Unions and Trade Associations

Informal worker’s unions and trade associations first appeared in Africa during the 1890s. However, organized union activity did not get underway until after World War I in the British colonies and after World War II in French colonies. Few unions arose in Portuguese territories such as ANGOLA and MOZAMBIQUE. In SOUTH AFRICA, years of rule by racist white governments led to unions for each race.

Development of Unions

In English-speaking Africa, white-collar professionals organized separately from unskilled or semiskilled bluecollar workers. The issue of wages was important for both groups, but blue-collar workers had much greater need to protect their incomes and jobs. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, many people lost their jobs, producing a surplus of available workers. This drove down wages for those who did find jobs.

As the situation worsened in the late 1930s, colonial authorities worried that unhappy workers would blame their troubles on the government and give their support to nationalist politicians seeking to end colonial rule. To appeal to workers, Britain decided to allow unions in its African colonies to register with the government. This made the unions legally recognized organizations. However, ties between unions and INDEPENDENCE MOVEMENTS remained strong. Many early African political leaders emerged from the union movement.

In many North African nations, the union movement was linked to nationalist efforts as well. In the late 1940s in TUNISIA, the General Union of Tunisian Workers, led by Ferhat Hached, worked closely with nationalist politicians. Because of his association with the independence movement, Hached was later assassinated by the Red Hand, a French organization opposed to independence. In 1955 a nationalist party in MOROCCO helped form the Union Marocaine du Travail (UMT), which is now one of the nation’s largest unions. Today the UMT is no longer affiliated with any political party, although it works to maintain good relations with the government.

In most colonies unions were made up of people of different races and ethnic backgrounds. However, this was not the case in South Africa, where two separate union movements developed—one for whites and one for blacks. In 1919 an African named Clement KADALIE founded the most important black union in South Africa, the Industrial and Commercial Worker’s Union. Around the same time, South African socialists and communists organized white workers into unions. One such union had the slogan, “Workers of the World Unite for a White South Africa.” The division between white and black union movements became even wider in 1922, when several white unions violently forced the government to agree to protect their members from black competition. In the late 1900s black unions grew more powerful, ultimately playing a major role in ending South Africa’s apartheid regime.

Post-Independence Africa

Since gaining independence in the mid-1900s, only a few African nations have produced strong union movements. In Morocco and Tunisia union members have struggled for democracy and human rights as well as for better wages, occasionally suffering imprisonment and violence from government authorities. In South Africa unions which are allied with the African National Congress (ANC), have become more active since the ANC took power in 1994. In NIGERIA, oil workers struck in 1994 to protest election results. Some scholars suggest that countries such as these have strong and active unions because these nations are more involved in the world economy than many poorer African states. To help increase union activity and effectiveness throughout the continent, an association called the Organisation de L’Unité Africaine (OATUU) works to coordinate the action of African unions. Based in GHANA, its members include about 50 different national unions. (See also Colonialism in Africa, Economic History.)