Unions in the Arab world: a force for reform and peace
After two months of turmoil across the Arab world, it is worth reflecting on the role that trade unions can play in these crises: they certainly haven’t been bit part players, but their role has often been obscured in media reports which focus on images of conflict and reflect the fact that the medium sometimes is the message, which gives priority to articulate English-speaking participants, who tend to be middle class students. Unions have often played a key role: from Tunisia where the trade union movement took part briefly in the initial interim government (but left swiftly when it became clear it was not in fact a break with the past, precipitating its collapse and the next stage of the Tunisian revolution); through Egypt where it was strikes that forewarned of the popular revolt, and further strikes that finally sealed the deal and ensured Mubarak’s resignation; to Bahrain, where today the TUC’s sister organisation has declared a general strike in support of democratic reforms, better wages and more jobs. But unions have an even more important role in the days, months and years to come.
It’s worth noting that there are significant differences in the trade union movements across what’s known as the Middle East/North Africa (MENA) region. In some countries there is an official trade union movement run by the state, along the lines of the old stalinist East European model: Egypt, Sudan and Syria. In Egypt, the ETUF defended the regime against the demonstrators and called on strikers to return to work to avoid destabilising the regime. The response of workers has been, as it was in Poland, to form their own, alternative, independent trade union movements – something which began last year and has gathered pace as freedom has broken out. They were the unions leading the protests, bringing swathes of public and private sector workers out on strike and engaging in attacks on the official trade union movement’s headquarters.
In other countries, the trade union movement is more or less free and independent, although if you live in what is effectively a police state, it’s difficult to operate entirely without regard to your relationship with the state. Tunisian colleagues in the UGTT, for instance, were regularly criticised for accommodation with the Ben Ali regime, despite their leaders periodically spending time in his jails. The UGTT’s role in the popular uprisings, however, seems to have shown conclusively that they were at least waiting for independence all along, and they have fully justified their place in the International Trade Union Confederation, which has long been convinced of their genuine commitment. The Libyan trade union movement has sought recognition from the ITUC as a free and independent union movement (although so did the ETUF, just weeks before the revolution in Egypt) but has been kept at arm’s length because of concerns that this was just part of the Gaddaffi regime’s attempts to gain international respectability – and they have been notably quiet over the last few days of protest in Benghazi.
Where free and independent unions exist, spring up or develop out of the official trade union movement, they share some notable characteristics that make them vital elements of the reform process which seems to be gathering pace across the MENA region.
First, they express the fundamentally economic nature of these struggles. Although they are more often painted as democratic revolutions, they are in fact driven by economics. Globalisation has wreaked havoc on the economies of the region (those not bouyed up by oil revenues, at least), especially affecting jobs and wages in the textile industries, increasingly exposed to foreign competition, and the public services which are being cut and privatised. Poverty is spreading, especially among the young who have led the popular protests, whether they are university graduates fearing that there are no jobs, or the young unemployed who already know it! The involvement of unions keeps the calls for democratic reform focused on what that reform will actually produce: to satisfy the masses, it must be more than just a widening of opportunities for the existing elites, it must deliver change to people’s working lives and levels of income.
Second, they offer a non-sectarian approach. None of the independent trade union movements listed above are in any way denominational organisations open to muslims only, or even one particular sect of islam. They aren’t exactly full of openly practising atheists (neither was the British trade union movement when it began!) but they organise people on one fundamental principle: are you a worker? And whether young or old, male or female (again, I’m not claiming they’re feminists, but unions in the Arab world are often ahead of their society’s general approach, as they are in most countries of the world), committed muslim or not, unions represent them all. That’s vitally important in any fundamental change to a society’s rules and procedures, because the threat of sectarianism is always present.
And thirdly, they offer people a model of engagement in democratic life which goes beyond the initial high point of the demonstrations that created that democratic space in the first place but are impossible to sustain for the weeks and months ahead. Unions are institutions – often the most permanent and large of all civil society – which allow people to influence their lives on a day to day basis, after the thrill of the hour-by-hour revolution has passed. But as such unions maintain the influence that ordinary people want over the state far more organically than the political parties which are also necessary to democracies, but who contest for state power only once every few years, and therefore provide a rather spasmodic experience of democracy. Unions, grounded in the quotidian reality of workplace industrial relations (the health and safety inspections, the grievance and disciplinary hearings, as well as the less common wage negotiations), provide a daily – and mostly peaceful – experience of democratic involvement.
In all these ways, Arab trade unions are absolutely no different to unions everywhere else in the world. And that is their final contribution to developments in the MENA region. They are not isolated from the rest of the world as so many other national institutions are. They can draw on solidarity when times are tough, and partnership when things improve, from the rest of the 176-million strong trade union movement. In a week’s time, I will be in Jordan for a meeting between the Arab trade unions and their potential global allies to discuss what we can do together to support what is being done across the MENA region. It promises to be more fascinating than almost any previous gathering of its kind.