Middle East Studies

Keenan Wilder

Ph.D. student in sociology, Brown University


Historical Origins of Union Autonomy in Tunisia

The key role of the national labor union (UGTT) in Tunisia’s recent transition has produced a great deal of interest in the organization’s historical origins. For most of the literature, this is largely explained by the institutional legacies of the independence struggle, which it is argued endowed the UGTT with considerable political legitimacy and institutional autonomy. However, the UGTT experienced a dramatic loss of independence in the decades after independence which suggests limits to the legacies of this colonial inheritance. If the independence struggle is insufficient to explain the historical emergence of a vibrant labor movement in authoritarian Tunisia, what might do so instead? In this paper, Keenan Wilder offers results of a historical institutional analysis employing archival sources from the Tunisian and American National Archives. First, he argues for the importance of Cold War politics in limiting the possible coalitions during the independence struggle. While the impact of anticommunism was a common experience of the immediate post war years, its importance to Tunisian history has been largely neglected. Second, he shows that the early 1970s offer a far more plausible critical juncture for the emergence of the specific organizational features that have been key to more recent events. These findings suggest several ways this history might speak to the divergent experience of labor movements in other countries of the Maghreb. 


Keenan Wilder is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Sociology at Brown University. His research interests are in comparative historical and political sociology, labor markets, inequality and North Africa.