State, Sovereignty, and Labor Movements in Algeria: Autonomous Unions Take Action

By Zobiri, Hocine | Arab Studies Journal, Fall 2015 | Go to article overview

State, Sovereignty, and Labor Movements in Algeria: Autonomous Unions Take Action


Zobiri, Hocine, Arab Studies Journal


Labor and the state have had a contradictory and conflicting relationship in post-revolutionary Algeria. Conventional analyses of labor struggles in Algeria have tended to impose binary frames: state and counter-state, political regime and civil society, owners of the means of production and productive labor force. But the state itself, through the state-sponsored General Union of Algerian Workers (l'Union Générale des Travailleurs Algériens/UGTA) and the ban on autonomous unions, dominates the sectors of heavy industry. This dominance challenges these binary models of analysis. In this context, the public-sector service unions, particularly in the areas of higher education and health, as opposed to the factory labor collectives, have been the most disruptive to the Algerian regime since they were first made legal in the late 1980s. This article argues that larger questions of sovereignty, and the problematic of state actors contesting sovereign bodies within the public sphere, needs to be interrogated on its own terms. I offer the specificities of sovereignty politics in Algeria, in a case study of labor organizing dynamics, drawing upon 350 articles published in the newspaper al-Watan, covering five years of union activity from 2004 to 2010. This article describes the specific strategies of contemporary autonomous unions in Algeria as they claim to redefine new "deconstructive" paradigms of workers' sovereignty internal to as well as around the state.

As in the majority of Arab countries, the Algerian workers' movement is facing an existential crisis. There is a noted tension between unions' mode of action, which new economic systems have exceeded or weakened, and the rapid change sweeping Algerian society. Despite all obstacles, however, Algerian unions played important roles in the Arab uprisings in the period 2010-12 due to their organizational capacities and their hardearned experience. Algerian unions have been able to unify large groups of people, to clarify goals, and to influence behavior. The unions have also informed popular objectives without losing the ideological background that gave them their meaning. The Algerian regime has used multiple strategies, some legislative, some financial, to neutralize and limit the effectiveness of the workers' movement. However, the workers' movement in Algeria has a certain level of maturity and determination, and has outlasted the attempts to neutralize it.

The history of the union movement in Algeria evidences its significance after Algerian independence in 1962. From the mid-twentieth century until today, unions have evolved organizationally, structurally, and strategically. Most notably, they have challenged the state-society binary. Two distinct periods mark this evolution. The first period (1962-88) witnessed the single-party dominance of the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), and its omnipresent sole union in the public sector, the UGTA. The formation of the UGTA, the FLN claimed, would support the newly independent Algerian state. The second period (1989 to the present) saw the legalization of new union organizations. During this period, political parties and union formations proliferated. Thus, the relationship between state power and union organizing in Algeria has taken on two different forms, sometimes conciliatory and sometimes tense. Nevertheless, since independence, trade unions never ceased to be rivals of the state, even when the unions were within the state. Moments of reconciliation and tension can be traced to specific realities, such as the presence of left-leaning individuals in positions of power who advance the cause of union autonomy from their positions within the ruling party.

The regime's fixation on a strong state led by a single party drew on experiences of postcolonial countries in Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America. Members of the Conseil National de la Révolution Algerienne (CNRA) discussed this direction at their May 1962 meeting in Tripoli. …

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