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Tunisia grinds to a halt as unions challenge president

The trade unions have demanded an increase in public sector wages and opposed plans to cut subsidies   -  
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Hassene Dridi/Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.


Flights were canceled, public transport ground to a halt and government offices were closed in a nationwide strike by Tunisia's main trade union confederation Thursday, which piled pressure on a president already facing a string of crises.

The powerful UGTT confederation had called on up to three million public sector workers to strike, halting work at 159 state agencies and public companies to demand concessions on salaries and threatened reforms.

The action appeared to be widely observed. A strike by public sector workers at Tunis airport saw dozens of flights canceled, while public utilities and post offices were closed.

Around 1,000 strike supporters gathered outside UGTT headquarters in central Tunis, singing the national anthem and waving flags.

In a fiery speech, UGTT chief Noureddine Taboubi said the action had been over 96 percent successful, and blamed the government for the collapse of salary negotiations.

"This is a stubborn government which sows discord and spreads false information," Taboubi told the demonstrators.

"We won't stop campaigning, no matter the cost, until our demands are met."

'Painful reforms'

The strike comes as Tunisia prepares to enter formal talks with the International Monetary Fund on a new bailout plan for its debt-laden economy.

Tunisians are facing soaring inflation, which hit 7.8 percent in May, and the UGTT has demanded a new deal to raise public sector salaries, including retroactively for last year.

While its opponents say the UGTT is ignoring the country's deep financial woes, the IMF has made a bailout deal conditional on the trade unions' support.

The government has presented a reform plan to the global lender which includes a freeze on the public sector wage bill, progressive cuts to some subsidies and a restructuring of publicly owned companies.

But the UGTT has warned against "painful reforms" aimed at pleasing the IMF.

"We're not demanding a pay rise, but a reset to workers' purchasing power to take inflation into account," as well as the scrapping of a one-percent social security tax introduced in 2018, Taboubi said.

The union has also demanded guarantees that state sector firms, including some monopolies and flag carrier Tunisair, remain publicly owned.

Tunisian economist Fadhel Kaboub said the strike was "the culmination of a collective failure by more than 10 Tunisian governments, the UGTT, the IMF and Tunisia's international partners" to restructure the economy.

"It will serve as a reminder to the IMF that working people in Tunisia can only sustain so much economic pain."

While the UGTT insists the strike is not political, it comes as President Kais Saied faces intense criticism for excluding opposition forces from his "national dialogue" -- part of a push to overhaul the Tunisian state and consolidate an ongoing power grab.

The president sacked the government and suspended an elected parliament in July last year, before dissolving the legislature in March and sacking scores of judges by decree earlier this month.

The UGTT was invited to take part in the national dialogue, but refused on the grounds that key political forces were not, and that the process aimed to push through "conclusions decided unilaterally in advance".

"We don't believe this dialogue can help Tunisia resolve its crises," Taboubi said.

The UGTT, a co-laureate of the Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts in a previous national dialogue following Tunisia's 2011 revolution, had originally backed Saied when he sacked the government and suspended parliament.

But it has become increasingly critical as Saied has extended his power grab, which some of his rivals describe as a coup in the only democracy to emerge from the Arab uprisings of 2011.

Kaboub, who teaches at Denison University in the United States, said a decade of democratization had failed to deliver key economic reforms such as boosting food and energy sovereignty and investing in high value-added industries.

"It's time for the IMF, the Tunisian government and the UGTT to formulate an alternative vision for economic development in Tunisia," he said.

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