The general strike in the civil service and public sector on 17 January can be viewed as a foretaste of what the country can expect in 2019. After all Tunisia’s national trade union federation, the UGTT, which called the strike, made it clear that it is no longer willing to go along with the economic and social policies of Prime Minister Youssef Chahed.

Tunisia’s labour union goes on the offensive

The UGTT called on 670,000 civil servants and 200,000 employees of state-owned companies to join a 24-hour walkout to reinforce its demands for wage increases and a government climb-down over privatisation plans. The action was a success. The strike brought public services, health and education sectors, local transport and air traffic to a halt.

The cities of Sfax, Medenine and Tozeur in southern Tunisia were just as paralysed as the capital Tunis, where 7,000 people joined the main rally in front of UGTT headquarters. The strike was also supported by civic organisations such as the Popular Front, a left-wing party alliance. Its spokesman Hamma Hammami explicitly welcomed the strike call and announced the active participation of his party in the protests.

Months-long negotiations between the government and the UGTT had just been broken off without agreement. "We made concessions within the parameters of our acceptable boundaries," declared Prime Minister Chahed just before the strike. He did indeed make concessions to the UGTT over wage increases, but these were far below union expectations.

Hamma Hammami attending a demonstration in downtown Tunis during the general strike (photo: Sofian Philip Naceur)
Union protests garner mass support: the nationwide general strike of last January was also supported by civil society organisations and political forces such as the Popular Front, a left-wing party alliance. Its spokesman Hamma Hammami had explicitly welcomed the strike call and announced his party's active participation in the protests

Calls for measures against corruption and tax evasion

While the UGTT holds the government primarily responsible for the failure of the talks, its protest was explicitly aimed against IMF policy in Tunisia. Because the government is bending to the directives of the Fund, the union had no other choice but to strike, UGTT Secretary General Noureddine Taboubi explained. He meanwhile blamed corruption and "methodical pillaging" for the woeful state of the public purse and called on the government to finally take decisive action against widespread tax evasion.

The government and the union are now back at the negotiating table, but should the talks fail yet again, the UGTT has announced another general strike for 20 and 21 February. With this stance, the union is showing both the government and IMF its limits and making it clear just how powerful it is on Tunisia’s political stage today.

After all, the UGTT is certainly in a position to push back IMF budget restrictions or the government’s privatisation plans, says Mohamed-Dhia Hammami, a researcher into the political role of the UGTT in Tunisia at the Wesleyan University in the United States. "The union has the capacity to make the country ungovernable. It has more members than any political party has voters."

But the success of the strike also shows that foreign creditors who insist on such reforms can encounter serious difficulties navigating the complexities of the local political scene, he says. That said, it remains to be seen whether the union really is in a position to force the government and IMF to make far-reaching and sustainable concessions.

Sofian Philip Naceur

© Qantara.de 2019

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

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Comments for this article: Taking on the IMF

As a Tunisian I don't understand this. For decades the IMF has been doing its best to help Tunisia, and other countries, develop a strong capitalist economy and "democracy". It has even had women like Namat Shafi and Christine Lagarde, help restructring the economies to achieve prosperity and liberate Tunisian women .... It seems that Tunisians do not get it.

Nadeem10.02.2019 | 21:43 Uhr