Trade unions have been at the centre of various events in the world. They emerged in Europe in the second half of the eighteenth century, and in Africa, at the end of World War II. In Europe, the majority of the unionized workers were in the industrial sector, on the factory floor and some of the growing sectors like the printing press, the mechanic and engineering sectors and to a lesser extent white collar jobs. In Africa, the first unionized workers included railway workers, post office employees, and so on. There was a very thin line between unions and politics in Africa and several opponents to the colonial authorities were trade union leaders like Guinea in French-speaking Africa and Tanzania in southern Africa. Unions have weathered the storms, earned the trust of some and made others hesitate about to their credibility. It is common to hear the expression “syndicats jaunes” in Francophone Africa, meaning “sell-out unions” that are allies to the government in power and betray the workers whose living and working conditions they pledged to defend. In certain parts of post-colonial Africa, unions have often taken steps that demonstrate a lack of firmness, and incongruity that one does to expect within such areas that play a crucial role in society.
Unions in Africa: differences and verisimilitudes
It is difficult to compare trade unions, since they all function in different environments, with different circumstances. A close look reveals some of the following remarks, which are certainly subjective. Unions like Cosatu (Confederation of South Africa Trade Unions) have a solid reputation. It is also one of those unions that has helped or fought to put in power a regime or political party, the ANC, but there is, currently, a slight distance between ANC and Cosatu because of opposing views and positions, the alliance between ANC and neo-liberalization, the low rate of unionization, and so on. Another manifestation of a strong trade union is the union-led manifestations in the Global South, where protests persisted resiliently, against the high cost of living caused by the food price crisis of 2007–2008. Indeed, global food prices, as measured by the food price index of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, increased by one and a half times from February 2007 to February 2008. In many developing countries, prices on the local markets rose rapidly in early 2008 and the causes are manifold: high oil prices, the expansion of biofuel production, poor harvests, decreasing stocks, changing demand patterns (in particular, rising meat consumption in the Global North and in the so-called emerging economies such as China).
The Burkina Faso Example
In the specific case of Burkina Faso, where particularly intense protests against high food prices have occurred since February 2008, this is exactly what happened. An alliance had been created between labor unions, student movements, human rights and other civil society organizations that all mobilized for general strikes and mass rallies. They succeeded in pressuring the government until it yielded to at least some of the protests’ central claims. The Coalition nationale de lutte Contre la Vie Chère, la corruption, la fraude, l’impunité et pour les libertés (National Coalition against High Cost of Living Corruption (CCVC), Impunity and for the Defense of Liberties) was founded and initiated a central demonstration in Ouagadougou on 15 March 2008 and a country-wide general strike on 8–9 April and 13–15 April 2008. Several further mass rallies in Ouagadougou were organized, for example on 15 May 2008, 8 April 2011 and 26 May 2012. They were led by the trade unions, namely the General Confederation of Burkina Workers (CGT-B). The CCVC is the main force in the current mobilization against the high cost of living in Burkina Faso. That strategy worked well and earned satisfaction for the average Burkinabè citizen. All developing countries are faced with that vertiginous increase in the cost of living, and each country handles it in its own way.
When one juxtaposes this scenario in Burkina with the social manifestation in Ghana, there is a striking chasm. One is tempted to ask, “How strong is the sense of civism and mobilization, patriotism and the urge to stand up and claim what belongs to you?” Several analysts link this enormous apathy and lethargy to certain efforts carried out by the two main political parties in the country, the NPP and the P/NDC to limit citizens’ aspirations and keep them in a state of fear of lack, fear of insecurity, solid attachment to the protection provided by the central government and being content with a monthly salary that remains guaranteed all the way to the younger generations. While “poverty reduction policies” proposed by the IMF and World Bank have been fought and ultimately rejected to some extent in Burkina Faso, in Ghana, political parties seem to have used those policies and measures to their own advantage. They then emerge as the “saviours” of the nation. It is common to come across critiques like, “The half-baked and reactionary measures of “poverty reduction strategies” adopted and implemented by the P/NDC and NPP administrations are nothing but dole outs to temporarily assuage the badly shattered self-image of the Ghanaian worker”. Others add, “The security of the worker is often erroneously equated with subsidies, unemployment and sick benefits and other “free” social services. The fact is that for the average worker the central element in his security is assured employment. It is more important that steady employment is assured to him from the time he comes of working age till the time he retires, and that in the meantime his sons and daughters are also educated and trained so that they are able to take regular and profitable employment and can look forward to a small pension”. I have witnessed numerous occasions when workers in Ghana showed discontent and embarked on strikes that did not go far, yielded no satisfaction and pointed out the weakness of trade unions. In 2021, the University Teachers of Ghana (UTAG) went on strike for almost a month and returned to work without “satisfaction”. This year 2022, UTAG is on a strike and asks for the bare minimum they need to live and work in decent conditions. The strike that lasted for about a month is about to experience the same fate as that of last year. Long suspension of work, numerous trips between home and campus by poor students and the following conclusion: concession has to be made because influential political, professional, civic and moral personalities of the country have advised against friction, discontent and confrontation, in the name of the rule and love of peace. Dissociation of things seems to be needed here, and following things through, to the end seems to be a habit needed in the land.
Moussa Traoré is a senior lecturer at the Department of English of the University of Cape Coast, Ghana.