Public workers strike in Tunisia, signaling national crisis

·4 min read

TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — A nationwide public sector strike in Tunisia is poised to paralyze land and air transportation and other vital activities Thursday with the North African nation already in the midst of a deteriorating economic crisis.

Tunisia’s powerful General Labour Union (UGTT) announced the walkout, which is expected to include 159 state enterprises, on the basis of pressing social and economic demands. The union is demanding wage increases and protesting the government's planned economic reforms.

The purchasing power of Tunisian citizens has eroded since the beginning of the year amid rising prices, high unemployment and widespread poverty. The war in Ukraine has exacerbated the financial squeeze.

President Kais Saied’s government unveiled plans last week to cut its massive public wage bill and said it would progressively reduce energy and food subsidies starting next year. The government said it would replace subsidies with cash handouts for low-income families.

In July 2021, Saied abruptly dismissed the government and took on sweeping powers. While his critics accuse him of staging a coup, Saied said he had acted in response to widespread economic and social discontent.

Many are concerned Thursday’s strike could seriously impact an already fragile economy and fuel an already tense political situation. An increasingly isolated Saied has run the country alone for 10 months, ruling by decree, while key Western allies have raised concerns of democratic backsliding.

A meeting between the government and the UGTT was held Tuesday but failed to yield an agreement.

Hundreds of trade union members and public sector workers gathered in front of the UGTT headquarters in downtown Tunis to mark the walkout. Many spoke of their deep concern over the higher cost of living and the government's perceived inability to solve the crisis.

“We, as citizens, as public sector employees, are burdened with a great part of the charges of state debt" union member Boubaker Ben Ali said.

Naza Zuhein, another trade unionist, told The Associated Press she attended the demonstration to express her frustration that life in Tunisia has “become impossible.”

“Our wages are low and the prices are getting higher ... and meanwhile, this man (Kais Saied) is very stubborn. He is making decisions alone without consulting us,” Zuhein said.

At a weekend UGTT meeting ahead of Thursday’s strike, hundreds of union members filled the Palace of Congress in Tunis , waving national flags and singing popular songs. The audience cheered as union president Noureddine Tabboubi took the stage, promising to oppose the government's economic reforms.

Tabboubi told the AP after the meeting that Thursday's strike was a necessary response to Tunisia's high inflation rate– which according to the Institute of Statistics, reached 7.8% in May – and to high living costs that intensified with the Central Banks’ recent decision to increase interest rates.

The union chief said the strike had the potential to set off a “social explosion” that was “normal and inevitable.” Speaking Saturday, he said the walkout was not a political action but “based solely on the social demands of the working classes.”

A key issue for Saied’s government is the country’s urgent need to secure a new loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Tunisia’s fourth loan in a decade.

Ahead of negotiations that have been stalled for months, the IMF demanded that Tunisia institute economic reforms, including the reduction of the subsidies that many impoverished Tunisians are depend on.

IMF spokesperson Gerry Rice welcomed Tunisia’s proposed economic reforms and said discussions with authorities were advancing.

But union leader Tabboubi accused the government of wanting to “sell the country and impoverish the population” by imposing changes dictated by the IMF.

The UGTT has so far refused to participate in Saied’s proposed “national dialogue” – a key stepping stone in his road map out of Tunisia’s political crisis. It envisions changing Tunisia’s post-revolutionary constitution.

Addressing the crowd at Thursday's demonstration, Tabboubi reiterated the UGTT's stance.

“This dialogue does not serve Tunisia, which we want to be balanced and in solidarity (with the workers) through real reform programs, so that we can get out of the political and economic impasse we are living in,” he said.

Youssef Cherif, a political analyst, says that while UGTT leaders were careful to characterize the strike as a matter of economic and social welfare, the event has a political message and implications.

“Politically, if the strike succeeds, this is a signal to the president that the UGTT is powerful and that he cannot bypass them, that they are an important player that cannot be ignored,” Cherif said in a telephone interview.

The strike may add to doubts among external observers such as the IMF and the World Bank that Tunisia has the ability to overcome its political and economic crisis, the analyst said.

“This is happening in the heart of the summer," Cherif noted. "Economically, it will disrupt tourism and travelers coming into and out of the country, and will close many amenities and public transport, creating resentment among the overall population.”