Some 670,000 workers in Tunisia waged a nationwide one-day strike today to protest the government’s refusal to increase wages for civil servant workers. The strike follows months of intense negotiations between the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) and the government, which refused to increase wages in 2019 because of its commitment to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to freeze public-sector wages and spending and balance the budget.
Hundreds of thousands of Tunisian workers pack the streets of Tunis for a one-day strike. Credit: UGTT
Workers began the strike at midnight. By morning, hundreds of thousands gathered at the UGTT headquarters in the capital, Tunis, and at regional offices across the country, rallying to cries of “We want employment, freedom, national dignity.” The UGTT says all public service workers took part in the strike, including workers from state-owned enterprises.
Public-sector wages have failed to keep up with rising prices, leading to a decline in purchasing power. The UGTT says the monthly minimum wage of about $128 is one of the lowest in the world, while Tunisia’s Institute of Strategic Studies says real purchasing power has fallen by 40 percent since 2014. The UGTT points out that private-sector workers have seen a 6 percent pay increase for 2019.
In addition, the government’s proposed $60 tax increase would severely impact workers’ wages, social security and the prices of consumer goods, UGTT Deputy General Sami Tahri said at a press conference yesterday.
Only one flight left the airport, and the strike affected ports, public transportation and central, regional and local administrations. Vital care at hospitals continued.
Tunisia struck a deal with the IMF in December 2016 for a loan program worth around $2.8 billion to address an economic crisis that includes high unemployment and stagnant wages. During negotiations with the UGTT, the government delegation withdrew many times to consult with the IMF, according to the global union IndustriAll.
Nigeria’s largest trade union federations will call a nationwide strike May 18 unless the Nigerian government returns fuel subsidies it removed on May 11.
Meeting over the weekend, the executive councils of the Nigeria Labor Congress (NLC) and the Trade Union Congress of Nigeria (TUC), which together represent millions of workers, along with civil society organizations, decried the nearly 50 percent hike in fuel prices caused by deregulation and called on the government to return fuel subsidies and prosecute those involved in subsidy scams.
In a joint statement, the groups said that over the past five years, “there has been no increase in salaries or wages or pensions in the face of devaluations, spiraling inflation and other vagaries of the economy,” making the rising price of fuel “unrealistic, unaffordable (and) unacceptable.”
More than half of Nigeria’s population lives below the international poverty line of $1.25 a day, according to the most recent figures from UNICEF.
Although Nigeria is Africa’s biggest petroleum producer, the country imports nearly all of its refined fuel, unlike most members of the Oil and Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), and is currently facing a severe shortage. Unions and civil society organizations are urging the government to create enhanced local refining capacity to permanently solve the problem of scarcity.
Eighty percent of Nigeria’s foreign currency comes from the petroleum industry.
The groups pointed out that the volatility of the country’s black market makes it unlikely the government will be able to stop fuel prices from rising further. They also cited the plunging local currency, the naira, which has rapidly begun depreciating against the dollar since deregulation, as furthering limiting consumers’ ability to purchase basic goods.
In calling for government measures to reverse fuel deregulation, the groups also are pushing for reform in the electricity sector, urging the government to end billing based on estimating electricity usage and make meters available to consumers.
When the government last attempted to deregulate fuel prices in January 2012, striking workers and students shut down airports, offices and shops, paralyzing the country for 10 days. At least 10 people died and hundreds were injured during the strike. Workers returned to their jobs after the government partially restored the fuel subsidy.
Unions also are calling on the government to involve labor in negotiating key policy issues and reverse privatization processes long pushed for by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, including deregulation, which the groups say contravene “the constitutional provision that says government shall be the driver of the economy.”
The notion that unionization and higher wages decrease income inequality is a fundamental premise of the Solidarity Center and our allies. But now a surprising source has reached the same conclusion: the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
“The decline in unionization is related to the rise of top income shares and less redistribution, while the erosion of minimum wages is correlated with considerable increases in overall inequality,” the IMF concludes in a newly released “staff discussion note.”
According to Inequality and Labor Market Institutions, a steep decline in union density is followed by a 1.8 percent increase of top incomes and a 3 percent decline for workers’ share over the ensuing five years. Further, “if de-unionization weakens earnings for middle- and low-income workers, this necessarily increases the income share of corporate managers and shareholders.” The study examined 20 advanced economies between 1980 and 2010.
Declining union strength “appears to be associated with less income redistribution, likely through a reduced influence of unions on public policy,” says Florence Jaumotte, an economist and co-author of the publication. Not to mention another fact: unions help raise wages, both for members and the community at large.
Long a bastion of pro-employer policies, the IMF is not willing to go so far as to recommend the obvious. Acknowledging its findings can “suggest that higher unionization and minimum wages can help reduce inequality,” the IMF dodges the logical conclusion to pursue such policies, saying its data “do not constitute a blanket recommendation for more unionization or higher minimum wages.”
The IMF study notes that such decisions should be made on a country by country basis—leaving the reader to presume that countries supporting shared prosperity among all citizens will enable their workers to form unions, and ensure a living wage for all.