The Facade of Democracy and Obstacles to the Exercise of Trade Union Rights in Algeria

The Facade of Democracy and Obstacles to the Exercise of Trade Union Rights in Algeria

Soleiman Adel Guémar  » Hysbysu. The Magazine of the South Wales WEA – community Education in Wales-  » (Autumn 2005)

First, there has been a state of emergency in Algeria since January 1992. This permits the state to « legally » violate fundamental human rights and freedoms, especially the right to demonstrate peacefully and the right to strike.

On Algeria’s only TV channel last year, the president Abdelaziz Bouteflika (who was re-elected in April 2004 with an amazing 84.99% of the vote) declared without the slightest sign of shame that the state recognised only one union, the « General Union of Algerian Workers » or UGTA

This single union is a satellite of the regime. It has always faithfully backed the regime in its various manipulations and is in fact one of the main allies of the Military Security and Intelligence service (DRS).

Although Algeria is a signatory to various international protocols on union rights (especially those adopted by the ILO – International Labour Organisation) and although the right to strike is enshrined in the Algerian constitution, that right is in fact virtually impossible to exercise. The union’s first step in considering a strike is to seek permission from the employer.

Algeria has never ratified Convention 135 concerning the protection of workers’ representatives in the workplace and the facilities to be granted to them.

In the face of increasing threats to their freedoms as citizens and as workers, workers are attempting to organise through independent unions which operate on the fringes of illegality. These organisations attempt to put up united resistance to the government’s repressive measures and the intimidation and persecution of trade unionists.

These courageous organisations facing up to the regime’s repression include:

•  national council of the higher education

•  national union of public health practitioners

•  independent union of public administration workers

•  national council of university teachers

•  national council of secondary and technical school teachers

•  national union of assistant professors of medical science

•  coordinating body for Algerian high schools

•  etc .

But to understand the Algerian situation we need a little history

In 1989, 30 years of a political one-party system and a one-union monopoly system officially came to an end. The history of unions in Algeria has four phases. The first is intimately linked with the struggle for national liberation achieved in 1962. The second phase is characterised by the monopoly of the UGTA. The third phase can be described as thwarted pluralism or frustrated pluralism.

Phase 1: trade unionism and national liberation

The UGTA was created in 1956 (when Algeria was still a French colony) by members of the General Labour Confederation and the French Confederation of Christian Workers. The membership was essentially urban. 90% of the population was rural and remained outside union structures. The UGTA committed itself to the national struggle in the face of the luke-warm positions on anti-colonialism adopted by French unions and the French left in general. Despite this commitment, the UGTA was kept at a distance from the national political movement and its leadership. As a result, up until independence the UGTA enjoyed a certain autonomy in relation to the National Liberation Front (FLN)

Phase 2: the UGTA in political hands

The autonomy of the UGTA did not last long after independence. State police oversaw the first conference in February 1963. The state exerted increasing control. The National Charter issued by the FLN in 1976 – the party’s key doctrinal document – stated the position perfectly clearly : the UGTA was a cog in the machinery of state power. In the words of the National Charter : «  with the enlargement of the economic base of socialism, the union ceases to be an instrument of struggle against an exploitative state in order to become part and parcel of power  » From January 1981 the UGTA became a monopoly union. All officials had to be members of the monopoly party, the FLN. The role of the union was to defend the state and implement its directives. Strikes were outlawed in the public sector, which dominated the economy. The union was given the specific task of preventing possible strikes.

Phase 3 : frustrated pluralism

The late 80s saw a crisis in Algeria with many dimensions. It culminated in rioting in October 1988, with the army firing on demonstrators and killing more than 500. A process of economic and political liberalisation followed. In February 1989 a new state constitution was approved by referendum. This abolished the one-party system and paved the way for free association in all areas of economic and social life. Article 39 guarantees free assembly and Article 54 the right to strike. As part of this democratisation, a law passed in June 1990 laid the basis for trade union pluralism.

The law was vigorously contested and denounced by the UGTA, because, of course, it threatened the monopoly which had been enjoyed since independence.

This would mean the loss of various privileges enjoyed by union officials, their positions in various state councils and committees, and their positions in the boardrooms of nationalised industries.

Since the early 1990s, numerous unions have been created under extremely difficult political circumstances. In June 1990 the Islamic Salvation Front won a resounding victory over the FLN in local elections, and the state declared the general election of December 1991 void. The UGTA announced a « re-orientation » of its work and embraced a political strategy focused on developing a new organisation, the National Committee to Save Algeria (CNSA), founded in January 1992. This committee’s work involved appealing to the army and energetically supporting it when it enforced the suspension of elections, forced President Chadli to resign, and set about eradicating Islamists.

In an interview with an Algerian daily, the general secretary of the UGTA admits :

« In a way we did shut things off. It’s true, the UGTA is partly responsible for this slump. But maybe the national situation left no room for us to work in a more radical way as a union.(…) The UGTA recognised that the republic is in a state of perpetual destabilisation. With the gravity of the economic and social situation, and the terrorism, we tried not to make things worse – because the Republic was in danger and if it needed remaking, we’d remake it »

But even if there was or is a serious danger from Islamic fundamentalism, does this justify all the reverses in social policy and workers’ rights? Of course not!

The murderous violence unleashed in Algeria over the past decade and a half has totally sidelined any politics of social and political progress. And this state of emergency has made it easier for the regime to implement numerous policies imposed by neo-liberalism – cuts in social spending, closure of nationalised industries, massive redundancies and so on. All this with the co-operation of the UGTA, hand in glove with political power.

Mr Abdelmadjid Sidi-Saïd, the general secretary of the UGTA, affirms that:

« All the reforms implemented these past few years were directed against the public sector. The price paid by the workers and their organisation [the UGTA], with over 400,000 redundancies (…) shows the scale of the sacrifices that the world of work has been prepared to make. »

Sacrifices people have been prepared to make – maybe, but for what? Certainly not for the benefit of workers, whose conditions of life have tragically, dramatically worsened. Algeria, a rich country, has become a kind of banana republic – a couscous republic!

Algeria is being raped by an unscrupulous military-financial mafia, which is aided and abetted by multinational and transnational corporations, and by foreign governments

A state based on legality and rights needs to be established in order to save this situation and enable workers to take their rightful place in a country at peace and able to respect itself.