The first reaction of the UGTT was to denounce the protests. Even as demonstrators were being gunned down in the streets UGTT leader Abdessalem Jerad held a meeting with Ben Ali.
The UGTT has long supported the regime and been instrumental in implementing its IMF-backed structural reforms and austerity measures. It has publicly supported Ben Ali during bogus presidential elections, telling workers most recently that he would guarantee “an atmosphere of freedom and stability.”
What was the UGTT’s actual role?
With tens of thousands marching in defiance of state violence, the National Commission of the UGTT called an emergency meeting on January 11. It issued a statement appealing for calm and urging the government not to blame the union “for the tragic events which have marked the country.” It did not call for the ouster of Ali, but instead “the creation of a committee of national dialogue to determine the economic and social reforms necessary to ensure national stability, security and prosperity.”
As strikes and protests escalated UGTT leaders called a token two-hour strike for January 14 in an effort to contain the rebellion and posture as an oppositional force. When Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia, the UGTT quickly threw its support behind the maneuvers of his henchmen to form a government of “national unity.”
Three officials of the UGTT took cabinet positions in the government, which was dominated by members of Ben Ali’s Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) party. With protests continuing and focusing on the role of the RCD, the three UGTT ministers were forced to resign.
From its origins, the UGTT has been an instrument of the most reactionary forces, including, above all, French and American imperialism. As Nigel Disney notes in his 1978 article, “The Working Class Revolt in Tunisia,” the UGTT “was formed in 1946 through the fusion of already existing unions, but it moved to the right during the period of the struggle for national independence. The UGTT left the communist-oriented World Federation of Trade Unions in 1951, only a year after joining it, and adhered instead to the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions. Through this body the UGTT leadership forged close links with the American Federation of Labor (AFL), links that continue to this day.”
Irving Brown, who headed up the AFL’s worldwide anti-communist activities in conjunction with the Central Intelligence Agency, forged the closest links with the UGTT and the predecessors of Ben Ali’s RCD party. The AFL’s operations in Tunis became a springboard for the crimes and intrigues of US imperialism not only in North Africa but throughout the continent.