670,000 Public-Sector Workers Strike in Tunisia

670,000 Public-Sector Workers Strike in Tunisia

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.

Tunisia, general strike, UGTT, wages, unions, Solidarity Center

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.

Reaching across Borders for Farmworker Rights

Reaching across Borders for Farmworker Rights

“Now more than ever we see the need to organize across borders to tackle corporate global supply chains” that keep workers from retail and farms in low wages,” says Art Pulaski, executive secretary-treasurer and chief officer of the California Labor Federation.


“We need to learn from each other to learn to organize more.”

Pulaski helped open a day-long conference, “Realizing a More Fair Global Food Supply Chain,” which gathered farm worker activists and food justice advocates to explore farmworker organizing strategies, alliances to support worker rights across the food chain, legal initiatives to ensure decent work and the importance of workers in the advancement of sustainability and justice as our food moves from farm to table.


“We are talking about a whole distribution system that is based on low-wage work, an economic model that relies on low wages in restaurants, retail, farms,” says Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau. “Today is about changing that.”


Bader-Blau and Kent Wong, director of the University of California-Los Angeles Labor Center, joined in launching the event, sponsored by the Solidarity Center, the Food Chain Workers Alliance and UCLA Labor Center.


One way to improve worker rights in global supply chains involves workers coming together to demand their rights, and union activists from Mexico, Morocco and Washington state shared their successful strategies organizing farmworkers.


Speaking on the first panel, “Build Real Voice and Real Work for Workers,” Ramon Torres, president of Familias Unidas por la Justicia in Washington state, described how he joined with co-workers on farms in Washington state for a two-cent an hour raise in 2013. They went on to champion laws that ensured farmworkers would receive their wages from employers who he estimates engaged in wage theft totaling $850,000.


“One thing I want to emphasize is how important it is for us to organize,” says Torres, speaking through a translator. “I am proud to represent workers.”


In Morocco, where the Democratic Labor Federation (CDT) organized more than 1,000 farmworkers on a large agro-industrial complex, the union focused on empowering women throughout the process, says Saida Bentahar, a member of the CDT executive committee.


“For women working in the agricultural fields, women started to learn about their rights and how to discuss and negotiate,” says Bentahar. “Women also managed to have their voices heard during negotiations” and as a result, they won first-ever health care and education opportunities for their children and can work in higher-skilled, higher-paid jobs previously open only to men.


“Now women benefit from many advantages they would not have had without the collective bargaining agreement,” she says.

Food justice advocates shared how they incorporate the rights of workers along the global agricultural supply chain during the second morning panel, a strategy session on models of cooperation.


“When we say agricultural food chain workers, we mean farm workers, fish workers, meat processing and poultry processing workers, those who truck the food and workers in grocery stores, retail chains, restaurants, and street vendors,” says Joann Lo, co-director of the Food Chain Workers Alliance in Los Angeles.


Lo says her organization forrmed as the sustainable food movement took off and consumers began asking how far their food traveled and was it fresh and sustainable—but left workers out of the conversation. “We need to ask: Are the jobs sustainable for workers in the global supply chain?” she says.


“The power of procurement most powerful tool we have,” says Clare Fox, executive director at the Los Angeles Food Policy Council. Fox described how her organization successfully moved the LA Unfired School District—which spends $150 million a year on food—to commit to ensuring 15 percent of the food it sources meets a baseline of fair labor, animal welfare and nutrition.


The panel also included moderator Robert Eggers, president of the LA Kitchen and Ryan Zinn, regenerative projects manager at the family-owned organic, fair trade company, Dr. Bronner’s.


Stop back for more coverage of the afternoon sessions!

Naziha Kdimi: Women Must Persist in Breaking Gender Molds

Naziha Kdimi: Women Must Persist in Breaking Gender Molds

In Tunisia’s southern Gafsa region, Naziha Kdimi, a higher education teacher, struggled for years to gain acceptance among her male union peers.

This year, Kdimi was elected assistant general secretary for a regional union body covering the area for the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT)—the first woman to hold an executive position in the region.

Her advice to women seeking to change male-dominated cultures that have long inhibited women from exerting leadership: Keep showing up every day. Eventually, the men will accept you. Don’t go away, because then they will have won.

Naziha Kdimi: Women Must Persist in Breaking Gender Molds

Naziha Kdimi: Women Must Persist in Breaking Gender Molds

In Tunisia’s southern Gafsa region, Naziha Kdimi, a higher education teacher, struggled for years to gain acceptance among her male union peers.

This year, Kdimi was elected assistant general secretary for a regional union body covering the area for the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT)—the first woman to hold an executive position in the region.

In this video clip, Kdimi encourages union women everywhere to never give up the struggle for gender equality.

Her advice to women seeking to change male-dominated cultures that have long inhibited women from exerting leadership: Keep showing up every day. Eventually, the men will accept you. Don’t go away, because then they will have won.

The video featuring Kdimi is part of the Solidarity Center Workers Equality Forum, where working people around the world describe their challenges, successes, and hopes and dreams for a better world for all workers.

Solidarity Center’s Barkallah Receives Top Union Award

Solidarity Center’s Barkallah Receives Top Union Award

Kalthoum Barkallah, Solidarity Center senior program officer and master trainer in Tunisia, this week received a lifetime achievement award from the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT). The award, the nationwide union’s highest honor, is given to union activists for their dedication to union work and in recognition of their struggle in the defense of workers and human rights.

Tunisia, UGTT, gender equality, worker rights, Solidarity Center

The UGTT award is the union’s highest honor.

“We are enormously proud of Kalthoum and the great contribution she brings to the labor movement through her incredible dedication and accomplishments,” says Hind Cherrouk, Solidarity Center country program director for the Maghreb region. “Kalthoum’s expertise in nurturing and training new generations of leaders, especially women unionists, has ensured the labor movement in Tunisia and beyond is served by new, skilled union activists.”

Presented by UGTT General Secretary Noureddine Tabboubi, the award reads: “Honoring sister and union activist Kalthoum Barkallah in appreciation for her dedication and perseverance in support for union work.”

In conferring the award, Taboubbi noted Kalthoum’s popularity among the UGTT’s union structures from local to national.

“When I began the struggle for democracy, freedom and the rights of women in 1979, I never for a moment imagined that there would be a day when I would be recognized or honored for my part in realizing these noble objectives,” says Barkallah.

Building Women’s Leadership in Their Unions

Tunisia, ITF global union, worker rights, Solidarity CenterAs an activist with the Tunisian General Federation of Railways, Barkallah was first elected as a deputy general secretary in 1983, heading up training within the union. She later was elected deputy general secretary in charge of international relations. In the railways industry, Barkallah was known as the “iron lady” for her determination and struggle to challenge her male colleagues in a male-dominated sector to achieve equality and justice for all.

As an active union leader with the UGTT, Barkallah built on the gender empowerment training she began in the railway sector to reach union members in a variety of industries throughout Tunisia, championing women’s rights there and supporting her sisters beyond its borders.

Barkallah, who in 2006 was elected president of the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF)­–Arab Women’s committee, also recently received an award from the ITF Women’s Committee for her fight and struggle in support of women workers in the transport sector.

Throughout her decades of service to workers and their unions, Barkallah balanced both work and family duties, raising two sons who each now have their own children.

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