June 27, 2011—For three U.S. trade unionists undertaking a 10-day learning and outreach tour to the Middle East and North Africa, meeting workers on the front lines of change has been inspirational.
||Michigan State AFL-CIO President Mark Gaffney (right) confers with UGTT President Jerad Abdessalam in Tunis. Photo by Shawna Bader-Blau, Solidarity Center
The trio of union activists—Mark Gaffney, president of the Michigan State AFL-CIO, William (Bill) Fletcher, director of field services and education for the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), and Shannon Lederer, associate director for international affairs at the American Federation of Teachers (AFT)—recently completed the first leg of a three-country Solidarity Center-sponsored tour. They spoke to the Solidarity Center en route from Tunisia to the West Bank.
In Tunis, the capital, they met with the union leaders who played a key role in the movement to end the 23-year rule of President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali. The struggle of the Tunisian people has inspired similar pro-democracy uprisings across the region, with various levels of success to date.
“This whole trip has inspired me,” said Fletcher. “I am constantly reminded that people in far worse conditions than most anyone in America can imagine stood up to make change. They have shown that it is not impossible to resist and win. People are doing it.”
According to Gaffney, their first stop demonstrated the spectrum of union strength in North Africa. In addition to Tunisian workers and union leaders, they also met with unionists from Libya and Algeria who were in Tunis to share ideas with their Tunisian counterparts.
“The Tunisian labor movement has received a lot of recognition from the people for the values they brought to the revolution and for guiding the post-revolution period,” said Gaffney, who also serves on the Solidarity Center Board of Trustees. “They now have a happy challenge: Tens of thousands of people are joining the labor movement because the government is tenuous, they are redrafting the constitution and reconfiguring parliament, and there is a question as to what labor law will be. But the principles of trade unionism will be part of the new government.”
He added: “The Algerians, meanwhile, are wondering what the future holds for them. And the young woman from Libya, recently elected head of her section, is worried about how to get her brand-new union off the ground.”
For Lederer, the most striking revelation was the place that Tunisian women have carved out for themselves both within the labor movement and in the march toward democracy.
“It was amazing to meet all the trade union activists who were women and hear about their degree of participation,” she said. “In Tunisia, women are very empowered, and there is acknowledgment of their role. They are part of decision-making, both within their union and in shaping the new government. And they have achieved an agreement that there will be gender parity at the constitutional assembly.”
Tunisian workers have made great strides in moving away from precarious work, Lederer added.
“Their number-one priority is to change government contracting practices, moving away from subcontracting jobs for gardeners, security guards, and cleaning staff. Instead, these people will be public employees with steady contracts.”
The Solidarity Center is sponsoring this trip. The next stops are Palestine and Egypt.