African Trade Union History Examined During Seminar
Emeritus Professor Bill Freund of the School of Social Sciences presented details of his research on African Trade Union History at a School of Built Environment and Development Studies seminar series.
Freund discussed the organisational antecedents of trade unions and the structure of unions along the lines of the formations in industrial societies.
His research will appear as a chapter in a volume on the history of African Labour commissioned by the International Labour Organisation.
Freund’s presentation at the seminar indicated that the union movement in Africa had undergone a revolution.
According to Freund, with organisational ideas brought in through settler communities in colonial times and encouragement from colonial reform regimes, trade unions emerged in Africa and acquired membership and leadership in the African population.
Freund believes that the late colonial context promoted a mix of ideas that married nationalism, the striving for independence and hostility with racial privilege and more traditional trade union demands.
‘While the picture is not uniform, independence then brought up a radically altered situation whereby the state, typically the biggest employer of labour, tried to create a different balance, reorganising federations, co-opting militant leaders and serving as patrons to a working class that could benefit from legislation stabilising jobs and conditions,’ he said.
The results were variable and depended increasingly on the economic situation. ‘Where economic decline was engaged by fierce structural adjustment imprecations, workers were alienated from the nationalist state. They turned against it and, where they could, worked towards making unions more independent. The call for political democracy played another siren song,’ said Freund.
He noted that workers who struggled to build up trade unions first bought into the dream of national independence under a party run by indigenous Africans at one time, and, at another, they bought into the dream of democracy. Freund says neither trajectory has been truly successful in creating a better life for members.
‘Today organised workers in Africa can look back on a rich history with many lessons. They take up the cudgels for their interests willingly and effectively very often but, lacking a more wide-reaching agenda, the arrival of a democratic dispensation has by no means necessarily brought material rewards. Whether they will search for a new answer remains to be seen,’ said Freund.