ALGERIA Algerian Workers Speak Out: “The UGTA Belongs to the Workers, Not the Careerists!”

An exclusive report published in Minbar El Oummel (Workers Tribune) n° 11, April 22, on the 17 April gathering in front of the UGTA trade union headquarters

Thousands of workers answered positively to the national call for mobilisation launched by the “free” trade unionists, “to liberate the UGTA”, “to clean up the union” and “to permit the rank and file to take back the union by throwing out the illegitimate and corrupt leadership, embodied by its General Secretary”. There were thousands assembled in front of the doors to the trade union headquarters, which was being protected by three rows of anti-riot police. 

Workers and trade unionists had traveled from Bejaïa, Tizi-Ouzou, Tlemcen, Constantine, Oran, Ain Temouchent, Biskra and Saïda. From 9: 30 in the morning, the slogans of the popular movement were chanted by the workers, particularly “Out with all of them”, as well as slogans borrowed from Morocco and Tunisia. 

The banners sported the names of public and private companies where the workers were employed, of “liberated” trade union sections. The UGTA Kherrata section was notably present; Kherrata was the site of the first huge demonstration signaling the people’s rejection of [former Algerian President] Abelaziz Bouteflika’s fifth term. The slogans on the banners read, “Step down, that means you must step down, you thief of the country and traitor of the workers! Sidhoum [1] Saïd, Clear Out!” 

Many sections of the industrial sector 

were there, the most important of which was the Rouiba industrial zone union, with a substantial contingent from SNVI (the National Company of Industrial Vehicles) and the mechanics and metal workers section. The ETUSA (transport) workers were also well represented, as well as the workers of the Algerian water company. 

We met Mohamed, aged 31, who has been working for eight years at the El Harrach unit of the ENMTP (Public Works Equipment): “I am here at the call of our factory trade union. We have been fighting since 2015 to stop them from privatising our company. We want to protect our work tools and our dignified conditions. The UGTA leadership has heaped up betrayal upon betrayal and is not representative of the workers, but rather private bosses. That is why we are demanding the immediate departure of the general secretary and his team. The UGTA belongs to the workers, not the careerists.” 

Hani, a young APMC worker in Bejaïa, traveled all night with his comrades to get to Algiers, with great determination to fight to recover the workers’ instrument for the struggle: “We want a leadership that is representative of the workers’ interests and combative. We demand democratic rules of operation and an end to trade union bureaucracy!” 

When we asked Abdelhak, from SNVI in Rouiba, why he was here, he answered with determination, “For them to leave, all of them, and for them to answer to all of us”. This young worker added, “Our battle is the mother of all battles. The trade union must be representative of the workers’ interests, it must be the instrument of our struggles which are permanent, for example the relaunching of production against the calculated sabotage that has been aimed at privatising the company and destroying our jobs. We are also fighting for the big bosses to be accountable and pay their taxes, as it is necessary that those who steal public money be punished for this crime!” 

In reaction to these words, his SNVI colleague Abderrahim, a young engineer, added: “If the trade union is taken back by the workers, everything will change. We want to be able to develop our company and be able to live a dignified life on the basis of our work. We can see that there is a will to sabotage our productive capacity; the premises are practically in ruins and abandoned, in order to hand them over to the private sector (domestic and/or foreign). We are here to denounce the trade union leadership corruption and its illegitimacy. We want them to leave immediately and to be held accountable. We demand a revitalisation of the UGTA as a weapon of the working class struggle, for the defence of the public production sector which is under threat!” 

Further along, a young worker at the Algerian water company, Abdou, asserted with full assurance: “We are an integral part of the great popular movement, of the people’s revolution, and we are here to put an end to mafia-like practices in the trade union. We demand the departure of ‘Sidhoum Saïd’ and his partners. We want the union to be managed democratically and to fight for the interests of the workers, the permanence of employment and social justice. Our verdict is clear, the must all clear out!” 

M’hammed, a trade unionist at ETUSA (the Public Enterprise of Urban and Suburban Transport of Algiers) reminded us of the escapades of the trade union’s “big boss” who, back in the 1990s, took part in the dismantling of the public sector: “The companies Copemad, Sorécal and the DNC, etc., all disappeared under the action of the current General Secretary and of former Prime Minister Ouyahia, accomplices to the IMF’s carnage. Thousands of jobs were axed and just as many workers were thrust into precariousness and poverty. We will not forget. Today, the ETUSA hires private buses from a oligarch close to Ouyahia, at a price that is four times their rate of return!” 

The last word is from Lyès, an employee at CASNOS (the National Social Security [Healthcare] Fund for Non-salaried workers): “We want the reconstruction of the UGTA on a solid base, we want to create cadres who are representative of the rank and file workers. We demand the destruction of the trade union aristocracy that controls the apparatus and puts it at the service of the system. We know that there are calculations that aim to weaken the public sector and favour private insurance companies, for example. We are aware of this and we will fight to reinforce the historical gains of the social movement in Algeria.” 

Report by Rachid Belfadel 

[1] Pun on the General Secretary’s name: Sidi Saïd. In Arabic, “Sidhoum” means “their master”. 

Hamdaoui Abdelaziz, spokesperson for the movement for the recovery of the trade union and General Secretary of the Béjaïa UGTA 

Only elected delegates will have a seat at the congress!” 

We hope that this gathering, which has been a success, will be a springboard to future actions. I would also like to state that we reject the acts of the illegitimate national secretary. We express our refusal in relation to the sham congress that he has proposed to organise, just as we reject his illegal and anti-statutory moves. We are going to undertake the preparation of an extraordinary congress. … There will be no co-opted delegates. Only elected delegates will have a seat. This is difficult because we know very well what the political significance of a free trade union is. I remind you that our struggle is being fought in the framework of the Hirak (uprising), where social matters and democracy are linked.” 

Noureddine Bouderba 

The trade union Hirak is targeting total reappropriation of the UGTA” 

“Certain members of the UGTA, who represent a part of the structures of this organisation, only want to sacrifice Sidi Saïd, but the workers want to recover the trade union entirely. In order to do so, the workers wish that the next extraordinary congress be prepared by persons with an elected mandate from the rank and file itself. … The second point lies in the fact that we must express our support of and participation in the national Hirak and this in a sense that will materialise a system where the two issues, democratic and social, remain inseparable.” 

Excerpts from interviews published in Minbar El Oummel no. 11, collected by Aziz Latreche.