Moroccans general strike for higher wages, 1990

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Timing
Time Period:  
November 27,
1990
to
December 17,
1990
Location and Goals
Country: 
Morocco
Location City/State/Province: 
Concentrated mainly in Fez and Tangier
Goals: 
To increase the minimum wage from $130 to $260 per month, improve benefits, and assert the workers’ right to strike. (The unions issued a list of thirteen specific demands, but I could not find the list in my research.)
 

The Moroccan economy plummeted sharply in the mid-1980s, leading to a program of austerity measures recommended and enforced by the International Monetary Fund. Although these reforms enhanced the prosperity of the country’s elite, most laborers only noticed decreases in food subsidies, rising prices, and an increase in unemployment. People under 21 suffered most—their unemployment rate was above 30%. Most people continued to support the ruler, King Hassan, to project a unified front in the ongoing war against guerilla forces in Western Sahara. As the government made progress in the war, though, guerillas became less of a threat and space opened up for political dissent on economic issues.

Spurred by increasing inequality in Morocco, two of the country’s main labor unions, the General Workers’ Trade Union (UTGM) and the Democratic Confederation of Labor (CDT), issued a statement on November 27, 1990. It called on all workers in the public and private sectors to wage a one-day general strike on December 14 to pressure the government to raise the minimum wage from $130 to $260 per month and expand benefits. The unions also wanted to reaffirm their constitutionally protected right to strike, which the government had eroded by passing exceptions for the public sector and stressing a complementary “right to work.”

In response to the unions’ call to action, the government agreed to hold meetings with union representatives. The government’s statement both denied that the suggestion of a strike had prompted the meeting, and took a hard line toward the possibility of a strike. The government said that the general strike was undemocratic and illegal and stated that it would use any legitimate means to prevent a disturbance of work. The government’s claims to the illegality of the strike may have been based on a section of Morocco’s penal code prohibiting “any individual using force, threat, or fraudulent activities to cause a coordinated stoppage of work in order to force a change in wages or that jeopardizes the free exercise of work” (U.S. Dep’t of Labor).

Following a set of meetings between December 8 and 13, Prime Minister Azzedine Laraki announced unspecified wage increases and extensions of benefits, but once again emphasized that, while workers had a right to strike, a general strike would impede others’ right to work. Unions decried Laraki’s remarks as the “traditional promises” and continued with strike preparations.

On the day of the strike, December 14, 20,000 workers filled the streets of Fez and smaller crowds demonstrated in Tangier and elsewhere across the country. Between 40% and 80% of workers did not show up for work (the numbers were disputed by the unions and government). Government forces entered the city to oversee the protest. After the fact, the government and unions would dispute who precipitated the use of violence but it is clear that the younger, more radical elements of the crowd soon turned towards property destruction. In an expression of resentment against societal inequality, they targeted upper-crust hotels, cars, shops and banks in widespread arson attacks. Union organizers distanced themselves from the actions of arsonists and looters. Youth set up barricades to impede the armed forces, who responded with tear gas, batons and, in some cases, live ammunition. Even though the strike officially ended after twenty-four hours, many protesters chose not to leave the streets. Troops eventually managed to disperse many of the protesters, but angry workers, students, and other youth continued to demonstrate in Fez through the next day, before ceasing on December 16. Soldiers patrolled the streets in the weeks afterwards. Total damage from the arson and fighting exceeded $15 million.

In the aftermath of the widespread violence, the government claimed that only two people had been killed, one police officer and one protester trampled by a surging crowd. International human rights organizations and unions countered that approximately 33 protestors were killed and over 200 injured, numbers confirmed by hospital officials. Upwards of 300 people were arrested, and possibly as many as 1000.

On December 17, the UGTM and CDT declared the strike to be a complete success, while deploring the violent repression. They threatened to call another strike if their demands for higher wages were not met. The government of France, the former colonial ruler of Morocco, also expressed disgust with Morocco’s violent response to the strike. Opposition political parties in Morocco demanded an independent inquiry into the causes of the violence. In response, Prime Minister Laraki agreed to convene a commission to investigate the riots and reiterated his promises to raise wages. Within weeks, the government announced a 15% raise in wages for all workers, as well as a hike in the minimum wage and new benefits. It also organized a body to investigate solutions to the problem of juvenile unemployment. Although these reforms fell short of the unions’ demands, the unions decided not to call another strike.

Quibbling over the causes of the violence on December 14-15 continued for months. While the unions maintained that the government had been overzealous, King Hassan stated that the government’s mistake was that it did not employ enough force to maintain order from the beginning. The government tried over 400 protesters for unlawful assembly, destruction of property, and other charges. Several hundred were eventually sentenced, some for up to ten years.

Research Notes
Influences: 

Possibly 1979 and 1981 general strikes in Morocco, but a direct influence is not clear (1).

Sources: 
“General strike turns ugly in Morocco, more than 100 hurt.” (1990, December 14). Associated Press.

“Government pledges to raise salaries and investigate riots.” (17, December 1990). Associated Press.

“King Hassan addresses Morocco.” (21, January 1991). MidEast Markets.

“Moroccan government: no general strike.” (1990, December 6). Xinhua General News Service.

“Moroccan Prime Minister addresses deputies; comments on strike; events in Fez.” (19, December 1990). BBC Summary of World Broadcasts.

“Morocco ‘calm’ returning to Fez; unions comment on strike.” (18, December 1990). BBC Summary of World Broadcasts.

“Morocco general strike ends in violence; 33 reportedly dead in Fez.” (17, December 1990). BBC Summary of World Broadcasts.

“Morocco government bans general strike action.” (1990, December 10). BBC Summary of World Broadcasts.

“Morocco Prime Minister addresses parliament on trade union demands.” (14, December 1990). BBC Summary of World Broadcasts.

“Morocco; the fury in Fez.” (22, December 1990). The Economist, 49.

“Riots erupt after general strike call.” (14, December 1990). United Press International.

U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of International Labor Affairs. (2004). Morocco labor rights report. < http://www.dol.gov/ilab/media/reports/usfta/mlrr.pdf>.

“Unrest continues in Morocco with arson attacks.” (15, December 1990). Associated Press.

“Wage rise pledge in Morocco after riots.” (17, December 1990). Xinhua General News Service.

Additional Notes: 
This case is not well documented. My only sources were newspaper articles written in December 1990 and January 1991, after which all mention of the strike dies out. I could not find any secondary works of scholarship on the strike- Researcher's note

Statement from the government before the strike:

"The government…is eager to recall on this occasion that resorting to a general strike does not conform and is not in line with the customs and traditions upheld in democratic countries… The public service law and the requirements of normal and continuous progress of vital public concerns do not allow that [the holding of a general strike] in effect and by law…

"The Moroccan government, confident of the spirit of dialogue which it is pursuing, reaffirms its determination to employ every legitimate means available to it to protect the freedom of work and public order from any harm or disturbance. To this end the government brings to the notice of all citizens that any action or attempt that aims at undermining public order or harming the citizens' peace of mind, will expose the perpetrator or perpetrators to the punishments stipulated by law." (BBC, “Morocco government bans…”)

Edited by M.R. (24/05/2011)

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
William Lawrence 03/11/2010