Tunisia's powerful labour union mounts challenge to economic reforms

Planned strike comes shortly after the government announced a cabinet reshuffle

epaselect epa06433409 Tunisian protesters shout slogans and scuffle with the police during a demonstration after the government announced tax hikes and austerity measures and against increased prices of some goods in Tunis, Tunisia, 12 January 2018. Protests were held across Tunisia since 08 January after a the new year's price and tax increase came into effect on 01 January 2018.  EPA/MOHAMED MESSARA
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Faced with a general strike across the public sector scheduled for November 22, the newly formed Tunisian cabinet is set to face a challenge from a powerful left-wing labour syndicate that emerged as the largest, and most influential grass roots organisation in Tunis after the 2011 overthrow of autocratic leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
The General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT), which boasts more than half a million members (about 5 per cent of Tunisia's total population), and a branch in every province, has been engaged in a months-long stand-off with the Tunisian government over the need to increase pay in the public sector.
International lenders, including the International Monetary Fund, have urged Tunis to undertake a series of brisk public sector reforms, including the freezing of wages and the sale of state-owned companies, to reduce the country's budget deficit.
Public companies have accumulated losses of about $3 billion (D11bn) and the government is hoping to curb its public salary spending, reducing it from 15 per cent of the annual budget to 12.5 per cent by 2020.
In a statement carried by Tunisia's state-run TPA news agency on Monday, the UGTT said that a nationwide strike planned for Thursday aims to protest against what it described as erroneous government policies that serve to erode the quality of services provided by the country's public sector.
The strike also stands to show the UGTT's commitment to defending the rights of public sector employees, who deserve a wage increase in light of growing inflation, a drop in the value of the Tunisian dinar, and an increase  in taxes, the statement said.
"This strike comes after all opportunities for dialogue were exhausted and negotiations failed, resulting in no agreement on the need for wage increases in the public sector," the UGTT said. 
Last month, the UGTT cancelled a nationwide strike scheduled for October 24 after it received promises from the government that it would not sell state-owned companies. 
The challenge mounted by the UGTT underscores an increasingly volatile situation in Tunis, before parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled for next year. It also throws into question the government's ability to effectively deal with growing discontent over a strained economy. 
"This government won't be able to deliver on public expectations. Its mission is probably to organise the next elections but we can't expect anything from it on the economic and social side", Hamza Meddeb, a research fellow at the European University Institute in Florence, who specialises in Tunisian affairs, told The National
The North African country's economy has been in crisis since the toppling of Ben Ali threw it into turmoil, with unemployment and inflation shooting up. According to government data, unemployment is running at about 15 per cent, but is close to double that figure in some of the more deprived interior regions, with the young, especially graduates, hit the hardest.  Throughout Tunisia, the cost of living is rising, with inflation currently at a little more than 7 per cent, ratcheting up the cost of living as the IMF maintains pressure to allow the Tunisian Dinar to fall still further.

Last January, Tunisian protesters took to the streets after the government announced tax increases and austerity measures.
The economic crisis coincides with a deepening rift among political parties in the Tunisian government, which has been crippled by ruptures within a ruling coalition comprised of the moderate Islamist Ennahda and the secular Nidaa Tounes parties.
This month, The Tunisian parliament approved a cabinet reshuffle proposed by Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, who named 10 new ministers who he hopes will lend support to a range of political and economic reforms. 
The reshuffle, however, will do little to solve long-standing political divisions. "This is not the end of factionalism and political instability," Mr Meddeb said.
Mr Meddeb's analysis found a ready echo on Tunis' streets. "I think the political crisis is far from over." Haythem El Hazel, a 24-year-old language tutor told The National.
"Politicians are not doing anything for the people … Citizens are unhappy with the government, because of the high cost of living, and this will probably lead to another uprising. When that will happen depends on how patient Tunisians can be."