A strike by Tunisia’s largest trade union ground the country to a halt despite last-minute attempts by the country’s president, Kais Saied, to prevent it from taking place.
The Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT) called for the country’s three million public-sector workers to strike and it said most took part on Thursday, which led to closed airports, public transport, ports, and government offices.
Several hundred employees from state companies gathered in front of the UGTT’s headquarters in the capital Tunis to hold a rally against the Tunisian government’s economic reform plans – the declared reason for the protest.
UGTT supporters carried flags, sang union anthems, and chanted slogans such as “with the union, always looking ahead” and “in our life, in our blood, we are with the union”.
Addressing the crowd, UGTT’s Secretary-General Noureddine Taboubi said 96 percent of union members participated in the strike. Al Jazeera could not independently verify the claim.
The workers protested Saied’s decision to freeze wages and cut subsidies as part of the government deal to secure a $4bn loan from the International Monetary Fund.
However, the strike also came as a continuing political crisis escalated in Tunisia, with opposition growing to what has been perceived as attempts by Saied to entrench himself in power since he suspended the country’s parliament last July.
“We are still trying to find a compromise with the government,” Hedia Arfaoui, UGTT’s deputy secretary-general in charge of external relations, told Al Jazeera at the rally. “We demand an effective and real social dialogue.”
Arfaoui suggested the union is open to discussing some economic reforms that would be less “painful” than the conditions of the bailout imposed by the IMF.
“The government went ahead with its reform plan without consulting the UGTT while we have social and economic questions that need to be addressed,” Mongi Merzgui, secretary-general of the union at the National Office of Sanitation (ONAS), told Al Jazeera.
“We had no choice but to strike. We don’t have people with authority within the cabinet who can negotiate, and the president doesn’t listen to anyone.”
On Wednesday, the UGTT indicated in a statement that workers would “hold this strike to defend their economic and social rights after the dithering of the government in the face of their legitimate demands”.
It also denounced the worsening social situation of employees in all categories “in light of low wages, rising prices, [and] the deterioration of purchasing power”.
The one-day strike was publicised by the labour union two weeks ago after Prime Minister Najla Bouden Romdhane announced an economic and social programme the government submitted to the IMF, which includes freezing wages and employment in public jobs, lifting subsidies, and the privatisation of public companies.
The international lender has urged the cabinet to reach an agreement with the UGTT as a condition for a rescue package, in exchange for potentially painful economic reforms.
For the powerful organisation, the measures pushed forth under the government programme were inconceivable at a time when Tunisians were facing 18 percent unemployment and inflation hitting 7.8 percent, aggravated by soaring energy and wheat prices caused by the war in Ukraine.
The strike, which is meant to serve as the basis for IMF negotiations, added to increasing pressure on Saied’s political and social moves towards reform, posing the biggest test the Tunisian president has faced since last July.
Fitch Ratings recently warned tensions between the government and the UGTT, a key player in Tunisian politics, were hindering negotiations with the IMF, and passing political and economic reforms without the union’s backing would be challenging.
Saied planned a referendum on a new constitution for next month, but has faced widespread opposition.
Tensions surfaced earlier this month when the UGTT announced it would not participate in a national dialogue launched by Saied, which excluded opposition forces.
“We refused to take part in the dialogue because we don’t see it as a solution for Tunisia,” Taboubi said.
The union, which initially backed Saied when he dismissed the government and suspended parliament, has become increasingly critical as the president continued to consolidate power, in what his opponents have called an ongoing “coup”.