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Biting the Bulletins: How Unions Transform Counter-Terrorism

April 02, 2016
This proposal discusses a new method for counter-terror. By unionizing workers and artisans and tradesmen in nations like the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), humanitarian aid organizations can facilitate the transition to democracy. The proposal examines case studies in Tunisia and Egypt, and concludes with a three-step model which can be applied to the coltan miners of the DRC.

Unions in the West

If a man hasn’t discovered something that he would die for, he isn’t fit to live. – Martin Luther King, Jr.

Classical economics and historical intuition have conjointly cast unions as playwrights of misfortune. The economic health of the United States has historically been directly correlated with union membership therein, as in times of bad economies, labor unions are the first emblems of cost inefficiency to be removed. [1] The current median wage stagnation in the US has been strongly associated with an erosion in union strength, with membership falling by half (26.7% to 13.1%) in the past 30 years. [2] The fear of unions in the United States, however, is not indicative whatsoever of the remainder of the world. In fact, in our analysis of OECD countries (given the UN data in [3]), only four actually grew in unionization in the past 25 years. This is visualized in figure 1:

 Only 4 countries, shown in green, showed growth in their rate of unionization as projected over the next few years. Those in red have shrunk.Only 4 countries, shown in green, showed growth in their rate of unionization as projected over the next few years. Those in red have shrunk.

However, this depressive outlook on the future of unions becomes a liability when the lens is turned to international relations and trade. Most developed nations, the United States especially, have been shaped in history by unions and labor values. From the vitriol of Debs to the duplicity of Gompers, unions have been an integral part of developing a set of values around labor, but also around human dignity. It was a union–the Brotherhood of the Sleeping Car Porters–that championed involvement for black Americans in the main vein of American labor rather than on the sidelines. The sense of collective identity and security that a union provides gives unions a critical power to advocate for the “common man.” [4] Psychological research varying from management to positive psychology has acknowledged a sense of collective safety. [5],[6] This proposal therefore argues in the context of this rich history that unions are the key to developing a counterterrorist identity and uniquely democratic society in many developing nations mired in violence and corruption.

Success Stories: The Arab Spring

In 2011, the Arab Spring moved from the flying fantasies of writers on internet websites to a real, active fight for what once seemed like a fleeting ideal of freedom. A website called Takriz, launched in 1998, was the source of anti-government messages and posts that fueled a number of revolutionaries. [7]  It was started by a group of hackers to create a stage for free speech, later developing into an arena for revolution. Inarguably, the combination of Takriz with later promotional sites like SuXydelik provided the platform for revolution. [8] However, it was a union that would provide the impetus for action and be the strongest organization in both pre- and post-democratic Tunisia. How so? As democracies worsen, economies tend to grow more controlled and less labor-conscious. [9] State domination of the General Tunisian Workers’ Union (UGTT) resulted in a sense of docility that left the government blindsided when this very union’s 500,000 plus members staged strikes against government power and eventually became something of a Stilicho figure in the state, helping to choose new leaders in the democratic Tunisia. [10] Supporters of the Ben Ali regime were gradually turned or eventually replaced in the upper ranks of the UGTT due to the growing tide of malcontent. Spokespeople from another union in Tunisia commented on the fact that state Islam’s inherent assault on human rights in imposing a religion in a manner which does not reflect a body of people was the reason for their unrest (and was a key opponent to the unions’ newly brokered constitution). [11]

The flag of the UGTT. Image courtesy of tunisia-live.net.The flag of the UGTT. Image courtesy of tunisia-live.net. 

Before continuing this analysis, a moment should be taken to appreciate the complexity of this feat; a union representing the almost nonexistent middle class in an oppressive society was able to become the source of revolution, even going so far as to combat radical ideology. UGTT accomplished the creation of the committee which administered the nation in the transitional period of the nation, as well as the securing of over 350,000 paid contracts to its constituents; this organization was so powerful that for many onlookers it was deemed as a counterweight to the drug smugglers and jihadists for which Tunisia was unfortunately known. [12] They would later be awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts.

This phenomenon is not limited to revolutionary Tunisia. Egypt, another nation to dismantle the yoke of unjust rule around the same time, rising exploitative practices caused a string of violent strikes that still continued through the revolution, notably reaching a zenith at the Misr Spinning and Weaving Company strike involving 25,000 people total. [13] These repeated acts of labor protest forced the government to allow the creation of an independent trade union, relinquishing its policy of attacking pro-labor Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) through its puppeted, state-owed unions altogether. [14]

With such an overwhelmingly powerful case for the power of unions to form a collective that explicitly counteracts the fear and oppression of regimes built around exploitation or even warfare, one wonders why it has not already become a staple of foreign policy. To some extent, existing NGOs have been encouraging the formation of unions. Dan La Botz, author of a book on the Indonesian fight for freedom, notes that in his case study as well as elsewhere NGOs provide critical guidance on legal issues and economic issues while also adding legitimacy to the organizations. [15] This model of NGO is one which is “safe” in that it seems to be a ground-test for what pro-labor intervention from the West can truly accomplish. Having passed this litmus test, the West should now understand that unions really propose a viable supplement or perhaps even alternative to existing mechanisms of counter-terrorism and regime change. Even now in Tunisia, student unions such as the General Union of Tunisian Students (UGET) are fighting against the Islamist Ennahda regime. [16] Studying how these unions form and how they are structured can give insights into how to build strong interventions in regions desperate for need of unions to counteract dominating forces.

Defining a Litmus Test

Before delivering the model itself, the first issue should be defining some areas where the model might be used. The first, and most critical, envisioned locus of activation for this strategy is the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Overrun by over 20 distinct terrorist militias, the DRC is the most critical example of exploitation in the history of Western economics. All vie for control of coltan mines (coltan is a critical ore for the creation of cellphones) that the West created, creating a near-anarchy which a few years ago culminated in the capture of the capital city of Goma. [17], [18] Forced labor and extortion have taken hold in many mining regions and nearby villages, creating a cycle of exploitation even more severe than those in Tunisia and Egypt. [19] The DRC has been resilient to UN military and humanitarian intervention alike. However, the strong sense of economic downtroddenness and the external sources of many terrorist and oppressor resources (such as guns and adherents) creates a context in which proud citizens may be able to come together much like Tunisia and Egypt. The only reason this has yet to occur lays in the fact that significant resources and/or training would be required for this organization. Unfortunately, Western efforts thus far have been preoccupied with military and food aid as immediate concerns outweighed sustainability in terms of solutions. Mining unions focused on creating “artisan minerals” has worked in the past for diamond sellers trying to eliminate the trade of blood diamonds. [20] Thus, the DRC will serve as a mental example in which the following proposal can be tested.

Proposing a Framework for Western Intervention

With insight about a possible site of application and where the union model has worked in the past, a framework can be developed for how to apply unionization to a new schema:

  1. Build → If no unions exist, bring together artisan workers and members of industry who have reason to believe conditions can be bettered.

  2. Network → Once unions exist, create opportunities to network between unions and create ties. Furthermore, within unions, create reporting mechanisms for incidents of labor violence as well as means by which the union can disseminate its cause.

  3. Envision → Create a union-wide drive for democratic change. Provide materials such that unions can export their goods and retain economic solvency in such a way that they are more independent than before, then legitimize them with protests in regions less plagued by violent combatants. Spread this cause.

This three-step model parallels a framework in managerial science quite strongly, that of John Kotter. [21] This is no accident; in essence economic unions are a change coalition in new countries. By banding people together with common interests, much more can be done actively to promote anti-violent measures and buttress good institutions. At the same time, creating a collective identity against an Islamic organization when backed by a strong force (like peacekeepers) can siphon power from the same terror groups. Foreign Affairs once described terrorists as game theorists [22]–by providing a new competitor in the game with more powerful means (economic liberation) and more tolerant ideology, a wider range of constituents can and will arrive. Measures within unionization must be taken to break the view that there is a zero-sum game between poverty, slavery, and jihad in nations like the Congo. Unionizing channels these same violent energies into a productive and structured system founded on values of community. [23] By not only building union infrastructure, but also creating strong networks between individuals, a viable alternative materializes. This is what a pro-labor non-governmental organization or a government focused on empowering citizens in counter-terror efforts should focus on. All the UGTT did was build a network between 3 existing unions and bring them together on issues of democratic governance. Similarly, the Egyptian protests were a grand orchestration led by the creation of a small sub-union of the prevailing state-run union. This network was able to entirely re-envision their democracy. The reason the UGTT succeeded can likely be attributed to great resource access than the Egyptian unions, hence the petition in this proposal for the backing of Western organizations. Despite the stigma against unions, and the arguable declining need for them, in Western societies, unions have indelibly developed democracy by empowering the least empowered in societies. Learning from this past, and understanding how to build a nation from the ground up is the strongest weapon one has against tribalism and nationlessness. This proposal thus affirms the potency of a union’s bulletin in preventing the destructive spread of bullets across the globe. 


  [1] Hirsch, Barry T. Unionization and economic performance: Evidence on productivity, profits, investment, and growth. Fraser Institute, 1997. http://www2.gsu.edu/~ecobth/Fraser_Union_Performance.pdf

  [2] Mishel, Lawrence. “Unions, inequality, and faltering middle-class wages.” Economic Policy Institute, 29 Aug. 2012, http://www.epi.org/publication/ib342-unions-inequality-faltering-middle-class/

  [3] J. Visser. “Trade Union Density.” OECD, 29 Mar. 2016,


  [4] Robison-Petrowsky, Sara. “Reaching union families: collective identity, union advantages and the American ethos.” PhD diss., University of Missouri–Columbia, 2007.


  [5] Opp, Karl-Dieter. “Collective identity, rationality and collective political action.” Rationality and society 24, no. 1 (2012): 73-105. http://rss.sagepub.com/content/24/1/73.refs

  [6] Reshef, Yonatan. “A theory of union collective action.” Journal of Labor Research 25, no. 4 (2004): 623-644. http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs12122-004-1014-9

  [7] Weinberger, David. “The Machine That Would Predict the Future.” Scientific American Dec. 2011: 52-57. Web. 1 Jan. 2012.

  [8] Pollock, John. “Streetbook - Technology Review.” Technology Review: The Authority on the Future of Technology. Web. 09 Oct. 2011. <http://www.technologyreview.com/web/38379/>

  [9] Mosley, Layna, and Saika Uno. “Racing to the bottom or climbing to the top? Economic globalization and collective labor rights.” Comparative Political Studies 40, no. 8 (2007): 923-948.

  [10] “Tunisia leaders resign from party.” Al-Jazeera, 18 Jan. 2011.


  [11] Boukhars, Anouar. “The Reckoning: Tunisia’s Perilous Path to Democratic Stability.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2 Apr. 2015.


  [12] Omri, Mohamed-Salah. “Trade Unions and the Construction of a Specifically Tunisian Protest Configuration.” OpenDemocracy, 24 Sept. 2013.


  [13] “Egypt.” Labour Start. http://www.labourstart.org/egypt/ Writer’s Note: This website documents a history of labor-related incidents from various news sources for many years since Egypt.

  [14] Lee, Eric and Benjamin Weinthal. “Trade unions: the revolutionary social network at play in  Egypt and Tunisia.” The Guardian, 10 Feb. 2011.


  [15] La Botz, Dan. Made in Indonesia: Indonesian Workers Since Suharto. South End Press, 2001.

  [16] Salam, Mohamed Abdel. “Student Unions and Politics in Post-Revolution Tunisia.” Atlantic Council, 20 Jan. 2015.


  [17] Nest, Michael Wallace. Coltan. Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2011.

  [18] Sutherland, Ewan. “Coltan, the Congo and Your Cell Phone.” SSRN Electronic Journal SSRN Journal (2011): 9. Social Science Research Network.

  [19] Zarembka, David. “The M23 Surrenders: A Pyrrhic Victory in Eastern Congo.” Foreign Policy In Focus. Institute for Policy Studies, 14 Nov. 2013.


  [20] Rhode, David. “The Kimberley Process is a ‘Perfect Cover Story’ for Blood Diamonds.” The Guardian, 24 Mar. 2014.


  [21] Kotter, John P. “Why Transformation Efforts Fail.” The Harvard Business Review, Jan. 2007. https://hbr.org/2007/01/leading-change-why-transformation-efforts-fail

  [22] Olidort, Jacob. “The Game Theory of Terrorism.” Foreign Affairs. 10 Dec. 2015. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/2015-12-10/game-theory-terrorism

  [23] Catano, Vic. “Sense of community and union participation.” Psychological Reports 72, no. 1 (1993): 333-334.

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