The Moorish Wanderer

May Day And the Trade Unions Mafia

Today was the Great May Day with its colourful parades, joyful demonstrations and overflowing bouquets of red flags and roses. These are my child memories of May Day, anyway. Other than that, as far as I can trace back my own recollections of what a union does for a living (so to speak) it is either disinterest or puzzlement to the actual nature pertaining to their work.

UMT Logo, circa 1955

Well, an ill-informed judgement could not explain why unions would exist if political parties, especially left-wing ones, were already in place defending the workers’ grievances. The initial puzzlement might also be explained by the quasi-incestuous relationship many Moroccan political parties entertained (or are still doing so) with our trade unions even before 1956. Unions and Parties act like political mates, a bit like Juno, the two-faced (literally) Goddess. And unfortunately, such unhealthy proximity was operated at the expense of the very workers both political institutions vow to defend. So for all the decorum every May 1st, the parade is just a travesty of Workers’ day. This sounds suspicious of a self-confessed

With no intended pejorative connotation, Moroccan unions are a product of French colonialism. Very early after the Fes Treaty, French unions started to recruit Moroccan workers (against segregationist regulations) who, in turn, established in March 1955 their own union with the foundation of the Union Marocaine du Travail (UMT). In May 1956, the union boasted a 600,000 strong members base, i.e. about 52% of urban workforce; It maintained a close relationship with Istiqlal party, right until 1959 with the UNFP spin-off. The old-style Istiqlal in turns founded its own union in September 1959, (Union Générale des Travailleurs Marocains) UGTM. Even USFP (a UNFP spin-off) did the same in December 1978 and founded the Confédération Démocratique Du Travail(CDT) these instances (and many others) show one thing: national parties cannot thrive without a union support, so they create their own dedicated workers’ support. It looks as though these parties cannot reach out to their electorate without a parallel organization, one conveniently with no direct political agenda, but nonetheless amenable to the party’s ideology, and led by party activists and leaders. Can anyone spot the peculiarity here?

Omar Bendjelloun, the assassinated trade union leader, and perhaps the most respected and well-known of them all.

One way to explain this is perhaps because of the very tense political atmosphere following independence; parties like UNFP were regularly censored, its activists and leaders either arrested (and tortured) or prevented from carrying on their political activities; unions were a very convenient way to continue political activism without much repression; UMT union however, did not always cooperate with left-wingers: Omar Bendjelloun wrote a letter in 1963, describing vicious beating from old UMT boss Mahjoub Bensedik‘s henchmen.

“- j’espère que chacun procédera aux rectifications nécessaires, en donnant leur véritable contenu aux concepts révolutionnaires au lieu de ne s’en servir qu’occasionnellement comme alibis au service de la diffamation,

– j’espère que la lucidité triomphera en fin de compte pour éviter à chacun de devenir encore plus prisonnier d’un engrenage qu’il a lui-même engagé, ou de se laisser mettre de plus en plus devant le fait accompli,

– j’espère surtout que cette lettre soit une participation au redressement de certaines erreurs, afin que rien n’empêche plus les masses populaires sous la direction de la classe ouvrière de se libérer du joug féodal et colonial, et de s’engager aussitôt que possible dans la construction du socialisme,

– j’espère enfin que tout ce qui précède ne soit pas encore une fois mis au compte de ce qu’il y aurait en moi (ou beaucoup d’autres) de “prétentieux”, “extrémiste”, “gauchiste”… Ou tout simplement “salaud”.”

Some good trade-unionist turn out to be like Omar Bendjelloun, while many others acted like Mafiosi, but the former type gets shot or turns into martyr, the later gains comfortable  rent out of a very convenient ‘mutually destructive mechanism’ kind of relationship with the regime: save for the 1967 incident, Bensedik has been in goods terms with the authorities, and over the years, his union and the others suffered from the same ailments: ageing activists’ base and operatives, bureaucratic proceedings within the federations and branches, engagement in dubious management of mutuals and various ministerial offices, etc… This holds for most unions, including the vehement CDT and its own tribune boss, Noubir Amaoui.

What about the workers? Credit usually goes to government when there is a pay rise, and these usually affect only public sector civil servants; the stereotype of these organizations as redoubts for civil servants’ privileges is further strengthen when they join in a chorus gloating about the “victorious concessions unions managed to extract from the government”, all of this, with a shrinking union base, demonises further the very idea of collective bargaining, even though empirical evidence can substantiate the argument for such labour and wage-setting contract. So the question remains: are unions any good to the workers? I guess the same applies to political parties (i.e. are they, too, any good to citizens). The strange companionship party/union goes even further in the observed weaknesses: both organizations suffer from an acute ‘personalization’: the union is automatically identified with its leader, usually the only one since its foundation (Bensedik, Afilal or Amaoui have been quasi-lifetime bosses) and are too subject to spin-offs when some frustrated n°2 decides to jump ship and set up their own organization.

3rd UMT Convention delegates

Both organization sought the support of local notabilities for electoral purposes (in the unions’ cases, a mix between professional and legislative elections) and sometimes come to conflict when politicians want to boycott a particular process when union leaders push for active campaigning. The similarities stop there: unions have been historically more flexible in their slogans. It might have to do with trade-unionist pragmatism, but it certainly is related to the perks each union can lay their hands on; each ministerial department has their mutual fund and charities, usually managed by unions, thus the potential benefits (to the members or to the organization)

Perhaps this is too much of an exaggeration of the dead-weight unions represent. As a matter of fact my criticism is not on the very idea of organized labour, and there is argument for the eminent benefits of collective bargaining in a grand design; indeed, under the assumption of some overhaul like the Open Society project, unions are more than needed to design the nationwide labour contracts needed to redefine labour-employers relationships, conflict-solving mechanisms and finally the wage bargaining process.

Collective bargaining, in this case, brings undeniable benefits. The problem is not the institution, but the men (for trade unions are a very masculine environment) behind them. There is a great deal of corruption and inertia, all of which might -just might- fade away when the pressure for new leadership renewal becomes too much for the old power-brokers to step aside and stop eating their young. A generational gap, once a crippling handicap for unions and political parties might come in handy, solving at once incestuous relationship between party and union, as well as put an end to the corrupt environment where unions evolve. Transparency and Accountability are the watchword for the “Brothers” to heed.