Municipal Workers’ Union Knows How to Make a Deal

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Tunis      We had heard about Makrem Amairia, the head of the Municipal Workers Union branch of the larger, longstanding labor federation, UGTT, before we arrived at their building near the main boulevard running through the city of Tunis.  He had been quoted while leading a march of 2000 cleaners through the city last year demanding union recognition.  That sounded interesting.

We had several other reasons for wanting to meet with him as well.  Given the devolution of governmental powers from the central government to the municipalities and regional units, we were curious what that meant for a union in real life, rather than in the minds of parliamentarians and constitutional delegates.  We also knew that he headed the sanitation workers.  We knew the community was concerned from the outside, but given the health and safety impacts on the residents, a union worth its salt had to be worried about their members on the inside as well.  What would he have to say?

Quite a lot, actually, and with the union’s journalist and, lucky for us, translator, he was both welcoming, sincere, and smooth as silk.  Appraising him as a local union leader, I could tell he was someone who could be a great friend or a serious enemy, both qualities are often what makes a successful negotiator.

They were not a small local.  They had a national range.  They represented workers in 310 of the 350 municipalities in the country.  Candidly, he said they represented 35,000 workers and of that number had 28,000 dues-paying members.

Thom Yachnin asking questions

One of our delegation, Thom Yachnin, director of the organizing and legal department at BCGEU, the British Columbia Government Employees’ Union, honed in on the bargaining practice, asking whether they were able to conclude agreements with the cities or were they still having to negotiate with the Interior Department, like before the revolution.  The answer was sort of neither and both.  They negotiated what unions call local or plant-issues with the cities, but wages and fundamental changes to working conditions and legislation remained with Interior.  At the same time. they were trying to get cities to form a council of sorts with parliamentary action so they could engage in sectoral bargaining for all municipal employees with such a body and not Interior.  Smart move.  His answer was patient, so it was hard to tell how close they might be, but they are likely watching the upcoming parliamentary elections on this score.

Asking about the dump and the Bori Chakir community where our ACORN affiliate El Comita is organizing, he was deft in his response.  Yes, they would be interested in joining with us in common cause to find ways the workers and the community could push issues together.  Yes, he would be glad to meet our leaders from Bori Chakir.  He was clearly surprised that we had been there and knew the situation, asking several times for confirmation that we had been to Bori Chakir.  Certainly, they had ninety workers at the landfill, and they, like us, were very concerned about their health and safety, too.  He also shared insights from his negotiations with the city on these issues though saying two things.  First, that the dump pre-existed the community, and that people had moved there knowing they were moving next to a dump.  Secondly, they have negotiated a partial closedown of a section to see if practices could be altered.   This meeting will be interesting!

Having met with one of the smaller, new union formations earlier in the week, one of our delegation asked Amairia and his associate whether there was any joint-union collaboration on any issues, interests, or bargaining. The answer was classic, elegant, and masterful.  Yes, of course they believed in union pluralism.  Of course, they were willing to work with anyone, but they had not done so yet.  These unions come and go.  They knew nothing of their governance, dues structure, members, or stability.  There was no competition.  As these things settled, surely there would be relationships.

The translator finished with a smile and a shrug.  Had we been in the US, he might have brushed a piece of lint from his shoulder or in a larger meeting, dropped the microphone.