P067 – Trade Unions and Mobilizations in Africa
8 July, 17:30 – 19:00

Roy Alexis / IEDES/Université Paris 1
Rubbers Benjamin / Laboratoire d'Anthropologie Sociale et Culturelle, Université de Liège


This panel aims to question how trade unions have been affected by, or involved in, processes of economic and political liberalization that have touched most African countries since the 1990s. On the basis of case studies on francophone and anglophone African countries, the papers will analyze changes having occurred in trade unsons’ action repertoires and claims. Together, they will provide the opportunity to develop a reflection on the political ambivalence of trade unionism, between opposition and participation, and to compare the explanatory power of various approaches – according to the degree of emphasis which they put on union organisations’ history, on their strategy in various political arenas, or on trade unionists’ individual careers.

Organisations syndicales et mobilisations en Afrique
Ce panel vise à interroger la façon dont les syndicats ont été affectés, ou impliqués, dans les processus de libéralisation économique et politique qui ont marqué la majorité des pays africains depuis les années 1990. Sur la base d’études de cas en Afrique francophone et anglophone, les communications de cet atelier analyseront les transformations de leurs répertoires d’action et de leurs revendications. Ensemble, elles permettront de nourrir une réflexion sur la nature ambivalente du syndicalisme, entre contestation et collaboration, et de comparer la portée explicative de différentes approches selon que celles-ci portent leur attention de manière privilégiée sur la trajectoire historique de ces organisations, sur les arènes politiques desquelles elles participent, ou sur les carrières individuelles des syndicalistes.

Paper 1

Freund Bill / University of Kwa-Zulu/Natal, Durban, South Africa

Trade Unions: Context and Impact in Modern African History

This paper will consider three phases in the history of African trade unions. The first would be the organisational antecedents of trade unions. Second will be unions structured along the lines of the formations in industrial societies. In the conjuncture of the years just after World War II, big territory-wide union-led strikes exploded in many colonies (Nigeria, the Gold Coast, Tanganyika, the Rhodesias, French West Africa), not to speak of South Africa.
After independence, the militancy of unions worked against the ambitions of new governments which no longer favoured insurgency and were hostile to an autonomous modern civil society. Typically unions were reorganised as bureaucratic structures responsible to the state, leaders were bought off or persecuted and growing economic problems undermined initial attempts by the state to reward wage workers.
In fact, this relatively quiescent phase was succeeded by a third phase, linked to grassroots movements calling for political democracy and the end to dictatorships or one-party rule in many countries. Trade unionism was critical in bringing about the end of apartheid in South Africa. This new second phase has continued all the way to the Arab Spring in very recent years.

Paper 2

Engels Bettina / Freie Universität Berlin, Germany

Rise and decline of a semi-authoritarian state: Dynamic political structures and trade union activities during the “era Blaise Compaoré” in Burkina Faso

In this paper, I argue that trade union claims and actions on the one hand and political structures on the other, impact on one another. Political structures are the openness of political institutions, the existence of political allies, and the government’s repressive capacity, among others. Political structures are dynamic; they are created, contested, shifted, de- and reconstructed through the interaction of oppositional actors (such as trade unions) and authorities. The case of Burkina Faso’s trade unions is analysed, focusing on the period from the late 1980s until today. Four historical phases are identified. It is demonstrated that which claims the trade unions raised and how these claims were framed depends on the specific political structures, whereby alliances with other social movement organisations (notably the human rights movement and the student movement) play a decisive role. At the same time, the respective protests created new opportunities for contentious collective action, thus paving the way for the next phase.
Evidence for the case study derives from thirty-five semi-standardised interviews conducted in 2011-2012 with activists from trade unions and other organisations and representatives from government institutions. In addition, documents from international organisations and NGOs, leaflets and journals from trade unions, human rights groups, and student and youth organisations, and press reports from the period of 2008-2014 were analysed.

Paper 3

Houeland Camilla / Department of International Environment and Development Studies (Noragric) Norwegian University of Life Sciences

Popular protest against fuel subsidy removal Nigerian trade unions as (challenged) protector of a social contract

The January 2012 protests against the removal of the fuel subsidies was probably the largest mobilisation in Nigerian history. The trade unions again proved instrumental in resisting the state, through mobilisation, strike action and social dialogue. This article explores the Nigerian unions’ relationship to both the state and Nigerian citizens through their role as protectors of cheap fuel. First, the article challenges theories of African state-society relations claiming that that there are no social contract between state and citizens, and that concept of civil society is hardly relevant in a neo-patrimonial state, such as the Nigerian. I argue that the subsidy constitutes a form of social contract. Second, I argue that the trade unions have established themselves as protectors of cheap fuel, through successively and successfully leading popular mobilisation against the subsidy removal since 1988. Thus, unions have constituted themselves as the protectors of the social contract and as the mediator between state and citizens. However, during 2012 protests, both new social movements and revitalised political opposition challenged unions’ position as protector and mediator through questioning representation and participation: They tried to capture the unions’ position as protectors.

Paper 4

Roy Alexis / Institut d’Etude du Developpement Econmique et Social (IEDES), Université Paris 1

Peasants against Wage-earners ? Trade Unions responses to privatization of the cotton sector in Mali

En 2001, la Banque Mondiale impose au Mali la privatisation du fleuron de son économie, la Compagnie Malienne pour le Développement des Textiles (CMDT), qui encadre la culture du coton. A travers l’analyse de ce processus de privatisation, des tensions qu’il a générées et des décalages existant entre les responsables syndicaux et les attentes de ceux qu’ils représentent, nous examinerons les effets différenciés des libéralisations politique et économique sur les paysans et les salariés. Alors que cette privatisation suscitait une large opposition, tant chez les producteurs de coton que chez les salariés, leurs syndicats ont adopté des positions contrastées.
Les relations entre les paysans et l’encadrement de la CMDT sont marquées par un certain antagonisme, mais cela ne suffit pas à expliquer les divergences observées face à la privatisation de la filière. Bien qu’officiellement opposés à cette réforme, une partie des responsables syndicaux représentant les paysans ont adopté une posture qu’ils présentaient comme « pragmatique », cherchant à tirer le meilleur parti d’un processus qu’ils considéraient comme inéluctable. Le syndicat des salariés s’est quant à lui montré plus combatif, les salariés étant généralement les grands perdants des privatisations. Toutefois, si le clivage entre paysans et salariés, et entre leurs représentants syndicaux, est bien réel, on peut observer d’autres tensions en leur sein, permettant de nuancer cette opposition.

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