitution, which led to an entente between the Islamists and the modernists. However, this consensus was achieved largely through political maneuvering, remained confined to the political and economic elite, and suffered from a lack of viable political and economic plans.
Finally, while the UGTT continued to initiate sector-based demonstrations and appear to protect the interests of the unionized middle class, the national dialogue’s exclusive focus on political issues created conflicts within the union. The traditional divide within the UGTT during the dictatorship was between the base, which sought independence from the Ben Ali regime, and the Executive Board, which was more or less subjugated by the single-party state. This division was replaced by a new split that affected the entire organization, over the approach to be taken with regard to social issues such as the privatization of the civil service, debt relief and unemployment problems. The gap widened between those who supported limited action negotiated step by step—gradually pushing back the government without ever overthrowing it—and those who believed in the power of the social movement and sought a firmer stance that would lead to a break with the past, due to the worsening economic crisis and their dwindling confidence in negotiations with the government.
The UGTT, the main architect of the national dialogue, succeeded in saving the country from the real or imagined risk of following in Egypt’s footsteps, by establishing a consensus between the old elites from the regime and the newly elected elites. However, social movements do not play out over the same timespan as political battles. The major challenge that remains for the UGTT and political parties is to re-incorporate social and economic issues into the heart of politics, in order to prevent the political sphere from becoming even more disconnected from the social sphere.