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Union Generale des Travailleurs Tunisiens (UGTT)

The Union Generale des Travailleurs Tunisiens (UGTT) is Tunisia's sole trade union federation. It is a very important organization with a long history of political activism. With hundreds of thousands of members, it is one of the country's largest membership organizations. Despite a drop in union membership from 400,000 to about 250,000 as the structure of the Tunisian economy changed, the UGTT continues to hold a prominent place in Tunisia's political and social life. The General Union of Tunisian Workers was a key organizer of the anti-regime protests that helped to force President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali from power in January 2011.

The UGTT claims about one third of the labor force as members, although more are covered by UGTT-negotiated contracts. Wages and working conditions are established through triennial collective bargaining agreements between the UGTT, the national employers' association (UTICA - Union Tunisienne de l'Industrie, du Commerce et de l'Artisanat), and the Government of Tunisia. These agreements set industry standards and generally apply to about 80 percent of the private sector labor force, whether or not individual companies are unionized. The most recent wage agreements were completed on August 3, 2009, although negotiations on sectoral wages are still underway. The official minimum monthly wage in the industrial sector is 225.160 TND (about US$173.37) for a 40 hour week and 260.624 TND (about US$200.68) for a 48 hour week.

The oldest dichotomy underlaying contemporary Tunisian society is the regional opposition between the interior and the coast, which coincides economically with the division between the underdeveloped and the developed sections of the country and socially with that between the rural and the urban segments of the population. The opposition between the interior and the coast can be traced to antiquity; since then the tribesmen and small villagers of the central area and the south have been pitted against the urbanized population of the coastal lowland.

The manifestation of this opposition in the since the 1980s lay in the regional distribution of the membership of the ruling political party, the PSD, and the General Union of Tunisian Workers (Union Gnra1e des Travailleurs Tunisiens-UGTT). On the one hand, most of the party's membership and the country's political leadership came from an axis stretching from Bizerte to Jerba Island, and the peoples of the interior and the south were poorly represented. Trade union membership and leadership, on the other hand, were heavily concentrated in the interior. Hence one encountered a basic geographic division between Tunisia's politicians and wealthy middle class and its small farmers, miners, and shepherds. It was no accident that a preponderance of the political upheavals the country experienced after the mid-1970s originated in the interior or in trade union activity.

In 1946 Ferhat Hached, who later became a national martyr in the fight for independence, led other Tunisian members out of the communist-dominated French General Confederation of Workers (Confdration Gnrale des Travailleurs-CGT) to form the UGTT. After its rift with the French group, the UGTT joined the noncommunist International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) and established links with Western labor federations, including the American labor movement. The UGTT "froze" its relations with the ICFTU between 1982 and 1984 over the international body's failure to adopt a position of recognizing the Palestinians' right to self-determination after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon.

The UGTT had been strongly identified with Tunisia's independence struggle, serving as a front for Bourguiba's supporters when the Neo-Destour Party was banned by the French in the early 1950s. After Hached's assassination in 1952 by French colonial terrorists, Ben Salah aligned the UGTT with strongly socialist economic policies. Although later forced from the UGTT leadership, Ben Salah was able to see his views prevail for a period in the 1960s when he was the architect of the country's economic policies as secretary of state for planning and finance. During the 1960s centralized planning and the collectivization of agriculture and retail trade were emphasized during the ascendancy of the trade union leader and planning secretary, Ben Salah. Growing opposition, which gave way to violence among farmers, coupled with President Bourguiba's misgivings over Ben Salah's accumulation of power, led to the latter's downfall and curtailment of his policies.

The official relationship between the UGTT and the government and party remained cooperative into the early 1970s even though the UGTT, under the direction of Habib Achour, made greater efforts to chart an independent course. Strikes, almost nonexistent until 1970, increased in number and duration between 1974 and 1977, reflecting growing estrangement with the government. Violence broke out in January 1978 when the UGTT called a general strike in protest over the arrest of a union leader and alleged that attacks against union offices in several towns had been officially inspired. Many people were killed and injured as workers clashed with the police, the army, and the PSD militia. Among the hundreds of persons arrested were Achour and nearly all of the 13 members of the UGTT Executive Board.

With the exception of Achour, who was kept under house arrest, the labor leaders were gradually released. At a special congress of the UGTT in May 1981, a new Executive Board was elected, 11 of whose members had served on the pre-1978 board, with Taieb Baccouche as secretary general. Baccouche, regarded as being to the left of Achour, was the first head of the UGTT who was not a member of the PSD. Pardoned by Bourguiba on the eve of the national election in November 1981, Achour was immediately elected to the newly created post of UGTT president. Baccouche and Achour shared the leadership until Achour engineered his own election as secretary general and the election of a new Executive Board supportive of his policies at a UGTT congress in December 1984. The post of president was abolished. Baccouche, given responsibility for the weekly Ach Chaab, was dismissed in 1985 for articles of a leftist and anti-Muslim slant deemed likely to invite official retribution. He apparently kept his post as deputy secretary general of the UGTT.

The decision by the UGTT to participate with the PSD in a national front in the election of 1981, reached by a narrow majority, remained a source of dissension within the federation. The 27 members of the UGTT elected as deputies to the Chamber of Deputies included eight members of the Executive Board. In debating economic and social issues, the UGTT members found themselves in an awkward position when they were expected to support even those government programs that had been opposed by the federation.

In 1985 unionized workers represented only about 17 percent of the total work force. They were concentrated in the public sector, state-owned industries, and some of the larger private enterprises. Although agriculture absorbed 32 percent of the labor force, only 2 percent-those employed by large, state-owned cooperatives - were unionized. The UGTT claimed a membership of 400,000.

The government had traditionally been willing to ensure that workers would share in economic growth by steadily raising wages. Faced in the mid.1980s with converging strains on the economy, however, the government was unwilling to lift its wage freeze in spite of mounting inflation. The UGTT threatened general strike action in 1985 if its demands for halting the decline in real wages were not met. The government reacted by withdrawing the checkoff of union dues at the source - a serious threat to union finances - and the right to hold union meetings in the workplace. The labor newspaper was also banned for six months.

By the early 1990s it was reducing its role in contentious political activities and focusing more narrowly on helping workers. Toward this end, it was interested in improving the negotiating skills of its cadres, especially at the intermediate and lower levels, and increasing its membership by opening up new locals.

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Page last modified: 05-08-2011 20:03:17 ZULU