LONDON – Tunisia’s union confederation called off the first planned nationwide general strike in 35 years at the last minute on Feb. 8 after the government yielded in talks with union leaders and promised to probe both the murder of an opposition political leader and past arrests and harassment of unionists.
The unions’ decision, announced by the Trades Union Congress in London, is important because Tunisian unions were a key force behind the first successful revolution, in that North African nation, in the “Arab Spring” two years ago.
The Arab Spring revolutions also empowered independent unionists in other nations in North Africa and the Middle East, notably Egypt, and drew strong support from the AFL-CIO.
Quoting the Tunisian union federation UGTT, Trades Union Congress General Secretary Sharan Burrow said the Tunisian government not only will probe the Feb. 6 murder of prominent opposition leader Chakri Baleid, but also anti-union actions in Tunisia. The TUC is in close contact with the Tunisian federation.
Baleid’s funeral on Feb. 8 sent tens of thousands of Tunisians into the streets, saying their democratic revolution two years ago has been betrayed. News reports say extreme Salafi Moslem groups are responsible for his murder. Baleid was a leftist human rights lawyer and Tunisia’s most-prominent opposition leader.
The Trades Union Congress said the UGTT called off the strike “after the government – which initially played down the most serious attacks on the UGTT by Islamists militias, some of them linked to the party which runs the government — pledged to set up a joint commission of enquiry to identify those responsible for the violence being perpetrated against trade unions for over a year and to bring the culprits to justice within the space of no more than 40 days.”
“We will remain extremely vigilant over the coming weeks to make sure that the Tunisian government respects its commitment to put an end to the anti-union violence and to bring to justice those responsible for the recent crimes against the UGTT and its members,” Burrow added.
Violence against Tunisian unionists predates even that nation’s independence in 1956. On Jan. 8, UGTT formally asked the French government to investigate the murder of the union federation’s founder, Farhat Hached, a leader in the nation’s struggle for independence. A Right Wing former member of the French colonial intelligence service admitted in a 1997 book on that organization that he participated in Hached’s murder.