Rough Road for Unions in Cameroon

DSCN1852Douala   About 30 years ago in the 1990s there was a “liberalization” in Cameroon. Citizens were given freedom of expression, the total autocracy was diluted, and they gained freedom of association, including the ability to form unions. There is a labor code. The state does actively involve itself in labor-management disputes. In talking to workers who had the experience of organizing unions even in recent years, make no mistake though, this is not an easy road to travel.

We met at length with a leader of the teachers’ union branch that has been involved in trying to win recognition for a union of more than 740 parochial school teachers in the Archdiocese of Douala. Listening to the story of his own career as a teacher, it was no surprise that they had sought a union. He had been a teacher in the Catholic system for 42 years and his top pay was 38,000 francs per month or about $65 USD monthly, less than $1000 per year.

They began organizing in 2012. It took them two years to receive the necessary filings from the state for their organization. A first reaction to their unionization by the diocese was to fire all 65 of their leadership delegates. A strike then lasted six weeks before they were back to work without many concessions, and 14 of their leaders were still not reinstated and continued not to be paid.

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They had enrolled more than half of the teachers in their union and sought to win recognition, move pay to 50,000 francs per month, get some minimal benefits, win seniority pay and some pay recognition for additional degrees, an end to arbitrary transfers, and better conditions in the schools. Meetings with school management were fruitless even though the system reportedly produced more than a billion francs per year in surplus revenue. They struck again for two days on November 11th, 2015. 654 of the 750 odd teachers participated in the strike. They went back to work after two days waiting for a new governmental minister to be appointed and the Bishop to return from Europe. The government sided with their demands for an increase to 50000 francs monthly and more than a dozen of their other conditions. Management promised to comply, but did nothing other than raise pay to 50000 francs monthly. Seeing no action, they struck again in the middle of March. Of their eighteen demands, the Archbishop had claimed he had met them all in a letter to the state, but the union knew only two had been met.

They are now before the labor court trying to win compliance given the state’s support. Meanwhile nothing more has changed. More promises are not kept, and more than a dozen leaders are still off the job. No ending to this struggle is in sight, and no happy ending seems possible at this point.

We heard similar stories from a member of the shipyard workers union. We listened to three student union leaders tell of having been jailed for challenging the imposition of a new fee for a student ID after the costs for schooling had been set by the university. The president has to register with a human rights organization in France whenever he travels and avoids any nighttime travel feeling that they are still under threat from the government for their protests on fees and housing.

Unions do not even exist by and large among informal workers, and they constitute 80% or more of the employment.

No one was giving up, but there was also little optimism in the room.

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The Interesting Transition from Ideological Argument to Personal Contact

Bönen 21.11.2014 [© Dietrich Hackenberg - www.lichtbild.org, Nutzung nur gegen Honorar, Urhebervermerk und Belegexemplar]

Bönen 21.11.2014 [© Dietrich Hackenberg – www.lichtbild.org, Nutzung nur gegen Honorar, Urhebervermerk und Belegexemplar]

Berlin   Visiting with political and labor organizers and activists of all stripes in Germany was fascinating and for me, an education. It was impressive to see the deep, lifelong commitments that so many have made individually to progressive work that permeates down to their living conditions. Similar to France and the United Kingdom, people often worked at minimum wage for years in support of their political and community projects, and then went home to cooperative housing arrangements, often erasing any lines between the personal and the political, or so it seemed to an interested observer.

Unions are still strong. But, these are times of transition. Unions are not as strong as they were. I heard that the massively impressive building of Ver.di, the second largest union in Germany, where we met with a group of people one evening, was now seeking tenants for space they no longer occupy. At the same time there is new energy in some organizing projects. In our meeting at Ver.di were three or four organizers and activists preparing for a strike for a first contract at a huge hospital where they had won bargaining rights while still trying to organize a secondary unit of 2300 workers.

On the other hand, talking the next day to students from the Global Labor College, a small elite program to train future union staff and policy people, it was somewhat surprising to hear how little attention and training was focused on organizing, as if somehow everything would remain locked in place. Asking students about to graduate if they were being placed either in their countries or elsewhere, it seemed they were offered internships, but in many cases they laughed and told us that this was largely an exercise in them providing free labor in exchange for future contacts, and it was unclear if they would be able to find a place in the labor movement in the future at all.

Party life is carefully articulated and dissected into large slabs and small slivers. People often have more voice, than they have power. Meeting with top education, strategic planning, and campaign staff of Germany’s Die Linke, perhaps the largest left-progressive parliamentary party in Europe, was fascinating. A more talented and thoughtful team of people would be hard to find anywhere in the world. Yet, as the meeting went on, it became clear there was a transition at work here as well. Where once parties could communicate easily to a large base of ideologically compatible people, modern times and issues were intruding and confusing the base of working class voters everywhere. Participation in voting was falling election after election. Wedge issues like immigration were toxic, but there was also a sense from some sectors of the base that there was satisfaction in assuming a fixed level of support was possible without aggressively trying to adapt to modern political campaigning, communication, data, and field operations.

Just as I had found in the Netherlands, people are pushing forward and making plans, while listening and learning on the run. There is good cause for hope in the future, but like everywhere, we are running against the clock and change – and sometimes the calendar – are not always kind to us.

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Please enjoy Holy Communion by The Pretenders.  Thanks to KABF.

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