Municipal Workers’ Union Knows How to Make a Deal

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.

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Tunis Community Groups Get Creative

Tunis      One of the treats of this Organizers’ Forum is getting to meet some of the organizers and members of El Comita, which is essentially ACORN Tunisia, the affiliate of ACORN International in this country.  There are now several hundred members in five groups that have been organized in various neighborhoods in and around Tunis as well as one group that all of the organizers are working with outside of the city in Borj Chakir abutting the huge Tunis landfill.

This is basic, fundamental community organizing in the new Tunisian world of devolution where both citizens and governmental officials are flexing their arms to try to build some muscle now that they actually have some powers at the local level rather than the previously top-down centralization under the dictatorship.  The issues so far have been the fundamentals of city services.

I’ve often joked, very seriously, that if we ever had the secret to winning campaigns around loose dogs, sanitation, and drainage-related issues, we could organize and run the world.  All of these issues have emerged in Tunis.

Loose dogs were a fascinating local campaign that was both contentious in the neighborhood and creatively handled by the El Comita members.  Contentious in that the first solution the local members proposed was hunting the dogs down and shooting them.  The slightly more middle-class section of the community bristled at that plan, wanting a less direct solution, partially because of concern for the animals, but largely because it was less of a problem there, because, no surprises, sanitation was better, so the dogs were not roaming in packs as much.  The compromise was to get the dogs caught and have them spayed, which was seen as a longer-term solution, but one that might work eventually.

City officials weren’t taking the demands seriously after several meetings, so the group of course had to go with some direct action.  They had a feeling showing up with some of the dogs themselves might not get the job done, so a bunch of them obtained dog-masks and put them on as they entered city hall.  If you have a dog mask on your head, you going to have complete that with some solid, boisterous barking, and that’s just what they did.  The city officials and staffers reacted in an interesting fashion:  they turned and ran, as frightened as some of the residents were of the real thing.  Needless to say, progress has been made.

We spent lots of time with all of the organizers in the group campaigning for action around the city dump.  A number of meetings have been held, but the only sign of action so far is a ten-foot wall being built around the area, which makes it less unsightly to passersby, but does nothing for the residents’ health, water purity, or air quality.  Residents showed me pictures of fires that had broken out on the dump from the methane gas explosions several months ago (for a similar situation see a New York Times article on similar dump on West Bank).  A petition is being circulated.  Other communities are joining in the demands.  The dump was supposed to be closed years ago, but like so many cities around the world, this has never happened for lack of municipal alternatives.

This is a hard campaign, and we’ll spending more time working on plans and actions, but one thing is clear, when it comes to ACORN’s new affiliate, El Comita, “don’t let the dogs out!”

 

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