Who are unions for? Snapshots of union-activist relations in Redeyef, Tunisia, in the late Ben Ali era

Chantal Berman, Georgetown University

Tunisia’s powerful premier labor union, the UGTT, has inspired a rich literature on the relationship between organized labor and the state. Such debates tend to engage competing visions for the role of unions within society more broadly: as lobbying organizations representing their own members vis-à-vis capital; as public organizations serving a mediation role between society and state; or as nationalist organizations providing “guard rails” for political developments. The question of “who are unions for” is multi-faceted and multi-scalar. Here, I aim to unpack one dimension: the shifting relationship between labor unions and non-syndicalized social protest movements in a restrictive authoritarian environment. I examine these dynamics through a micro-study of union-activist relations in the town of Redeyef, Tunisia, at several junctures during the late Ben Ali period.

Comprising 24 regional unions, 19 sectoral federations, and 21 general unions, in addition to a number of commissions and an affiliated weekly newspaper,[1] the UGTT has long been considered as Tunisia’s largest and most important civil society organization. While some scholars have emphasized the union’s independence, noting how the UGTT’s internally democratic procedures created space for dissent,[2] others have referred to the UGTT in the late Ben Ali era as a “docile organization dispensing patronage; its more militant members were muzzled.”[3] Others have emphasized temporal shifts along a continuum of co-optation vs. political opposition.[4] Many have rightly pointed to divisions and debates among unionists and syndicates over the appropriate relationship between unionists and state power, [5] a theme that also becomes visible in the study of union-activist relations.

State-union relations and union-activist relations arguably form two sides of a mobius strip. The ways in which unionists engage with rebellious protesters are inexorably shaped by the types of ties they strive to cultivate with political authorities, and vice versa. Unionists may choose to support social protesters and facilitate their interactions with the state; they may stand idly by as protests escalate or dwindle; they may even collaborate with states and regimes to undermine protest movements. Activists, in turn, may seek to cultivate union support or they may reject union mediation, or at times even frame unions as a focal point for popular anger.

In this exploratory essay, I advance several theoretical propositions. First, I examine how structural conditions both generate and constrain possibilities for union-activist collaboration. Several pieces in this volume have focused on dynamics of labor market dualism (see Hertog, Lacouture, and Ketchley/Eibl in this volume). The study of union-activist relations in the late Ben Ali era may also be framed as question of what happens when labor market “insiders” confront a growing (and increasingly mobilized) class of labor market “outsiders.” I find that dualistic labor markets inform the grievances of “outsiders” as well as the prerogatives of different unionized actors in confronting and supporting these claims. Second, the essay characterizes union-activist relations as both strategic and ideological, reflecting actors’ calculations about the costs and benefits of collaboration as well as their social and moral reasoning over the value of union-activist solidarity. Finally, the essay illustrates how union-activist relations are often triangulated with local political authorities, whose prerogatives and political alliances also shape the possibility for meaningful mediation between unions, activists, and the state.

Research Design & Local Context

Redeyef, a mountain town of 27,000 in the phosphate-mining region of Gafsa abutting the Algerian border, represents a crucial micro-site for understanding labor-activist relations in the late Ben Ali era and beyond. Historically a hub of leftist activity, Redeyef was the center of the 2008 mining basin rebellion – arguably the most significant social protest movement of the decade, and a precursor movement for the claims and tactics that aminated the revolutionary uprising three years later. In the post-revolutionary period, Redeyef has remained a center of social activism, with local campaigns often gaining national attention, such as the prolonged campaign to safeguard public water supplies from industrial usage.[6]

Redeyef – and the broader mining basin – afford an opportunity to understand the intersection of two vital trends in North’s Africa’s political economy: labor market dualism and natural resource governance. Phosphates are Tunisia’s most important mineral commodity, mined in the Gafsa region since colonial occupation, and exported from coastal processes facilities in Sfax and Gabes. In the early 2000s, the public phosphate mining company CPG achieved a record 4% average increase in productivity, providing a major source of revenue for the state.[7] At the same time, CPG came under fire from mining basin residents for its corrupt hiring practices and, more broadly, for its increasing failure to provide jobs and other social benefits in the decades following the onset of liberalization in Tunisia. Employment had been drastically reduced; from 14,000 in the early 1980s to 6-8,000 in the 1990s, reaching a low point of 5,300 in 2007, on the eve of the 2008 uprising.[8]

These changes drove an increasing social divide between residents benefitting from full-time, unionized labor in the CPG itself, residents suffering from unemployment, and residents toiling for lower wages in the phosphate subcontracting sector, a constellation of private and semi-private companies providing subsidiary functions to mining (cleaning plants, transporting materials), whose workforces were barred from unionization. Facing such an extreme instantiation of workforce dualism, and a discrepancy between nationalized phosphate profits and local marginalization, emergent mobilizations during the early 20th century asserted a right to work – understood as a right to dignified, well-renumerated, and union-eligible employment. Accordingly, activists framed pervasive joblessness as a violation of rights revealing the corrupt and exclusionary nature of the Ben Ali regime.[9]

In this short piece, I do not attempt a full accounting of the social and political movements that have rocked the mining basin towns, nor do I offer a complete history of the phosphate sector or the UGTT during this period. Instead, I focus on several “snapshots” of union-activist relations representing dynamics of representation, rupture, and (partial) reconciliation in the handful of years surrounding the historic 2008 uprising. These moments are illustrated and interpreted mainly through interviews conducted in 2016, 2017, and 2020. I also draw on published scholarship and contemporaneous newspaper accounts.

Redeyef represents, in many ways, an extraordinary town – a center of activism as well as a site of extreme labor market dualism and structural marginalization. Redeyef’s value as an “extreme case” allows us to more clearly observe some of the mechanisms underlying patterns of union-activist relations. Further, I note that the interview recollections cited in this short and exploratory essay represent the views of a particular set of actors – local, mainly supportive of non-syndical movements, and mainly representing syndicates (and therefore, professions) outside of CPG’s mining activities.[10] Further research may target other locales in order to understand how well these patterns generalize throughout Tunisia, and further interviews with opposing views will help to enrich and nuance these accounts.

Representation: The UGTT as a conduit for micro-grievances in Redeyef

Scholars of contention in the Tunisian mining basin often focus on the historic events of the first half of 2008, and with good reason. Yet rumblings of discontent and collective action may be traced back several years earlier, and analyzing union-activist relations during this period can provide an important foundation for understanding the rupture and reconfiguration that came later.  Following the founding of Tunisia’s Union of Unemployed Graduates (UDC) in 2005, the unemployed graduates of the mining region held a series of sit-ins and public hunger strikes in 2006 and 2007 to demand recruitment into appropriate jobs.[11] Despite its adoption of “union” terminology, the UDC was (and remains) a separate organization from the UGTT, as its constituency – the jobless – by definition are ineligible for syndical membership. Nonetheless, the unemployed graduates of Redeyef appealed to UGTT unionists to facilitate their interactions with local authorities, and to shield them – to the extent possible – from aggressive security forces. Hassen, a founding member of the UDC in Redeyef, recalled these dynamics:

We used to spread the word between all the unemployed graduates to meet up in front of the local UGTT office and then head to the delegation office. What naturally happened afterwards was that the authorities brought in armies of security forces so that we can’t stay there. However, we continued our sit-ins with the help of local syndicates like the secondary education syndicate, the railways syndicate, and the health syndicate.

The pressure resulted in having the authorities come and have a dialogue with us in the presence of those syndicates that were supporting us. We began negotiating with the delegate himself and we achieved some goals, namely having some of our people recruited. We were at that time twelve people who protested, including three women. The authority started recruiting one at a time. Eight out the twelve protesters got recruited because of the daily pressure of our protests, and thanks to the UGTT syndicates that would sometimes negotiate on our behalf.[12]

Hassen details an important trend of “outsider” activists – and in particular, unemployed graduates – appealing to local union actors to support their claims vis-à-vis local authorities. Though certainly not all unionists were willing to offer support, those that did drew on an expansive vision of trade unionism that was common within certain syndicates, such as education and health, where adherents viewed the union as pursuing a broader social mission of representation for social and symbolic causes.[13] Many interviewees thus described a hierarchical system where demands of non-syndicalized actors might nonetheless be channeled upwards through the local, regional, and perhaps national branches of the UGTT, creating channels for representation not often available through electoral process or through direct, unmediated contact with political authorities.[14] Of course, not all social activists in this period gained support from unionists, and activists seeking such mediation were at the mercy of local and regional UGTT officials, whose own material and organizational interests – as the following section will detail – may well conflict with the claims or tactics embraced by these outsiders.

 Rupture: Union ambivalence in the face of mass mobilization

The CPG recruitment cycle of January 2008, represented a watershed moment for social mobilization in Redeyef. Just as the town of Redeyef represents an “extreme case” geographically, the 2008 rebellion may be thought of as an extreme case temporally.[15] In a context where gatherings of twelve individuals could be subject to police harassment, and where rare moments of mass protest usually swelled and resolved in a matter of days,[16] the Redeyef rebellion saw large protest marches, sit-ins, and strikes become regular and sustained over a period of six months.[17]  As protests escalated, activists shifted from a set of highly specific demands – namely, to retract and revise the results of the recruitment – to more global claims for development, social support, and environmental governance in the region.[18]

Crucially, the 2008 mobilizations in Redeyef targeted not only the state and the phosphate company, but also the UGTT, and on multiple levels. Activists denounced regional UGTT Secretary General for Gafsa, Amara Abassi, for his corrupt personal business in the phosphate subcontracting sector. They also accused the local mining syndicates of using their privileged position to fix recruitment contests in favor of relatives and other close contacts, thus denying some families the opportunity for employment altogether. Redeyef residents active in the 2008 movement framed these unionist misdeeds as both reflecting and exacerbating the corrupt and exclusionary practices of the Ben Ali state.

The protest leadership drew heavily from Redeyef’s non-mining local syndicates, in particular those affiliated with education. The rebellion’s leader and chief negotiator, Adnane Hajji, was a member of the secondary education syndicate, as were other important figures. Membership in these more rebellious syndicates overlapped significantly with other associational memberships, including the Tunisian League of Human Rights (LTDH), the Communist party (PCOT), and the editorial team of al-badil / sawt-ash-sha’b. Yet despite entreaties from these activist-unionists, the UGTT’s national leadership in Tunis declined to provide vocal or material support for the Redeyef movement during the six-month campaign. In the view of many interviewees, this reticence reflected the will of regional Gafsa Secretary General Abassi, a principal target of the movement, whose position within the union’s scalar hierarchy allowed him to act as a filter for information about the revolt reaching the executive bureau.[19]

The rebellion faced an increasingly militarized response from police forces, as well as drastic movement restrictions within and between the mining basin towns. In June, the movement was swiftly decapitated by a series of military raids leading to the arrest of movement leaders. Another blow came when the UGTT decided not to participate in the legal defense of the imprisoned activist leaders. The leadership at one point went so far as to strip Hajji of his unionist credentials, in order to avoid the responsibility to represent him against the state. The initial legal defense of mining basin activists in 2009 was led instead by other lawyers including the leftist militant Chokri Belaid.[20] In a shambolic trial, the activists were sentenced to varying prison terms.

(Partial) Reconciliation: Unity confronting natural disaster

The rebellion of 2008 and the trials that followed left the local syndicates of Redeyef divided against each other and alienated from much of the activist public. Redeyef residents continued to support their imprisoned protest leaders and remained angry with the national UGTT for its perceived abandonment of these heroes. Though a vocal minority of pro-Hajji, anti-Abassi unionists made moves to oppose the latter’s continued dominance in the regional UGTT in late 2008 and 2009, they were unsuccessful; Abassi would remain in his position until shortly after the 2011 revolution.

In September of 2009, a flash flood inundated Redeyef, killing at least 15 residents and rendering many more homeless. Redeyef’s local syndicates used the floods as an opportunity for local reconciliation as well as a chance to re-approach the union’s national leadership over its treatment of the detained protest leaders. Omar, who was at the time a unionist in the secondary education syndicate, recounted this process:[21]

We tried to invest in that catastrophe and to use it in order to unify people and to export an image to the public opinion… After these incidents (the campaign of 2008), people became divided and syndicates were not unified. So we used that opportunity and we came to this place and held a meeting in this office, which a member of the regional UGTT attended in addition to all of the local syndicates.

That meeting was historical. Such meeting in no way took place before that time.

Everyone came and gathered and we ended up with a statement. I was the one in charge of drafting it at that day and I was in a dilemma because of this. The majority of people wanted to blame CPG, but the mining syndicates were afraid. There was also a political dispute. Some wanted to appeal to the President to release the prisoners and others didn’t agree to do that. And when this happened, we made a decision that the first thing that needs to be mentioned in the statement was declaring Redeyef a disaster area. We reached a compromise on that. Among our demands was investigating the death of people and holding people accountable.

And at the end of the statement, we wanted to know what should be written. Some wanted to appeal to the President, but others refused. And they asked me to solve the issue. I told them: we neither appeal to the President nor let this matter escape us. And as unionists, we’ll ask the Secretary General (Abdessalem Jrad) to appeal to the president to release the prisoners.

And the good thing was the fact that we approved the statement locally and sent it to the regional and central UGTT… Thanks to our connections, we managed to get that statement to the highest level of UGTT and that was when the prisoners got released on November 4, 2010, when a presidential pardon was issued.

Omar’s accounting of the syndical meetings following the Redeyef floods reveals a great deal. First, we should note two important dynamics in opposition: on the one hand, a strong desire to reconcile among the members of Redeyef’s locals, who continued to live as neighbors in a small town scarred by tragic repression followed by natural disaster; on the other, persistent tensions over the unionists’ willingness to confront or indict the state and the CPG in their communiques. The “compromise” of addressing Secretary Jrad represented, in some sense, a reassertion of prior syndical hierarchies, by which social entreaties would be “channeled” upwards through regional and national union figures, rather than presented to the state officials directly. Finally, we may note the success of this approach in achieving a crucial goal; by this accounting, Jrad’s pressure was key to freeing some of the Redeyef protest leaders.[22]

Conclusion and call for further research

This short essay aims to shed light on localized union-activist relations in Redeyef through several illustrative “moments” surrounding the 2008 mining basin rebellion. More research is needed to precisely situate these instances within broader trends, temporally and geospatially. The pardon that Redeyef unionists sought for the imprisoned negotiators arrived roughly one month before protests erupted again in Tunisia’s South, this time spreading rapidly throughout the country and deposing President Ben Ali, paving the way for a political transition in Tunisia. The post-revolutionary period in the mining basin saw such hierarchy and channeling functions again reconfigured, as tremendous levels of social protest rocked the country, and as the UGTT itself entered into a period of reckoning with its relationship to the Ben Ali regime and its role in society. Further writings will explore these later transformations in local union-activist relations.


[1] Hela Yousfi. 2018. Trade Unions and Arab Revolutions: The Tunisian Case of UGTT. London: Routledge.

[2] Dina Bishara. 2020. “Legacy Trade Unions as Brokers of Democratization? Lessons from Tunisia.” Comparative Politics 52(2): 173-195.

[3] Amin Allal. 2012. “Trajectoires  révolutionnaires en Tunisie: Processus de radicalisations politiques 2007-2011.”

Revue française de science politique, 62: 821-841. Beatrice Hibou also adopts this characterization in her influential 2011 book, The Force of Obedience. Beatrice Hibou. 2011. The Force of Obedience : The Political Economy of Repression in Tunisia. Cambridge : Polity Press.

[4] See, for example, Eva Bellin. 2000. “Contingent Democrats: Industrialists, Labor, and Democratization in Late-Developing Countires.” World Politics 52:2, 175-205. Hela Yousfi. 2018. Trade Unions and Arab Revolutions: The Tunisian Case of UGTT. London: Routledge. Ian Hartshorn. 2019. Labor Politics in North Africa : After the Uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia. New York: Cambridge. Ashley Anderson. 2021. Going Political: Labor, Institutions, and Democratic Unrest in North Africa. Book manuscript in progress.

[5] Kasper Ly Netterstrom. 2016. “The Tunisian General Labor Union and the Advent of Democracy.” Middle East Journal, 70(3): 383-398.

[6] Author interview, March 2017.

[7] Author interview with former GCP management, February 2017.

[8] Ammar Amroussia, “Le soulèvement des habitants du bassin minier, un premier bilan.” Solidaires May 2008.

[9] An analysis of the region’s political economy, published in the communist party newspaper Sawt ash-Sha’b in 2004, framed the struggle as follows: “The right to work is sacred, regardless of gender, color, and orientation… and it is the entryway to a dignified life and true citizenship. It is natural that guaranteeing this right is entrusted to the ruling system because it is the one who controls the country’s general choices. But today this system of government violates this right because its choices are hostile to the interests of the people. Therefore, the current reality makes us link the guarantee of the right to work with the collective struggle against the corrupt regime of government. (Italics mine.)” https://www.albadil.info/%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A8%D8%AF%D9%8A%D9%84-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%88%D8%B7%D9%86%D9%8A/article/%D9%87%D9%84-%D9%85%D9%86-%D8%AD%D9%84%D9%91-%D9%84%D9%85%D8%B4%D9%83%D9%84%D8%A9-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A8%D8%B7%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A9-%D9%81%D9%8A-%D9%82%D9%81%D8%B5%D8%A9

[10] For example, I have not been able to interview the principal syndical opponent of the 2008 movement, regional UGTT Secretary General at that time Amara Abassi, whose prerogatives are reconstructed here mainly through news coverage and his opponents’ recollections.

[11] https://www.albadil.info/%D8%A8%D8%AF%D9%8A%D9%84-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B4%D8%A8%D8%A7%D8%A8/article/%D8%A8%D9%80%D9%80%D9%80%D9%84%D8%A7%D8%BA-%D8%A5%D8%B9%D9%84%D8%A7%D9%85%D9%8A

[12] Interview with the author, February 2020.

[13] Many of these views are illustrated in Hela Yousfi, L’UGTT, une passion tunisienne – enquete sur les syndicalistes en revolution, 2011-2014. Tunis: Karthala (2015).

[14] Protests “organized” in this manner also went beyond unemployed graduates sit-ins, and included demonstrations over issues of international importance to the population, such as mobilizations against the U.S. war on Iraq.

[15] Many thanks to Laryssa Chomiak for this excellent point.

[16] Messaoud Romdhani, a scholar and activist who was a founding member of the 2008 Committee to Support the Mining Basin, made this important point in an interview with the author in March 2017.

[17] A full accounting of the 2008 Redeyef rebellion would require far more space than this short article affords. For a detailed published account, see Amin Allal. 2010. “Réformes néolibérales, clientélisme et protestations en situation autoritaire. Les mouvements contestataires dans le bassin minier de Gafsa (2008).” Politique africaine 117 : 107-125. See also Laryssa Chomiak’s forthcoming book manuscript, Archipelagos of Dissent: Protest and Politics in Tunisia.

[18] The rebellion’s leader, Adnane Hajji, in particular disdained the kind of micro-concessions that local officials began offering to placate the rebellion – many of which mirror the concessions that UGTT leaders had secured for unemployed graduates in prior years. Interview with the author, Tunis, Tunisia. February 2017.

[19] Author interviews. Redeyef, Tunisia. 2020.

[20] Belaid remained active in left politics after the 2011 revolution and was assassinated near his home in February 2013. One of two major assassinations that destabilized Tunisia during the Troika period, Belaid’s killing lead to widespread outrage and protests across Tunisia. His death remains a source of immense grief for mining basin activists.

[21] Interview in Redeyef, Tunisia. Feburary 2-2-.

[22] It is important to note, however, that individuals imprisoned for their role in the 2008 rebellion achieved freedom at different times. Some remained in prison until after the 2011 revolution.