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Vol. 75/No. 8      February 28, 2011

Unionists in Tunisia:
‘Beast still breathing’
(front page)
“The revolution isn’t over yet,” Abdelaziz Bouazi, a member of the teachers union in the Tunisian city of Kasserine, told London’s Guardian newspaper. “The regime’s head has been cut off, but the beast is still breathing. For now, the demonstrations will continue.”

One month after the ouster of Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, workers and farmers are organizing to win wider freedoms, eradicate all remnants of the old regime, and get relief from unemployment, high prices, and continued police brutality.

Kasserine, near the border with Algeria, has the nation’s highest unemployment rate and had the largest number of deaths of demonstrators in the protests that forced out Ben Ali.

Unionists and others there have formed defense committees to patrol the neighborhoods since the dictator’s departure. Bouazi himself had been on patrol until 4:00 a.m. the day he was interviewed.

On January 31 gangs of thugs entered Kasserine and attacked a police station and other buildings. The army stood by without stopping them. Residents organized to defend the buildings and capture some of the marauders. Local leaders of the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT) told the Guardian the attackers were in the pay of Ben Ali’s now-banned party, out to terrorize the populace and make it appear that the collapse of the old regime has led to chaos.

In Gafsa, the center of phosphate mining, working people demanding jobs were still blocking the roads as of February 5. Workers there succeeded in driving out the newly appointed governor because of his ties to the old regime. Gafsa’s working people have long resented the regime for handing out mining jobs to Ben Ali’s favorites.

In at least two cities crowds demonstrated for removal of hated police commanders. Protesters in the city of Kef February 5 were fired on by cops, killing four people. The police station was burned down. Two demonstrators were also shot dead in Sidi Bouzid.

It was in cities outside the capital that the momentum began inside the organized labor movement to join the fight to topple Ben Ali. The top officialdom of the 500,000-member UGTT had previously allied itself with the dictatorship.

According to an article in Le Monde Diplomatique, union militants in Gafsa called on the UGTT there to get involved in the struggle against the government, but the national leadership vetoed it January 10. Demands also came in from the cities of Sfax, Tozeur, and Sousse, where workers wanted to call a general strike. Finally, the national federation authorized the strikes.

UGTT secretary general Abed Briki continues to argue that the interim government should be supported. But under pressure from the ranks of working people the union federation’s four ministers withdrew from the interim government January 17.

Tunisia’s interim president Foued Mebazaa said he would begin talks with the unions soon and urged workers to be patient. “Your demands are legitimate,” he said, “but you must understand the difficult situation in which our country is confronted.”

Meanwhile, reports continue of efforts to organize at workplaces large and small. The Tunis daily Le Quotidien reported that nurses’ aides and housekeepers struck the Manar clinic, objecting to unfair firings and the lack of overtime pay. A strike at Tunisair February 12 forced the cancellation of several flights to Europe.

The freedoms already conquered by working people have opened up the possibility for workers and farmers to read and discuss in a way not possible for decades. In a story from Tunis, the Wall Street Journal reported, “Small crowds gather around bookshop windows to view previously banned works critical of the regime, radio comedians perform comic impressions of top officials, and newspaper editors enjoy freedoms that are almost unprecedented in the Arab world.”
Related articles:
Egypt: Workers strike for wage raises, rights
Military command seeks to end protests
Montreal action backs protesters in Algeria
Question of leadership in North Africa revolt
Familiar faces on Egyptian streets  
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