The Algerian General Workers' Union and the Workers' Movement

The Algerian General Workers' Union and the Workers' Movement

If any one element of civil society has consistently presented a cohesive and substantive constituency, it is the workers' unions. The explosion of union activity following political liberalization in the late 1980s indicates that the affiliational role of the unions has persisted despite years of subordination to party directives.

The Algerian General Workers' Union (Union Générale des Travailleurs Algériens--UGTA) was created in 1956 after Algerian participation in French trade unions was banned. Despite the union's efforts to remain independent, it was taken over by the FLN leadership in 1963. Under the party structure and the socialist tenets of the National Charter, the UGTA became more of an administrative apparatus than an independent interest group. The UGTA consistently opposed mass strikes and public demonstrations that threatened productive economic activity and supported government legislation to prohibit strikes in certain industrial sectors. Until the mid-1980s, all member unions were integrated federations spanning several industries. After 1984 and in response to increasing independent activity on behalf of the workers, these large federations were broken down into smaller workers' assemblies, greatly reducing the political force of the large unions and strengthening the managerial control of the UGTA authorities. The number of strikes sharply declined in the following years.

From 1989 until January 1992, union activity increased to an intensity not previously witnessed. Splits within the UGTA, the creation of a number of new, smaller, and more active unions-- including the formation of an Islamic labor union--and a rapid rise in the number of strikes and demonstrations have quickly politicized a previously dormant workers' movement. The frequency and size of labor strikes jumped; Ministry of Labor figures placed the number of strikes for 1989 at 250 per month, four times that of the previous year.

The growth of the workers' movement illustrates the genuineness of democratization in the period up to the January 1992 coup. Labor has generally not supported economic liberalization, and strikes have hampered a number of the government's free-market reforms. The government's response to and tolerance for increased mass politicization and especially union activity will undoubtedly provide clear evidence of the likelihood for successful democracy in the 1990s.

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