TUNIS — While American labor unions organize nationwide to keep their candidate in the White House, organized labor in Tunisia has been facing a struggle far starker than the American partisan divide. On August 28, Islamist militants attacked a peaceful union demonstration in the restive town of Sidi Bouzid, wounding seven, while police stood on the sidelines. The incident capped a summer of similar violence, including firebombings of three regional offices of the UGTT, the country's national trade union center, by Salafi groups; and calls by several mosque preachers to kill union activists. The onslaught stems from a simple reason: not only are Tunisian unions advocating secular egalitarian values, their deep roots in the community make them the only viable alternative to the nation's Islamists.
Elsewhere in the Middle East, unions are standing up to entrenched autocrats and working to bridge sectarian divides. The General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions has organized a campaign for social and economic equity to challenge the ruling monarchy while eschewing the sectarian agenda of many demonstrators. In Jordan, an organization of teachers recently won a years-long battle for legal status as an independent union, following suppression by the kingdom and an all-out ban on collective bargaining. And unions in Bahrain and Iraq, nations both torn by Shiite-Sunni strife, are using the struggle for workers' rights as a way to transcend one of the region's most intractable divides.
These struggles point to the presence of a viable social movement in the Arab world, neither wed to autocrats nor controlled by theocrats, that could help stabilize the region's politics and strengthen civil society. "It's a key democratic force," argues Cathy Feingold, international department director for the AFL-CIO. "When you're able to have labor movements that can freely exercise their rights, bargain with employers, improve working conditions, and increase their wages, you address questions of inequality and you create spaces for democratic participation." Islamist groups, which have won loyalty among the poor for providing a social safety net backed by oil wealth, are naturally threatened by a secular organization with its own way of winning economic advantages for its members.
All of which makes for a great opportunity for Washington, which is struggling to find its way in a post-revolutionary Middle East that has offered up few clear allies and perceived dangers in the success of Islamist parties. Arab unions could be nothing less than the key to sustainable, perhaps even secular, democracy. The question is why the United States -- which has a history of using unions to further its foreign policy -- is doing so little to support them.
Last year's parliamentary elections in post-revolutionary Tunisia yielded victory for Ennahda, the long-banned Islamist party, which promised to reconcile its goal of Islamizing society with modernist principles, such as equal rights for women, that are espoused by many Tunisians. It did not win by a landslide, but rather achieved an electoral plurality, and enlisted two secularist parties in order to form a government. Nearly a year later, Ennahda's political opponents, as well as some of its own coalition partners, charge that the party is using its ruling status to monopolize power -- and that its promise of moderation and compromise was insincere.
There is evidence, meanwhile, that organized labor in Tunisia, led by the UGTT trade union coalition, actually enjoys greater popularity than Ennahda. Claiming a membership base of 850,000, its credibility with the population was born of history: it was a key base of resistance to French rule, which led to independence for the country in 1956. Since then, it has shared the challenge of unions elsewhere to aid its constituents without incurring the wrath of a dictator and his friends. While often faulted by members for having too cozy a relationship with the regime, the UGTT asserted its autonomy on numerous occasions. In January 2008, UGTT organizers backed a rare demonstration against the regime's nepotism and corruption in the phosphate mining hub of Gafsa. And, most importantly, the group was quick to throw its weight behind the protestors during last year's revolution, giving quarter to its organizers and losing lives to the gunfire of then-president Ben Ali's police.
But that influence has not yet translated into political power. In last year's parliamentary elections, the UGTT made the fateful decision not to create its own party. So prominent members of the group formed parties of their own instead -- dozens of them. "The population was confused," says Hatem al-Ouaini, a senior official at the country's teachers' union. "They knew only the UGTT and Ennahda." Even so, labor candidates collectively won more seats than Ennahda, though not enough to block its governing coalition. "Our decision not to participate was a big mistake," says Ouaini.
Union officials there espouse secularism and gender equality and look to European and American unions as organizational models and transnational partners. Many Islamists oppose this agenda: Hardliners, including Salafis and the right flank of Ennahda, regard any form of political organization not explicitly called for in Islamic tradition as bid'a ["innovation"] and therefore heretical. Their interpretation of Islam rejects the principle that all faiths and genders are equal. As for transnational partnerships, they wish to steer Tunisia away from the West and toward their notion of a unified Muslim "Umma." According to UGTT legal counsel Muhammad Amdouni, these differences lead both Salafis and Ennahda activists to attempt to undermine unions, and that the two groups differ only in tactics. "The Salafis use violence," he says, "while Ennahda tries to penetrate our ranks with its followers and subvert us from within."