Call Center Workers, Political Drama, and Student Unions – All in a Day in Tunis

Tunis       We are so lucky to be able to come together and visit organizers, activists, leaders, and others who are trying to build organizations and navigate the challenges of empowering people in different countries.  The Organizers’ Forum is close to completing our eighteenth journey, this time in Tunisia.  In the middle of it, the merry-go-round seems endless and exhausting, so I’m going to share a slice of it with you, but I never forget just how amazing it is to share in the experience, regardless of the hurdles.

We have steadily faced the communications challenges of a population wildly fluent in Arabic and frequently French, but less so English.  Confusion often reins.  It started early.  One message said meet at 9 and another at 10.  One said, meet at an unknown address and then go to their office.  At 8:30 AM, Eloise Maulet, ACORN’s person in Africa based in Doula, Cameroon and Grenoble, France, sat with me in the lobby and called our contact in French.  10 was the time, and we were to meet in front of a hotel and be led there.

This meeting was with the newly formed federation of 8000 call-center and telecom workers in UGTT, part of the larger federation.  We met in their new offices.  They were as excited about the meeting as we were, filling up the room with fourteen to our dozen from the Forum.  We ended up finding common cause in our issues with BellCanada, ours having to do with ACORN Canada’s Internet for All campaign and the company’s resistance, and theirs having to do with problems with their subcontractor.  We’ll figure something out together, which is a win!

We then rushed for the only meeting time available a cab ride away in the headquarters of Nadha, a sometimes-ruling party and a force even before the revolution, whose candidate for president had come in third only days before.  We met the campaign manager who was also their research director.  No translation needed here, he spoke flawless English after 18 years as a professor in the USA and UK.  Nadha was proud to have placed first among what it called the “classic” parties, since neither of the top two winners had any party affiliation or normal campaigns at all.  Their support for democracy and its institutions was a constant message point, but the underlying theme was unmistakable:  they had been in government and knew how to govern, and that was essential now in dealing with the economic crisis.  It was impossible not to be impressed, even though the message was a mixture of supports for the poor, taxes on informal workers, and neoliberalism for corporate interests.

We then hurried back for our meeting with two different student unions, who were rumored not to get along too well as competitors.  We were supposed to meet someone in front of a café at 130 PM who would walk us to the meeting at 2 PM.  Our second meeting was scheduled for the same café at 430pm.  2PM came and went.  No one there.  Finally, we found the student leader, but not our guide, on the steps between our main group and our scouts outside.  We sat down, and contrary to all of our preparations, he did not speak French that our colleague, David Tozzo from ACORN Italy, was prepared to translate, but only Arabic.  Further delays until past 230PM, when the original guide showed up, who could translate, but instead mainly spoke himself in French.  Well enough.  He was almost as smooth a politician as the Nahda rep had been.  They had won the vast majority of student votes with their 5000 members.  The other groups had polled less than 2% and were nothing.  They were not solely Islamist and a Nahda youth group but worked with everyone, though they liked some more than others.  They weren’t political, but they were political in encouraging the vote.  Quite an impressive performance in its own way.  Our delegates could choose, was he sincere or had we been spun like a top?

The second group was a no-show, and we abandoned the wait after forty minutes.  It turned out our guide who had dissed them was also supposedly the contact connecting them to us.  Maybe we had been both spun and submarined?  Life in the city!

We survived well over spaghetti Bolognese for some and steak for others in a loud restaurant near our lodging, populated mainly by large men, where the food was excellent, and we could marvel at the fact that smoking was still allowed here in Tunis.

All in one long day in Tunis!

***

Please enjoy Everyone Hides by Wilco.

Thanks to KABF.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail

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.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail