Labor Strikes Are Costly, Difficult… and Effective
With teachers on strike in Los Angeles and airport workers on strike in Berlin, early 2019 already looks set to be a notable year for labor actions in Europe and the United States. While wages and work conditions are at the forefront of actions in established democracies, labor strikes can take on more political meaning in places struggling to consolidate popular rule.
The Arab Uprisings which spread across the Middle East in 2011 also activated a new wave of contentious strike actions. From Morocco to Iraq, unionists joined protests as citizens, as workers, as party members, and as representatives of civil society. Among the most successful trade union was Tunisia’s Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail, or UGTT. Co-awarded the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize, the UGTT has been praised for its role as a mediator, convening elements of Tunisian society to maintain stability during the transition. Before it could do this however, the UGTT built up its street power, including credibly threatening and carrying out strikes.
In my book Labor Politics in North Africa: After the Uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia I analyze how workers became disconnected from their regimes, swept up into revolutionary movements, and how they fared in the aftermath. I find that despite some expectations to the contrary, official status and special dispensations from the government meant little if unions could not back up their demands with street power.
Consider the case of the constituent assemblies in each country. Trade unions in most countries would be ecstatic at the prospect of sitting on the committee that drafts the nation’s new constitution. In Egypt however, a series of political moves designed to sideline the most vocal unionists, and split their seats with more middle class and professional organizations left unions in the old when the new constitution passed. In Tunisia, despite the UGTT having zero seats in the constituent assembly, the new constitution guarantees the right to work, the right to strike, and the right to a safe work environment, as well as other trade union commitments such as goals for gender equality.
Why the difference? For much of the transition period Egypt’s workers were divided between the older regime-affiliated Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) and new independent unions that took a more militant line. Within the first year of the transition, the independent unions further fractured into multiple camps. Despite efforts to unify them and displace the regime affiliated unions, the independent groups were unable to do so. In Tunisia, the UGTT faced its own dissident members. New independent unions were formed there too, many of whom agitated for changes to the union. Despite this the UGTT faced down both its internal and external critics, and demonstrated its power to get activists in the street fighting for their rights.
Labor Politics in North Africa looks at a variety of factors that explain how unions built or lost power after the revolutions. Party politics, international relations, rhetoric, and the relative strength of militaries all mattered for the Egyptian and Tunisian transitions, but for trade unions few tools trumped the power of the strike.