Tunisian union warns of public sector strike over reforms

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TUNIS, March 30 (Reuters) – Tunisia’s powerful labour union warned on Wednesday public sector workers could strike to oppose economic reforms the government has proposed to try to secure an International Monetary Fund (IMF) rescue package.

The UGTT union is Tunisia’s most powerful political body with more than a million members and has brought the economy to a halt in previous strikes over state spending cuts.

“In UGTT we defend the poor and the marginalised …. We will not betray our principles, whatever the price,” said UGTT head Noureddine Taboubi, addressing workers in the northern port city of Bizerte.

A general strike would represent the most significant challenge to President Kais Saied yet, amid growing opposition to his march towards one-man rule since he suspended parliament last summer and assumed executive authority.

Taboubi said two of the union’s subordinate bodies, the public sector and public services departments, had approved the principle of a strike and the UGTT’s top national body would meet soon to decide on it.

Tunisia faces a rapidly looming crisis in public finances as it struggles to meet budget and debt commitments, and is in talks with the IMF for a rescue package.

However, the IMF wants the government to agree to cuts in spending on subsidies, on the public wage bill and on state-owned companies, and donors have said such reforms will only be possible if they are accepted by the union.

The UGTT says the government has proposed freezing wages, privatising state companies and eliminating subsidies in the coming years and that all of those are unacceptable.

It has demanded a dialogue on both political and economic reforms with Saied, whose attempts to restructure Tunisia’s political system with a new constitution are complicated by the government’s fiscal problems.

“We know they want to sell companies like the Tobacco Company and Tunisair,” Taboubi said.

Taboubi was reelected UGTT head this month and has since taken a more assertive stance in demanding Saied heed its views on protecting Tunisia’s democratic gains after the 2011 revolution and averting cuts that would hurt its members.

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