Editorial: How Trade Unions Are Helping Democratize Africa

Editorial: How Trade Unions Are Helping Democratize Africa

There may be no greater way that a company can assist in democratization than by respecting and encouraging the voluntary freedom of association, including unionization, within its employee’s ranks.

While South Africa’s transition from apartheid shows the success of strong unions, even imperfect unions throughout Africa have consistently played significant roles in transition from authoritarianism to democracy.

Corporate assistance in fights for freedom can be a major international public relations victory for firms looking to boost their reputation, an ever increasing and already vital part of consumer decision making.

South Africa’s transition from apartheid is one telling example of the power that unions can have in giving democracy a soft landing. During the South African anti-apartheid movement, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) played a vital role in the state’s move away from minority rule.

COSATU helped this transition in a number of ways, including laying the foundations of democracy through internal democratic procedures, heightening political consciousness and pursuing a common agenda with other social justice and human rights organizations.

As South Africa’s largest trade union umbrella organization, currently representing at least two million people, COSATU is a strong and vital part of the country’s civil society. The organization is also deeply connected to the highest levels of political power within the country. While it provides an excellent functional example of the power that trade unions can exercise in democratization, additional examples from the continent show that even less powerful and flawed unions can have an excellent impact on democracy within the country. Indeed, such examples can be found in such disparate places as Ghana, Namibia, Niger, Senegal, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

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Among the many reasons that trade unions are so successful in easing democratic transition is that they are, first and foremost, organizations dedicated to the advancement of workers. In order to be effective at this goal, unions must be independent of government interests. This creates an area of participation that is not directly regulated by the state, a rare luxury in many autocratic states.

Trade unions also fulfill many of the areas where democracy scholar and Stanford Professor Larry Diamond states civil society is necessary in democratization and development. Diamond said civil society is responsible for limiting the total power of the state, exposing corruption, promoting popular political participation and ensuring positive engagement with the state structure, developing democratic values, ensuring positive civic education – both in schools and through mass media participation, – acting as interest groups for a diverse democratic society, promoting non-traditional connections and ties outside traditional groups such as those based around ethnicity, linguistics, tribes and other, acting as a training ground for future political leaders, mediating and resolving conflicts among members and election training and assistance. These have all historically been functions of unions.

Let us focus on a few and the potential effects to businesses that encourage unionization and democratization.

Initially it may seem counter intuitive for multinational corporations to work towards mass unionization. This view is unduly shortsighted and overlooks two important truths of unionization. Strong union culture has been found to facilitate democracy, which has historically been strongly correlated with economic growth. Additionally, in such a growing economy with an increased potential for consumption, there is no doubt that consumers will remember the firms that were on the side of the struggle for democracy and those that were not. This is a twofold advantage for firms with foresight.

Such activities create a lasting and overarching positive view of the firm in country. There is no way to overstate the potential advantage this gives firms for generations going forward. This is doubly important. First, the goodwill gives rise to the reputational advantages that are increasingly vital in a global marketplace. Second, in addition to the overarching corporate goodwill throughout all areas of society, the corporate benevolence will be felt in particular at the upper echelons of society and governance. As stated earlier, in both the COSATU example and Prof. Diamond’s framing, trade unions often form the training ground for future leaders of the country and remain deeply connected to the halls of power as democracy matures.

Supporting unionization can lead to an expanded market for companies. It is an often-quoted myth that Henry Ford paid his workers a premium that allowed them to purchase cars, thus expanding the market for his product. In today’s world, working with unions and union leaders to encourage the voluntary freedom of association in autocratic societies has the potential to do just what it has been so often claimed that Ford did. These potential customers either would not exist due to economic stagnancy associated with authoritarian rule or would not have such a positive view of the corporation if the firm ignores or discourages unionization.

One need only look to Libya, as the country reviews Gaddafi-era oil contracts, for evidence of the long memory of a recently liberated people. Any company hoping to have continued success in an ever-democratizing world must play a part in the advancement of democracy. It is not only the right thing to do, it also ensures continued viability.

Andrew Friedman is a human rights attorney and consultant who works and writes on legal reform and constitutional law with an emphasis on Africa. He can be reached via email at afriedm2@gmail.com or via twitter @AndrewBFriedman.