Secretary General of the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT) Houcine Abassi is best known for his crucial role in the national dialogue process in 2013, when the troika government was on the verge of collapsing.

Now heading the UGTT, Abassi is leading the oldest and most powerful organization in Tunisia and his talent for mediation is still needed.

Secretary General of the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT) Houcine Abassi is best known for his crucial role in the national dialogue process in 2013, when the troika government was on the verge of collapsing.

Now heading the UGTT, Abassi is leading the oldest and most powerful organization in Tunisia and his talent for mediation is still needed.

Houcine Abassi, you always speak about parties attacking UGTT without identifying these parties. Is UGTT launching a cold war against several opponents, especially after the success of the national dialogue?

Several parties do attack the Union. They consist of certain groups that have interests in weakening us. We tell them that UGTT cannot be defeated, tamed or weakened no matter how hard these opponents try.

We have no war with anyone. Our focus has two basic missions: our national role and social role and nothing will deter us from these missions. I do not want to get into a tug of war game or exchange of tirades with any groups; this would not serve the country’s interests. Our country is going through circumstances where each party is required to make revisions and look for solutions to different problems, particularly terrorism, unemployment, development etc. They will definitely realize that the Union will continue its national duty to save the country’s economy and restore its past vigor.

How do you assess dealing with a government that was created by liberal parties, especially during successful social negotiations?

What matters to us is the plan to be adopted by Tunisia in the next stage, and presented by the government. It will not be a product of these four ruling parties. All parties will contribute to the deliberations, in addition to professional organizations, which will present their vision.

We hope we can agree on an economic pattern that endeavors to achieve economic success while considering social conditions. We believe that no matter which government, every party has its own interests. Consensus, however, remains a top priority.

A war of statements ran high recently between you and the employers’ organization over the pay increase in the private sector, what is the solution?

I called them to give priority to the voice of reason and to sit at the negotiation table. Any such dialogue, however, must be serious, responsible and geared towards achieving serious goals, rather than wasting time.

We want a dialogue with the parties acting responsibly and seeking solutions to the outstanding problems between us and the UTICA. Let us build on the positive experiences instead of exchanging accusations. However, I still believe that if dialogue fails, the issue will be addressed differently. In any case, each party should first come along and explain the sustained damage and who is responsible for the tensions.

Should the UTICA fail to respond to your demands about pay increases, would you resort to a general strike and escalation?

We do not want to prejudge things. We need to give priority to dialogue and mutual deliberations to find a solution. The country does not need tension, and we should act responsibly and seriously. All negotiation session have witnessed tension but we do not seek escalation and we encourage dialogue. However, if dialogue does not work, each party has pressure mechanisms to achieve demands.

There is frequent talk about a social truce, what is your attitude?

The talk about a truce suggests a war, and our Union is not waging a war. We are speaking about social peace and stability and a sound political climate. As mentioned in the agreement with the government, there are certain conditions that must exist so that each party can act with a spirit of goodwill and ensure that its rights are upheld.

There is no talk about a “truce.” Even the President and the Prime Minister did not mention the word, because it is a military term. Our talk is focused on stability and prioritized issues.

Does UGTT fear that commitment to the truce may restrict its mobility in the days ahead, and is therefore speaking about stability?

This is not the case. UGTT has put aside social demands and will focus in the coming period on the national issues. For our part, we have committed to not making a pay increase claim in 2015- 2016.

The concentration on stability is dictated by the prevailing conditions on the one hand, to urge action, seriousness and perseverance, and at the same time to give priority to the major national issues —the role played by the National Union in the coming period and after 2016. By that time, I will not be at the head of the Union. There will be new unconstrained leadership, which will be free to choose the tone of its future work.

Have all parties respected the terms of social contract, and is there any progress achieved in respect of implementing these items?

The contract includes five themes to be addressed, and we have set up five committees to work on them. The committee concerned with the institutionalization of social dialogue has achieved remarkable headway through consensus of the social parties. It presented a draft law on institutionalized social dialogue to the presidency of council of ministers, which approved it. This draft law has been put up to People’s Representatives Assembly. We appeal to the Assembly to accelerate its ratification, given its importance for addressing the outstanding problems and identifying responsibilities.

We will match the developed countries in addressing the social problems. We have agreed not to demand an increase in wages during 2016, and to dedicate our time to addressing the significant issues included in the social contract (we marked the fifth anniversary of 14 January 2011 revolution, while the set themes remain unaddressed).

It is imperative to restore a work value, because a country that does not work will not have a progressing economy. We must be up to the challenge of achieving a 1.5 % growth rate by the end of 2016, which would represent a good indicator for the Tunisian investors, who remain restrained and wary of investment. Such is the national role we will undertake in the future.

If all sides reach a consensus about the existing problems, and commit themselves to what has been agreed upon, be it stability, truce, or whatever you want to name it, we will be able to address the security and social challenges. Achievement of economic and security essentially depend on social security.

Observers have predicted a political upheaval that could topple the government of Prime Minister Habib Essid. Some have even gambled on social tension and strikes as factors of such an upheaval. How do you view that?

We pray to God to protect our country tremors against such upheavals. A wise man is the one who anticipates and foresees tremors and risks and tries to address them before they happen, through consensus and social dialogue. The agreement reached on the social dialogues gives the worker a chance to go about his work and production without any restrains or fears. The government’s efforts must concentrate on the major issues, in cooperation with the stakeholders. This agreement contributes to achieving stability. It would be more appropriate if a consensus is reached about the private sector so that there will be stability in both sides.

In regard to the crisis between the education unions and the Minister of Education, the unions have escalated tension, by making inflammatory remarks, which many criticized and described as ‘ bone breaking’ struggle between the two sides. Did you intervene to tone down this conflict?

What is needed at this point is to find a solution to the existing problems so as the talked about ‘ bone breaking’ could be averted. There are a number of rights about which both the government and the unions have certain perspectives. We are in the process of searching for a solution and will soon end the arising dispute.

Besides, the Minister of Education himself has repeatedly said that status of educators needed to be reconsidered. He has reached a series of agreements with the Union, and is definitely looking forward to sorting out differences as soon as possible. As for the made statements, which are further exacerbated by the media, the minister releases statements and makes mistakes, and so do we, which ultimately leads to tensions.

Your duties as UGTT General Secretary will end by the 2016, how do you view the workers’ organization after its next congress?

UGTT’s by-law does not allow more than two terms. On this note, I believe there is no one who has assumed the Union’s leadership for two terms and is still able to make additions to the Union. I shall leave at the end of 2016, and I hope I have achieved part of the aspirations cherished by our workers. I think our Union is full of female and male competencies, and I hope a woman will lead UGTT in the next term. I also hope my successor will be as dedicated as our predecessors and us.