Tunisia’s labour union UGTT elected Noureddine Taboubi secretary general of its executive bureau during its 23rd congress, held on 22-25 January. Observers expect more continuity than change in the union’s policy given that most of the members of the outgoing leadership have been re-elected. Besides, Taboubi is considered a somewhat neutral figure within the UGTT, and someone who has kept equal distance in regard to the different political groups. Until his election as secretary general last week, Taboubi was in charge of internal regulatory matters of the union. In that capacity, he has built a knowledge of the internal mechanisms of the union, its middle ranking leaders and grassroots base. The 23rd congress was also a time to review the founding documents of the labour union; among the elements introduced to the reference documents was opposition to any forms of normalisation with Zionism. Sami Tahri, a member of the outgoing bureau, told the media that the issue was the subject of heated debate during the national dialogue and the drafting of the constitution, with some political and civil society actors in favour of including it in the constitution and others against it. In the end, the 2014 constitution made no mention of the issue. Thus, the UGTT decided to include it in its own documents.
The other amendment brought about by the 23rd congress was making mandatory the election of women in all of the union’s structures, starting from the next congress, in five years. Some observers think that it is high time the UGTT made more bold democratisation reforms within its structures, as well as disengaging further from the political quarrels among political parties, especially Islamists and secularists. It is true that the UGTT enjoys wide sympathy among Tunisians, given its role in the nationalist movement leading to independence, as well as its post-independence role, but the union’s role during the 2013-2014 political crisis brought it some criticisms. Since the election of Beji Caid Esebssi the outgoing leader Hocine el-Abbassi has doubled efforts to disengage from the PF-Ennahdha political debates, and focus more on the workers’ economic and social demands, but the union remains an effective tool in the leftist political actors’ toolkit. For the Tunisian labour union to protect its image as an independent civil society actor, some Tunisian observers think that the Popular Front and other leftist political parties should cease hiding behind the union (justified during the authoritarian rule of Bourguiba and Ben Ali) and build their legitimacy and basis on their own.
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