Ashley Anderson, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
On March 10, 2019, public sector workers poured into the streets of Algiers in one of the first labor demonstrations of Algeria’s 2019 hirak movement. Spurred by the demands of pro-democracy activists and independent trade unions, tens of thousands of workers stayed home to begin a five-day general strike against the Bouteflika government, marking a pivotal turning point in the movement to end Algeria’s 60-year military regime. Yet, barely a year later, the very same streets were empty, as the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic forced the government to issue a ban on all public demonstrations. This article analyzes the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on labor mobilization in Algeria by discussing the challenges that government restrictions have posed to the labor movement and the ways in which unions have strategically adapted to this novel political circumstance.
Recent scholarship on the political impact of the COVID-19 crisis suggests that the pandemic has opened a “window of opportunity” for governments to more effectively repress activist movements without attracting unwanted pressure from citizens and the international community. As Eck and Hatz (2020) and Grasse, Pavlik and Matfess (2020) show, governments have intensified their repressive campaigns in the wake of COVID lockdowns, using the public health emergency instrumentally to surveil upon citizens and repress protests in known areas of dissent.  At the same time, global crises such as the COVID pandemic may provide a temporary boost to government legitimacy as politicians employ crisis frames to produce a “rally around the flag effect.”
While many may view Algeria’s lockdown as a boon for the government in its efforts to regain its hold onto power during the hirak, I argue that the COVID-19 pandemic has actually enabled the Algerian labor movement to strengthen its protest mobilization in the face of a highly repressive regime. Perhaps counterintuitively, the coronavirus lockdown has provided a unique opportunity for unions to reframe their grievances against the government, diversify their tactics, and strengthen their grassroots organizing, enabling certain sectors of the labor movement to reach a much broader audience and pose an even greater threat to the regime. Thus, despite the temporary suspension of visible mobilization by labor unions, the pandemic has not posed an existential threat to the success of labor opposition writ large. Instead, the scaling back of public demonstrations has ushered in a new era of collective action that I term collective activism among frontline and public sector workers that is likely to bolster labor mobilization efforts once the pace of the pandemic has slowed.
The COVID 19 pandemic: A new challenge for labor opposition
The main challenge that the COVID-19 pandemic places upon labor movements everywhere is that it strikes at the very essence of trade unions’ strength: their ability to disrupt economic activity through public demonstrations. While organized labor in Algeria has generally been viewed as passive relative to its North African counterparts in Tunisia and Egypt, strike activity has always formed a critical component of labor’s mobilization strategy vis-a-vis the regime and has been essential to its success in key moments of the nation’s history. Indeed, the country’s principal union, the UGTA, was born during the Algerian revolution as a way to mobilize workers in opposition to the French colonial regime. Even after independence, when the union was subordinated to the state under the political leadership of the National Liberation Front (FLN), strikes served as an important way for workers to preserve their gains during periods of economic crisis (e.g 1977-1982) and avoid further cutbacks as a result of structural adjustment.
In the contemporary period, labor demonstrations in Algeria have been linked to broader processes of political change. The workers’ strikes of 1988, which led to the bloody October revolts, fundamentally changed the Algerian political scene by ushering in a new period of partisan and trade union pluralism. Following the promulgation of the new constitution on February 23, 1989 (and later, Law 90-14 in June 1990), independent trade unions were established in the public sector, leading to a new wave of anti-government protests throughout the early 1990s. Similarly, in the mid-2000s it was these unions who propelled the wave of rolling strikes affecting several key sectors of economic activity: education, ports, railways, public transportation, manufacturing, customs, postal services, etc. In the wake of popular uprisings throughout the Arab world in 2011, workers from independent unions stood alongside citizens in their calls for better living conditions and liberalizing political reforms. Most recently, in the early months of the hirak, public sector workers and independent unionists (organized under the newly consolidated Confederation of Autonomous Trade Unions), mobilized numerous strikes and marches with the same demands as the political movement, despite attempts by the military government to suppress their activities (discussed in greater detail below).
However, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic severely undermined this form of labor militancy. Despite rigorous mobilization from unions in the first year of the hirak, in March 2020, public demonstrations by labor organizations were officially banned, a hiatus from which workers have only recently begun to recover. For many, the coronavirus pandemic presented a rare opportunity for Algeria’s Tebboune government to put an end to the expansion of a virulent political movement aimed at upending the nation’s military-backed regime, noting that “authorities are capitalizing on the coronavirus outbreak to strike back at civil society and opposition figures in a desperate effort to stifle dissent”.
Instead, in the midst of this crisis, civil society organizations, and particularly labor unions, strategically utilized government lockdowns to redouble their organizing efforts, undertaking an alternative form of mobilization which I term collective activism. Unlike collective action — which is highly visible and involves the holding of public demonstrations, marches, and the like — collective activism refers to the constitutive components of mobilization — constructing frames, building relationships, and strategizing — that makes collective action successful. In what follows, I describe how key sectors of the labor movement, particularly frontline workers and public sector unions, have used the temporary ban on public demonstrations to redirect their attention to collective activism by developing new protest frames, broadening their tactical repertoires, and strengthening their grassroots networks. Ultimately, I argue that this shift, while ostensibly demonstrating the effectiveness of the government’s repressive strategy, is producing a labor movement with a greater capacity to win much-needed concessions and push for more lasting change in Algeria’s governance structure over the long-term.
“Never let a good crisis go to waste”
One of the greatest benefits of the COVID-19 pandemic for organized labor has been its ability to expose the government’s mismanagement of Algeria’s economic and public health crisis. As with many North African countries, the coronavirus pandemic has hit Algeria hard, exacerbating the woes of an economy already marred by years of falling oil revenues and low levels of public investment. Since independence, Algeria’s ruling elite have used public spending to purchase quiescence, but with a rising budget deficit and declining GDP growth (down by 6% in 2020), this strategy is no longer feasible. At the same time, negative externalities from the coronavirus pandemic — falling oil prices, supply-chain disruptions, food shortages, and growing unemployment — have placed increasing strain on citizens’ daily lives, allowing labor unions’ traditional bread-and-butter demands to achieve deeper resonance with the broader public.
The example of the education sector provides a case in point. For years, independent teachers’ unions — such as The National Autonomous Council of Teachers of Secondary and Technical Education (CNAPEST), the National Union of Education Workers (SNTE), and the Council of Algerian High Schools (CLA) — have held recurrent demonstrations to force the government to attend to their demands for higher wages, retirement benefits, and bureaucratic reforms to Algeria’s poorly managed education system. While these protests have generally attracted sectoral interests and achieved limited gains (i.e. a 60% salary increase, largely undercut by inflation), in the context of economic strain created by the coronavirus pandemic, teachers have purposefully worked to link their demands for better working conditions to problems that all Algerian’s face — rising inflation, corrupt officials’ efforts to loot public funds, the awful state of public education, and persistent un- and underemployment for university graduates. According to unionists, the fundamental source of these grievances is a deliberate irhab idary (administrative terrorism) that seeks to deprive Algerian citizens’ of their “basic dignity” and prevent the masses from pushing for necessary reforms. The resonance of such frames is evident in the strength of recent demonstrations held by teachers in 2021 — a general strike held from May 9-11 reached participation levels in the hundreds of thousands (a reported 75% of Algeria’s educational workforce) and, in cities like Oran, drew widespread support from university students, parent’s associations, and community members.
In a similar vein, medical professionals have capitalized upon the country’s growing health crisis to expose the regime’s incompetence and undermine its legitimacy, drawing the balance of power more deeply in their favor. Prior to the pandemic, Algeria’s healthcare system was exceptionally vulnerable — according to the 2019 Global Health Security Index, Algeria was one of the countries “least prepared” to respond effectively to a global health crisis, ranking 173rd out of a possible 195 countries in terms of health system preparedness. With the advent of COVID-19, this vulnerability has been plainly exposed: in provinces like Blida, where the pandemic has hit the hardest, deaths have soared as hospitals face shortages in critical infrastructure (e.g. intensive care unit beds, ventilators, medical oxygen, and oximeters) and vaccine programs have slow to roll-out. At the same time, the government’s initial hesitation to implement COVID protection measures such as declaring a national state of emergency has showcased the fragility of a divided elite in developing a decisive and robust response to national crisis.
All of these shortcomings have worked to benefit the labor movement. Union activists have instrumentalized the country’s health crisis, promoting lockdowns as a form of patriotism and civic responsibility, and refashioning popular protest slogans to reflect the importance of safety measures such as social distancing. Furthermore, workers from public health unions such as the National Union of Public Health Practitioners (SNPSP), the National Union of University Hospital Teachers Researchers (SNECHU), and the Algerian Paramedical Union (SAP) have gone on strike to protest dangerous work conditions inside of hospitals and lobby for hazard pay and protective materials for healthcare workers. Like education workers, healthcare professionals have worked to connect their grievances to broader issues stemming from the government’s mismanagement of the COVID-19 crisis. A recent report from the Workers’ Solidarity Committee, for example, emphasized that the government’s inadequacies have augmented in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic: thousands of businesses have closed, hundreds of thousands of workers made redundant or left without wages, and more than 220 healthcare workers have died in the line of duty. More recently, firefighters joined the ranks of the disaffected, using rolling strikes over wages and working conditions as a platform to criticize the government’s inability to take control of Algeria’s growing climate crisis.
The COVID-19 pandemic has not only given workers a useful frame through which to discredit the regime’s political legitimacy, it has also compelled labor organizations to shift the ways in which they mobilize. Prevented from holding physical demonstrations for much of the pandemic, unionists have experimented with new modes of activism in the form of web-based protest campaigns, stay-at-home strikes, sick-ins, and expressions of solidarity with COVID-ravaged communities. Workers affiliated with the wider hirak movement have turned online, using Facebook groups like “Hirak Memes” to publicize deficiencies in the government’s response to the nation’s health and economic crises and to keep potential and existing activists connected with the protest movement. In the northern Kabyle region, where COVID-infections and anti-regime demonstrations have been most prevalent, independent unions have organized food shipments, personal protective equipment deliveries, crowdfunding campaigns and other forms of basic relief assistance. Additionally, healthcare workers have harnessed their medical expertise to promote awareness campaigns, disinfect city streets, and provide ad-hoc medical care meant to fill the gaps in state social service provision.
Each of these new forms of mobilization have helped the labor movement weaken the regime by critiquing its performance while minimizing the risks of physical repression associated with public demonstrations. At the same time, there is evidence that service-oriented activities have benefitted labor unions by boosting their legitimacy vis-a-vis the regime. According to Anissa Daboussi, Middle East and North African program officer for the International Federation for Human Rights, “The hirak is taking charge of the health crisis. Once again, civil society is offering the answers, not the state.” Data from the most recent Arab Barometer confirms this insight; while only 26% of Algerian citizens report having high levels of trust in the government, 46% report satisfaction with the healthcare system overall. Leveraging this credibility, frontline workers have promoted increasingly radical demands that strike at the heart of the regime’s stability — for example, a series of labor and opposition protests calling for a boycott of legislative elections in June resulted in a record-low turnout, with only 30.5% of Algerians electing to vote.
The temporary break in public demonstrations during the pandemic has enabled Algerian unions to engage in much-needed organizational reforms. Indeed, one of the greatest weaknesses of the Algerian labor movement has long been its fractionalization. Although independent unions have a long tradition of oppositional activism, this militancy has largely been overshadowed by the passivity of Algeria’s oldest and most predominant labor union, the UGTA. In the earlier months of the hirak, divisions amongst these unions undermined the success of general strikes and robbed the political movement of consolidated support from the labor movement. However, during the course of the pandemic, splits within the UGTA led to serious calls to reform the union, beginning with the organization of an extraordinary congress, meant to “return the UGTA into the hands of the workers.” Though this movement has not yet borne fruit, recent demonstrations have seen large contingents of UGTA unionists marching side-by side with independent unionists in opposition to the economic policies of the regime.
Moreover, the labor movement as a whole has been reaching out to new constituencies in its struggle to achieve long-term change, extending its activism to include members of the unemployed movement, students’ movement, and informal and precarious workers. Taken together, such coalition-building efforts have helped labor unions develop organizational ties across a broad cross-section of Algerian society in a way that should set the stage for larger and more successful collective action once the pandemic is at an end.
Conclusion: Challenges and Opportunities
This is not to say that the path forward for the Algerian labor movement after the pandemic is clear. Just as labor unions had been revitalizing their mobilization through collective activism, state authorities redoubled their repressive efforts, jailing numerous political activists and unionists in the process. In May 2021, the Ministry of Interior suspended 230 firefighters who participated in public demonstrations to demand higher wages, reportedly for “betraying [their] duties and responsibilities” and acting in violation of the “special status of officials belonging to specific bodies of Civil Protection.” Similarly, Hamza Kherroubi, the president of the independent Trade Union Confederation of Productive Workers (COSYFOP) nurses’ union, was placed into police detention on January 21, 2020, after being sentenced to a year in prison for participation in a nation-wide general strike held on December 8th. Trade union activists not yet behind bars or subject to police supervision are at imminent risk of being arrested due to obscure legal provisions that criminalize actions as ambiguous as “insulting the president of the republic” or criticizing state organizations like the police, judiciary and army chief of staff. As of February 2021, over 2,500 demonstrators had been arrested in connection with their activism with the Hirak movement, posing a serious threat to unionists who wish to engage in similar protest behaviors. As one report from the Human Rights Watch notes of the challenges facing the future of labor militancy in Algeria, “The government punishes peaceful protesters and strikers, including with retaliatory suspensions or dismissals from public service jobs, and arbitrarily arrests and prosecutes union activists on politically motivated charges.”
The regime has therefore used the COVID-19 pandemic to deal a serious blow to unions’ traditional modes of mobilization and, at least superficially, shifted the balance of power to authoritarian elites who have used state power to expand executive mandates, increase movement surveillance, and suspend citizens’ fundamental rights. But Algerian unions continue to play an important role in anti-regime opposition due to their adaptability, organizational capacities, and hard-earned experience. Utilizing COVID-19 lockdowns as an opportunity to regroup and test out new methods of mobilization and militancy, independent unions have successfully shifted their focus to collective activism, which involves the strengthening of elements underlying collective action such as internal organization and training, to achieve more lasting movement success. By adjusting their protest frames, modifying their repertoires and focusing on relationship-building at the grassroots, frontline workers and public sector unions have been able to attract a broader and more diverse following, while simultaneously shifting the balance of power away from an increasingly delegitimized military regime.
Organized labor still faces many threats in the form of economic crises, government repression, and lasting changes to the status of trade unions and employment in an increasingly globalized world. However, as evidenced by its ability to adapt to the novel circumstance of COVID-19, the workers’ movement has the determination to withstand these challenges and emerge even stronger, thereby enabling it to continue to play a vital role in the struggle for political change.
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 Grasse, Don, Melissa Pavlik and Hilary Matfess, “Opportunistic Repression: Patterns
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 Sylvia Kritzinger, Martial Foucault, Romain Lachat, Julia Partheymüller, Carolina Plescia & Sylvain Brouard, “’Rally round the flag’: the COVID-19 crisis and trust in the national government,” West European Politics, 44:5-6 (2021)
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 Phrase borrowed from Max de Haldevang, “Coronavirus has crippled global protest movements,” Quartz, April 1, 2020.
 Interview with author, July 20, 2021
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 For example, the emblematic protest slogan of the hirak revolution “Yetnahaw gaʿ (They all must go)” was repurposed to say “Yetnahaw gaʿ? Ehh! Nmoutou gaʿ? La! (They all must go? Yes! We all must die? No!)”
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 Abdelghani Aichoun, “Quand les pompiers sont accusés de complot,” El Watan, May 04, 2021, https://www.elwatan.com/edition/actualite/quand-les-pompiers-sont-accuses-de-complot-04-05-2021
 Peter Rossman, “In Algeria, a dangerous crackdown on independent trade unions,” openDemocracy, February 6, 2020, https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/north-africa-west-asia/algeria-dangerous-crackdown-independent-trade-unions/
 Law No. 20-06, Algerian Penal Code (April 22, 2020)
 Amnesty International, “Algeria: Stop using unlawful force against peaceful protesters,” press release, May 7, 2021, https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/press-release/2021/05/algeria-stop-using-unlawful-force-against-protesters/
 Human Rights Watch, Algeria: Workers’ Rights Trampled, New York: Human Rights Watch, 2014. https://www.hrw.org/news/2014/05/27/algeria-workers-rights-trampled
 Evan Gerstmann, “How the COVID-19 Crisis is Threatening Freedom and Democracy Across the Globe,” Forbes, 12 April 2020, www.forbes.com/sites/evangerstmann/2020/04/12/how-the-covid-19-crisis-is-threatening-freedom-and-democracyacross-the-globe/#6dec63234f16.