Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Trade Unions, Class, and the State in Algeria and Tunisia

By Lorenzo Feltrin
Submitted to Session P4724 (Labor, Capitalism and Mobilization after the Arab Spring, 2017 Annual Meeting
Pol Science
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This paper compares union-class and union-state relations in Algeria and Tunisia to explain why, starting from relatively similar positions, they ended up diverging markedly. Tunisia is now classified as the only procedural democracy in the region but – counterintuitively – the ex-single confederation still dominates workers’ representation, while in authoritarian Algeria the role of the largest confederation is contested by several other organisations.
After independence, both Algeria and Tunisia were led by nationalist-populist regimes betting on state-led industrialisation and welfare expansion. In both cases, single labour confederations aligned to the regime – the Union Générale des Travailleurs Algériens (UGTA) and the Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail (UGTT) – mediated between workers and the state through an authoritarian-corporatist system.
With the start of economic liberalisation in the late 1980s, this pattern of union-state relations entered a crisis. In Algeria, limited union pluralism emerged while the main union continued to side with the regime, encouraging these new ‘independent’ sector-based unions to challenge the UGTA’s monopoly. In Tunisia, the state-backed single-union system remained until the 2011 Uprising, but a process of internal polarisation between anti- and pro-regime forces and occasional clashes between the union leadership and the regime created relatively wide spaces of opposition within the confederation itself.
The democratic transition in Tunisia and the increasing social tensions in post-2011 Algeria have strengthened such divergent trajectories. This shows that a mere focus on institutions is not enough, asking for an analysis of the political economy of the two countries and their specific histories of class struggle.