Why did trade unions vote democratically

Trade unions and democratization - central role in the struggle for democracy

Whether overcoming the apartheid system or fighting against military dictatorships: because they are democratically established and because they can mobilize people, trade unions are important actors in democratization processes.

In securing and fighting for democracy, trade unions played and still play a central role. This applies to the anti-colonial liberation struggles and the overcoming of the apartheid state in South Africa as well as to the liberation of military dictatorships in Latin America or the upheavals in real socialist Poland, which were initiated by the Solidarność union.

In South Korea, trade unions successfully fought against the military dictatorships in the 1970s and 1980s. Trade unions played a key role in organizing the massive protests in 2016 against the then South Korean President Park Geun-hye over allegations of corruption. The daughter of former military dictator Park Chung-hee was suspended from office and sentenced to long prison terms in multiple trials.

The “Arab Spring” in 2011 was also decisively supported by the trade unions. The mass protests in Tahrir Square in Cairo in 2011 were preceded by a long wave of strikes in textile factories in Egypt. Tunisia is considered to be the only country that has democratized itself as a result of this series of protests, uprisings and revolutions in the Arab world. The umbrella organization of the trade unions UGTT, with 600,000 members and around 4 million workers, the largest organized force, was part of the protests against the autocrat Ben Ali.

In sub-Saharan too, the trade unions played a key role in promoting democratic structures. "There, trade unions were and are the only organizations that can mobilize people en masse for democracy," says Bastian Schulz, head of the competence center for trade unions in sub-Saharan Africa of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Johannesburg, South Africa. Because there is one thing that distinguishes them from the churches: "Only if an organization is itself democratically set up can it win people over to the struggle for democratic influence."

In almost all African countries, trade unions have played a central role in the liberation from colonial rule - only to subsequently have to rebel against authoritarian systems, often headed by former comrades-in-arms. "Countries that have freed themselves from the colonial rulers have not automatically become democratic," says Schulz. The best example is Zimbabwe, "where trade unions to this day rebel against the authoritarian rule of their original liberation brothers and sisters." Again and again they put the authoritarian government under massive pressure.

In the inland in southern Africa, the former liberation fighter Robert Mugabe ruled until 2017, his successor Emmerson Mnangagwa is supported by the military. At the beginning of this year state employees and teachers went on strike, supported by the trade union umbrella organization Zimbabwe Council of Trade Unions (ZCU). Other social groups joined. “The government's response was violent, the military came, there were deaths and union leaders were arrested. Quite a few officials still have to endure legal proceedings, «reports Schulz.

In order to democratize a society and a country, trade unions have to form alliances with political and civil society partners. "In many countries trade unions manage to team up with other movements or social actors in order to fight for more democratic or more social politics," said Schulz. This has been achieved in Nigeria, for example, where the trade unions are actively supporting democracy. Shortly before the February elections, the election commission and the three transport workers' unions signed an agreement: the unions provided vehicles to transport materials and people for the election. With 84 million registered, the vote was the largest ever held in Africa, and it was a huge logistical challenge. Around 20 years after the end of the military dictatorship, the 2019 elections, in which President Muhammadu Buhari was re-elected with around 56 percent of the vote, are considered to be the poorest in incidents in Nigeria's history.

But the trade unions shouldn't let their political partners get too close, as the example of South Africa shows. The trade union umbrella organization COSATU, one of several umbrella organizations, made a significant contribution to the end of apartheid and was seen as an extended arm of the ANC, as a transmission belt between workers and the formation of political will. It is also thanks to the association that the regime change in South Africa at the beginning of the 1990s did not lead to civil war. "There was no alternative to the proximity of the unions to the ANC in the anti-apartheid struggle," explains Schulz. “But now it means that COSATU is much weaker than it used to be.” Because the trade union confederation is also blamed for the great poverty in the country. Many of its functionaries were or are members of the government. Corruption scandals keep moving the public, in which high-ranking trade unionists are also involved.

Today, as in Zimbabwe, trade unions are faced with the task of fighting for democracy or, as in South Africa, Nigeria or Namibia, of shaping it - and making it tangible for people, says Schulz: »Trade unions help workers in the first place enable them to participate in democracy. ”Often it is their miserable material situation that excludes employees from political life. Schulz believes: "Through democratic participation in the workplace, workers are enabled to get involved in politics outside of their workplace." Training and political education played a role in this. The unions are clearly filling gaps in the education system. "But the strongest thing is this experience of democratic co-determination." Those who get to know democracy at work also want it for society as a whole.

Anja Krüger lives as a journalist in Berlin and deals with trade union politics.