The Many Leverages of Tunisian Labor

Ahmad Al-Sholi

Stony Brook University

Tunisia suffers from high unemployment,[1] high inequality, informality and precariousness[2] just as the rest of the Arab World. Yet, scholars give a leading role to the Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail (UGTT), Tunisia’s general trade union federation in explaining the success of Tunisia’s transitional democracy compared with its Arab Spring counterparts. The UGTT sheltered the protestors against Ben Ali during the uprising and allowed them the breathing room they needed to organize.[3] It shaped the political dialogue and early negotiations with remnants of the Ben Ali regime in the transitional process by forcing the election of a constituent assembly.[4] It pressured the government over wage issues and hiring in the public sector.[5] It has been a power broker between political parties,[6] and played a critical role in the constitution’s inclusion of social and economic rights.[7] And despite the current popular support for President Kais Saied’s power grab, the UGTT legitimated the move only conditionally, and remains as one agent of choice to lay the path ahead for a majority of Tunisians.[8]

The power that the UGTT enjoys is a two–pronged puzzle. It maintains autonomy from autocrats that did not tolerate dissent, and it is able to do so in a discouraging socioeconomic environment for struggles of trade unionism. This paper focuses on the understudied 1970s compromise over economic policy as a critical moment in shaping the exceptional role of the UGTT in the 2011 revolution. Scholars diverged over whether elite factionalism of the 1970s propelled trade unions forward, or shifting to a lower skill industrialization in the same decade stymied labor power altogether. I argue that elites in the 1970s consolidated around a new investment strategy of export–led industrialization anchored in corporatist industrial relations. Accordingly, Tunisian workers have a regionally distinctive leverage vis-à-vis business and state elites.

First, a structural leverage materialized for labor in Tunisia, as workers had optimal conditions within the strategic sectors for both business and state elites. Due to sensitivity of disruption, eventual elite attempts to dismantle labor rights were relatively partial, as workers amassed a second leverage in the process: combative grassroots–based unions’ organizational power and not just institutional corporatism. To protect profitability in such a restrictive environment, sections of business embarked on value–adding investments that differed by sector and firm levels. This created an industrial third leverage for large sections of workers that could rapidly polarize elites over policy making and undermine their ruling coalition. Tunisia’s exceptional Arab Spring is not only an outcome of contingent factors, but it is also the product of these historical processes.

Explaining the UGTT’s role

The organization’s politically active role did not start with the revolution (see Berman in this volume). The UGTT has been asserting its representation of Tunisian workers since before independence, and through the decades of Bourguiba and Ben Ali.[9] Even at the height of Ben Ali’s repression in the 2000s, the executive bureau of the UGTT was not totally compliant.[10] Whereas Algerian labor militancy, for instance, stemmed from independent movements since the 1980s (see Anderson, this volume), Tunisia’s grassroots labor activism almost always found their place inside of the organization.

Many accounts explain the UGTT’s role in terms of longevity. The unions were central in the anti–colonial movement and accumulated organizational capacities and a legitimizing memory that kept the organization viable. These capacities and legitimacy aided the trade union federation in organizing Tunisian society in the climate of the revolution since 2011. Furthermore, the incorporation of white–collar workers and leftist factions in the organization in the early 1970s fueled its militancy, and accordingly its ability to persevere elite pressures. The powerful drive to enforce corporatism in Tunisia with central and internal control over the working-class mass was never complete due to the existence of radical elements in its expanded membership.

But as Wilder observes,[11] tracing the trade unions’ power to the colonial era complicates the puzzle rather than solving it. Why would a colonial power tolerate militant trade unionism and meet its demands? This complication is foundational for legacy and legitimacy approaches to UGTT’s role in Tunisian society, especially since the militancy of the independence era evaporated in the following decade of the 1960s. For Wilder, intra–elite competition and the emergence of a balancing act created the opportunity that the UGTT exploited. Bourguiba faced a liberal faction within the ruling party that challenged his rule after the breakdown of the import substitution industrialization (ISI) policy in 1969, a global approach in the post–WWII era of indigenizing the production of consumer goods to boost national savings. He reintegrated in 1971 the same UGTT officials he imprisoned in 1965 to help purge challengers from within the ruling party ranks. In return, the UGTT doubled its size and established a regime of collective bargaining – the source of its autonomy.

Eva Bellin[12] earlier argued that the UGTT’s capacity stemmed from industrialization and not elite politics. Ambitious industrialization plans in the 1960s required the cooperation of labor, and Tunisian state elites were successful at reaping it. Wage increases were limited and heavy–handed repression was common. Industrialization, however, fostered solidarity and combativeness among workers in high skill and concentrated industries that overflowed in the 1970s strike wave. In other words, organizing of white–collar and leftist currents within the organization as a whole, and intra–elite factionalism outside of the organization, stood atop of masses of militant blue–collar workers. For Bellin, the 1970s were the peak of labor power later dismantled by the rise of low–skill assembly export–oriented industrialization.

I take a middle point on the nature of the 1970s compromise in Tunisia. I argue that elite competition over the succession to Bourguiba allowed labor to capitalize on their factionalism. But in 1972, those elites consolidated around an investment strategy that solved the crisis of ISI underachievement by introducing export–led industrialization that also factored in newly institutionalized corporatist commitments. It sought social peace for investment, not just regime stabilization efforts common to succession crises of autocratic regimes.

In fact, a structural shift in accumulation was introduced that created a new segment of the business class.[13] The investment strategy of the 1970s dispersed labor’s concentration and lowered its skill level, as Bellin argued. But it embraced competitive outlays that focused on export markets, leveraging workers over their employers who became vulnerable to market pressures on the one hand, and corporatist compliance pressures on the other, substituting for the lost leverage that was supposedly squandered in the shift toward low–skill assembly manufacturing. Tunisia’s revolutionary outcome in 2011, I argue, benefited from how this 1970s compromise shaped the country’s structure as much as it did from the institutional setup, contingent and leadership factors that Bellin later reflected on.[14]

Structural Leverage

Tunisia’s ISI experiment in the 1960s had the distinctive feature of land and agricultural produce collectivization. The strategic aim of the policy surpassed the average goal of indigenizing basic goods processing to build up savings for gradual development. It targeted heavy industries from the beginning, and state managers devised a plan that decommodified the agricultural sector in order to accelerate savings at a rate more proportionate to the ambitious industrialization program. This intensification of ISI through collectivization of agriculture, supply, and marketing eliminated traditional sectors for private investments. And the program’s push was undeniable. The land area that was incorporated in collectivization went up from 148 thousand hectares in 1963 to 3533 thousand hectares in mid–1969, about half of the productive land.[15] On top of being pushed to larger industrial investments, collectivization also dried up labor reserve that business elites usually depend on to depress wages. More than 200,000 workers in the small country were employed in the massive central procurement system.

The economic outcome was modest relative to the social disruption that the ISI/collectivization regime created. Manufacturing’s share of GDP hovered at 8% between 1965 and 1969 when collectivization expanded.[16] Food production increased only marginally at the beginning of the program with the nationalization of French colonial landholdings in the north, but decreased again at the time that the program was accelerated. And although Tunisian bureaucracy prioritized the collectivization program, it did not transform the living conditions of the popular classes. The system also suffered from mismatches and inefficiencies to the extent of operating at a loss. With various incentives to act, elites adversarial to the collectivization program ended it and unseated its chief bureaucrat, Ahmed bin Saleh, who also arguably had the social base he needed to emerge triumphant in the eventual scramble to succeed Bourguiba.

However, the crisis touched on Bourguiba’s legitimacy and set off elite infighting. In June of 1970, Bourguiba apologized for entrusting Bin Saleh with such an ambitious program. The crisis, nonetheless, spilled into the ruling party’s 8th national congress in 1971. Despite reinstalling Habib Achour, who had been ousted in 1965 as the UGTT’s secretary general and at the party’s political bureau to help face off the democratic challenge of Ahmed Mestiri, the challenging group won a majority in the party’s central committee elections. Mestiri came out second with only 5 votes less than the incumbent prime minister. In short, the crisis within the ruling party was deeper than could be met by reshuffling officials. It was hardly encouraging for elites in any case for the consolidation to be around the rebirth of trade unions and the rise of its radical segments.

The remedy for the elites came in the following year, when labor – its supposed partner in the purge of party challengers – flexed its muscle to multiply its collective action events fivefold in 1972 alone.[17] Law 72–38 targeted economic growth in export–oriented industrialization via major tax holidays. Elites were finally given the opportunity to invest in assembly lines with lower capital and free of taxes. In the following two years, and before the party congress reconvened again in 1974, support agencies and trade protection incentivized elites to invest as well in the local market. Business elites were basically given the choice between continuation of customs protection in the local market and newly introduced tax exemptions in the export market. Minimal investments now sufficed to operate in both markets.

The change of tone between the 1971 and 1974 party congresses is unmistakable. Bourguiba indicated in 1971 a line of succession that acknowledged the faction of Mestiri and that it should eventually arrive at the top office, but after the incumbent prime minister.[18] In 1974, that same Prime Minister, Hédi Nouira, described the split of the 1971 congress as personal ambitions by some that could no longer deceive party members. The meetings ended with a vote on purging the whole liberal faction from within the ruling party.[19] The challenge lasted for 5 years, and it was overcome by far reaching transformations in the business investment structure.

The decline in the rate of fixed capital formation – a measure of investment growth – since 1965 stopped by 1972, and exceeded it by 1976,[20] with the private sector responsible for about a half of the increase since 1972.[21] The structural leverage emerged from making manufacturing the main arena for growth, doubling its share of Tunisia’s GDP between 1972 and 1995 by benefiting from a combination of ISI protections and exporting policy regimes. Optimal employment conditions by nature of the industry and corporatist protections existed in sectors that are strategic for both business and state elites.

This had happened at a time when neoliberal arrangements in most developing countries meant that investment strategies targeted other sectors of the economy. In Tunisia’s regional space, similar liberalizing economies had a collapsing share of manufacturing in the case of Egypt, volatile in the case of Jordan, and static in the case of Morocco.[22] Tunisian workers therefore had a better standing in the structure of the national economy in comparison to their most comparable neighbors. They command the ability to disrupt at lower risks to themselves. However, the corporatist regime also aims at regulating labor power while offering only minimum guarantees. Crucially, Tunisian workers had other tools at their disposal.

Organizational Leverage

The 1973 collective bargaining agreement was no small feat. It achieved 37 sectoral agreements for the different industries and 70 basic laws for the public sector between 1974 and 1978.[23] It provided the institutional framework that guarded wage levels. Importantly, it is only a framework that aggregates workers’ demands. It is as good as the process of formulating demands at the lower rungs of the working mass.

Workers aggregated their demands as the bargaining system started to deliver. Strikes went up during the 1970s: 32 in 1971, 150 in 1972, 363 in 1975, and 452 in 1977.[24] The UGTT leadership that encouraged its membership to double in size in just few years then had to deliver on its part of the agreement and provide class cooperation. The broad agreements did little to quell the mobilizations, and elites wanted to collect their share of the deal. By 1976, the state expected the national executive bureau of the UGTT to enforce its authority of legalizing strike action more rigidly, a policy also established in 1973 that complicated grassroots organizing by needing to meet certain criteria for the strike to be legal and considered. But the confederate nature of the UGTT proved to be a potent weapon in the service of grassroots mobilizing.

The growth in membership during the 1970s was not a growth of an undifferentiated mass of workers acting on demand of the national executive bureau. These masses filled the nods of a checkered system of membership on a vertical sectoral axis and a horizontal regional axis. The organization produced three administrative levels on each axis, with some level of autonomy for each to operate in its domain. Local and regional unions directly engage the employers that are within their domain over daily concerns and individual disputes. Local and regional unions report to both their corresponding national sectoral union, and to the regional executive bureau of the UGTT. One member of the secondary school teachers union explains:

The regional executive bureau’s legal authority is second only to the power of the national executive bureau. The regional axis of the UGTT has priority over the sectoral axis.[25]

Solidarity strikes, executed at the regional level, are the most powerful tool for workers to leverage their demands. As low skill employment expanded in industries and workers had lesser power than their counterparts with high skill in the public sector, regional networking with the militant left, professional, and public sector segments pushed for demands independently from the industry’s sectoral arrangement. The national executive office had to legalize more collective action given this pressure by the base. Elites responded in 1977 with a broad wage increase and inflation indexing for automatic increases. While these policies repetitively increased the minimum wage and costs for employers, it did little for the majority of workers who were hired at higher wage levels.[26]

Failing to achieve labor cooperation, the state deployed the army on 26 January 1978 to stop a general strike. Hundreds were killed on the streets that day, and the state imprisoned members from the national executive bureau, including the general secretary that was reincorporated earlier in the decade to help purge the liberal challenge. The regime assumed the high cost of this repression. Yet it failed at achieving labor cooperation, as ISI subsidization pressures on public finances kept on inviting austerity measures. Annual strikes increased to the 500 range in the early 1980s, leading to the second confrontation in 1984. The state disbanded the UGTT’s executive office again, confiscated its assets, and stopped transmitting dues of government and public sector workers.

But Bourguiba’s troubles were still mounting: the succession crisis has become more acute as the president aged one more decade since the succession crisis of the 1970s, and the global economic slowdown disrupted business expansion. As a token of peace in the midst of multiple confrontations that Bourguiba had to wage in his final years in office, he restored in the same year, 1984, the previously imprisoned secretary general, Habib Achour, who by then was a towering figure for the working class with enough legitimacy to subdue the radical organizers behind the previous decade of militancy. However, the liberalizing wing of the ruling party took the reins of the state with Ben Ali’s coup in November of 1987, and the trade unionists suddenly found themselves in a different political arena.

Ben Ali’s liberalization aimed to remove all price and customs controls, and subjected national and external trade to the full force of free markets. It dismantled ISI with losses to a segment of the business class and the public sector, but still opened the arena for a broader range of investments. Consumption and indirect taxes were elevated over income tax and the banking sector was deregulated, enforcing competitive performance on banks while still unlocking financing opportunities for different operations, including the emergence of holding companies that are able to leverage individual business operations significantly. Nonetheless, manufacturing received a new lifeline. Already the main site of capital formation since the 1960s, the new regime funneled much of the cut subsidies from consumption into exporting businesses. It also opened exporting to foreign investments.[27] Housing, tourism, trade, services, and banking were all newly opened spaces for investments. Still, manufacturing doubled its size of the GDP under the Ben Ali regime. The 1980s showed Tunisian elites the need for the productive sector to create higher value added to avoid similar macroeconomic pressures that unraveled the ruling coalition earlier in the decade.[28]  Wage increases aimed at avoiding a renewed radicalization of the unions in response to inflation and price hikes did not, however, prevent real wages from deteriorating.

In response, the executive bureau legalized a smaller percentage of collective action. Reformists capitalized on state–sponsored wage increases and state subsidies instead of membership dues to stamp out radicals towards the complete bureaucratization of the UGTT in the 1990s. By the early 2000s, opposition within the organization was revived with the “Democratic Platform,” which had openly discussed in–depth reforms of the unions. Given the leadership’s incomplete control over the organization, and the exceptional successes of the union opposition to defend democratic elections at the base of the organization,[29] dismantling labor rights was patchy and not as aggressive as elsewhere in the region. Employment flexibilization was introduced at just hiring practices, but not firing. Collective bargaining maintained a broad minimum wage level. And though reaching quorum and legalization of union meetings at the firm level were hardened by the law’s counting of all workers in the firm, not just the unionized, unionists still have the legal protection and freedom to organize new workers.[30]

Tunisian industrialists learned to live with the protections/imperfections of their labor market. Flexibilization achieves more for their regional competitors.[31] Their push for higher value added exports is unmistakable as one route to protect profitability, and accordingly, intra–elite polarization over policy choices was given a new life.

Industrial Leverage

Investors in Tunisia can exploit a section of its working class that is in the corners of precariousness and informality of the labor market. Hiring flexibilization means that workers enter on a contractual and temporary basis without batteries of legal rights and non–wage compensation. As such, wage level in Tunisia is routinely advertised as lower than Turkey’s and Morocco’s levels that all compete in the European clothing market.[32] But depression of wages achieved little for a business class that was competing with the heavyweights in cost reduction. Pushing for higher value – and accordingly, higher skill – was crucial. For instance, Tunisia delivers to the EU market a pair of jeans that is more than double the average cost of all similar products,[33] and the overall growth of export value was consistently higher than import value growth in the 2000s.[34] None of this was achieved in similar regional liberalizing markets, most certainly not by manufactured goods. Most often, employers had to accommodate collective bargaining and job protection that were enshrined in the law.

Issues that employers investigated in questions to the business press in 2010 included, for instance, whether a judicial order can reinstate an expelled worker despite collecting his end of service benefit.[35] Another investigated whether he must pay workers what they demanded for the extra work they did during normal working hours,[36] or what to do in front of workers’ insistence on the promotion of one of their colleagues during wage increase negotiation meetings.[37] Employers operated in an environment of restrictions. By the time the uprising erupted, business elites had little appetite to take on any new burdens to extinguish the fire surrounding the Ben Ali regime.

Trade Unions in the Uprising

As protests multiplied across the country in late 2010, the national executive bureau lost its ability to tame the organization’s involvement.[38] Regional executive bureaus started to announce general strikes, and Sfax, the second largest city in the country with a significant industrial base, went on a general strike on January 12th, 2011, which prompted Ben Ali to call on the general secretary to complain and ask that the federation pull out from a call for strike in Tunis two days later.[39] Unable to comply with the demand, the strike took place and large protests formed in the city and country on January 14th, 2011, after which Ben Ali fled Tunisia

Less than a month after the removal of the president, the UGTT supported a major sit-in and then organized another one to force Ben Ali’s government to resign and launch a full transitional process. With that accomplished and the continuation of labor activity, frustration appears in the business press. For instance, many companies by April of 2011 have closed down because of vandalism and strikes.[40] In May, and in a meeting with French businessmen, Tunisian counterparts reassured them that the ongoing social dialogue would restore quiet.[41] However, political strife continued, and the transitional period stalled. By 2013, the UGTT demanded the resignation of the transitional government over a second assassination of oppositional figures. Union Tunisienne de l’Industrie, du Commerce et de l’Artisanat (UTICA), the main business organization, supported the call.[42]

In short, Tunisian society had a clearer path to democratic consolidation. Workers are able to deepen the wedge between business elites and state elites and extract concessions from both. Their leverage flows from the structure of the economy and is strengthened in the organization. This was crucial at the moment of the Arab Spring as Tunisian elites found themselves the most susceptible to pressure from below. The case of Tunisia confirms what has long been established in the debates on democratization. Disruption recruits ruling business elites to the cause of democracy against autocratic political elites,[43] and the Tunisian exception stems from the ability to wield such power.


[1] Gilbert Achcar, The People Want: A Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprisings (Berkley: University of California Press, 2013)

[2] Anand Gopal, “The Arab Thermidor”, Catalyst 4, no. 2 (2020): 85-137.

[3] Azmi Bishara, Tunisia’s Glorious Revolution (Doha: ACRPS, 2012).

[4] Joel Benin, Workers and Thieves: Labor Movements and Popular Uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt (Berkley: Stanford University Press, 2015)

[5] Ian Hartshorn, Labor Politics in North Africa: After the Uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019).

[6] Hela Yousfi, Trade Unions and Arab Revolutions: The Tunisian Case of the UGTT (London: Routledge, 2018).

[7] Tyson Patros, “Links on the Chain: Uprisings and Political Re-constitutions in the Global Middle East and North Africa”, PhD diss., (UC Irvine, 2019)

[8] Holger Albrecht, Dina Bishara, Michael Bufano, and Kevin Koehler, “Popular Support for Military Intervention and Anti-Establishment Alternatives in Tunisia: Appraising Outsider Eclecticism”, Mediterranean Politics, 2021:

[9] Joel Beinin, ibid.

[10] Kasper Netterstrøm, “The Tunisian General Labor Union and the Advent of Democracy”, The Middle East Journal 70, no. 3 (2016): 383-398.

[11] Keenan Wilder, “The Origins of Labour Autonomy in Authoritarian Tunisia”, Contemporary Social Science 10, no. 4 (2016): 349-363.

[12] Eva Bellin, Stalled Democracy: Capital, Labor, and the Paradox of State-Sponsored Development (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002).

[13] Melani Cammett, Globalization and Business Politics in Arab North Africa: A Comparative Perspective (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007)

[14] Eva Bellin, “The Puzzle of Democratic Divergence in the Arab World: Theory Confronts Experience in Egypt and Tunisia”, Political Science Quarterly 133, no. 3 (2018): 435-474.

[15] Douglas Ashford, “Succession and Social Change in Tunisisa”, Revue de L’Occident Musulman et de la Méditerranée, no. 13-14 (1973): 49-65.

[16] “Manufacturing, Value Added (% of GDP) – Tunisia”, Databank, The World Bank:

[17] Joel Beinin, ibid.

[18] “The First Monastir Congress and the Mestiri Group” (Arabic), Assabah News, 09/02/2010.

[19] “Nouira in ‘The Congress of Clarity’: The [Presidential] Address of 8 June 1970 is only a Declaration of Principles” (Arabic), Assabah News, 09/09/2010.

[20] “Gross Fixed Capital Formation (% of GDP) – Tunisia”, Databank, The World Bank:

[21] “Gross Fixed Capital Formation, Private Sector (% of GDP) – Tunisia”, Databank, The WorldBank:

[22] “Manufacturing, value added (% of GDP) – Tunisia, Jordan, Egypt, Arab Rep., Morocco” Databank, The WorldBank:

[23] Mohammed al-Nasser, “The Economic, Social, and Political Roots of the 26th of January [1978]” (Arabic), Al-Magharibi for Studies and Analysis, 01/28/2017.الجذور-الاقتصادية-والاجتماعية-والسي/

[24] Joel Beinin, ibid.

[25] Personal interview with author, 9/3/2019, Tunis.

[26] Mohammed al-Nasser, ibid.

[27] Emma Murphy, “Economic and Political Change in Tunisia: From Bourguiba to Ben Ali” (New York: McMillan Press Ltd., 1999) p.103-13

[28] Stephen Erdle, “Ben Ali’s ‘New Tunisia’ (1987-2009): A Case Study of Authoritarian Modernization in the Arab World” (Berlin: Klaus Schwarz Verlag GmbH, 2010) p. 328

[29] Kasper Netterstrøm, ibid.

[30] Ian Hartshorn, ibid.

[31] “Medium and High-Tech Exports (% of Manufactured Exports) – Tunisia, Jordan, Egypt, Arab Rep., Morocco”, The Databank, The World Bank:, and “High-technology Exports (% of Manufactured Exports) – Tunisia, Jordan, Egypt, Arab Rep., Morocco”, The Databank, The World Bank”

[32] “Textile Industry in Tunisia”, Kohan Textile Journal, 7/14/2019.

[33] “Sustainability Underpins Tunisia Jeans Sourcing Success”, Just Style, 7/8/2019.

[34] “Export/Import Value Index (2000=100) – Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt, Arab Rep., Jordan”, Databank, The World Bank:

[35] Al-Bayyan Newspaper, 10/4/2010, p. 4

[36] Al-Bayyan Newspaper, 7/5/2010, p. 2

[37] Al-Bayyan Newspaper, 5/24/2010, p. 5

[38] Azmi Bishara, ibid.

[39] Personal interview with the contemporaneous UGTT secretary general, 9/12/2019, Tunis.

[40] Al-Bayan, 04/11/2011, p. 2

[41] Al-Bayan, 05/02/2011, p. 10

[42] Personal interview with the contemporaneous UTICA secretary general, 8/28/2019, Tunis.

[43] Dietrich Rueschemeyer, Evelyne Huber Stephens, and John D. Stephens, “Capitalist Development and Democracy” (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1992).