General Strike In Algeria

Trade unions fight privatisations

TUESDAY 25 February. Thousands of factories had to close down; the sky was without planes, the streets without public transport, banks and offices were closed, the printing presses of the daily papers stopped.

Karl Debbaut

For the third time since its independence from France in 1962, Algeria came to a standstill as the result of a two-day general strike.

The strike was called by the General Union of Algerian Workers (UGTA) federation against the government’s privatisation programme and for higher wages.

In the public sector and state-controlled firms, the strike was solidly supported. In the private sector, companies like Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola, symbols of global capitalism, were paralysed by the workers’ actions as were the steelworks of d’El Hadjar – the former state-owned company, now controlled by Indian investors.

The nationalisations of the steelworks, the oil and gas industry, and other sectors were once presented as ‘socialist’ measures by the FLN-led regime.

But the collapse of Stalinism in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe between 1989-1991 meant that a global rightward process, already unfolding in Algeria, was hugely reinforced.

Adding to the pressure for ‘neo-liberal reform’ (ie capitalist measures, including privatisation, cuts in public spending on social services, etc) were the powerful economic forces of capitalist world trade, together with an ideological offensive by the major imperialist powers and by institutions like the European Union, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.(IMF). The current enormous programme of privatisation in Algeria is taking this a step further.

The government has been looking for foreign investment as a way out of the terrible political and economical crisis the country is in.

One of the aims of the leadership is to conclude a “strategic political partnership” with France, in the words of the Algerian Foreign Minister, Abdelaziz Belkhadem.

The recent visit of French president Chirac to Algeria is seen as extremely important. For France the goal is to rekindle the imperial relationship with their former colony. Dominique de Villepin, the French Foreign Minister, said that French investors “were on their way back to Algeria” and that France was “fully prepared to back the political and economic reforms which are necessary for Algeria’s stability and prosperity”.

France was embarrassed by its relationship with Algeria when the Algerian regime cancelled a general election in 1992 that the FIS Islamic party was poised to win.

In the absence of a working-class political alternative, the population got dragged into a civil war (which has claimed around 150,000 people), between the GIA (Armed Islamic Group) and the army. Algeria’s military rulers – ‘le pouvoir’ – have recently been accused by Human Rights Watch of carrying out 7,000 ‘disappearances’ between 1992 and 1998.

Although the international powers supported the cancellation of the elections and feared the coming to power of an Islamic party in Algeria, in public they had to criticise the methods employed by the regime. But that didn’t stop the US last December selling attack helicopters and night vision equipment, which Algeria says it needs to fight terrorism.

Socialism and democracy

THE UGTA is closely intertwined with the state-apparatus and its leaders are part of the regime. But they had to come out and organise the general strike because of grassroots pressure.

The trade union leaders only took up the question of privatisation, isolating it from the more general issues like the high and rising level of unemployment, the stagnation of purchasing power, the poverty-level pensions and the lack of democratic rights.

Furthermore, the general strike excluded the oil and gas-sector, which accounts for nearly all of Algeria’s foreign earnings, for fear of enraging the US.

The official line of the UGTA was that they wanted to ‘protect Algeria’s image abroad’. They used this so-called reason to refrain from organising any marches or demonstrations during the two-day general strike.

This shows that the trade union leaders are trying to protect the fundamental interest of the Algerian ruling class.

In the Algerian situation, the struggle for democracy and the right to form independent formations of the working class go hand in hand with the struggle to overthrow capitalism and imperialism.