/ 2 November 2023

Agoa and labour’s ‘nothing about us, without us’ moment

Striking Uaw Members Hold Rally At Chicago Union Hall
Power: Members of the US union United Auto Workers attend a rally in support of striking in Chicago last month. Photo: Jim Vondruska/Getty Images

For the first time since its inception, labour unions will have a seat at the discussions about the future of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa).

This week’s Agoa forum, held in Johannesburg and aimed at strengthening trade ties between sub-Saharan Africa and the US, falls at a particularly interesting moment in our shared history. 

Notwithstanding the geopolitical fractures, and their effect on trade, the global economy is also going through something of an identity crisis — which will either strongly affirm the neoliberal values that have precipitated our current predicament or accelerate our departure from them. 

The strength of a nation’s labour movement tends to be a good barometer of which way it will go.

Last week, United Auto Workers (UAW) announced it had reached a tentative agreement with Ford Motor Company after a marathon 41-day strike which spread to three of America’s largest automobile manufacturers.

You might recall that US President Joe Biden joined the UAW picket line a month ago, becoming the first sitting American president to do so. His visit came amid reports that presidential challenger Donald Trump was planning on doing the same — as next year’s elections look to be another battle for the nation’s heart, namely, its blue-collar workers.

In its statement announcing the Ford development, the UAW noted that the agreement would reinstate major benefits lost during the 2007‑09 Great Recession, including cost-of-living allowances and a three-year wage progression, while also killing divisive wage tiers in the union. It includes a historic right to strike over plant closures, a first for the union.

“We won things nobody thought possible … This agreement sets us on a new path to make things right at Ford, at the big three, and across the auto industry. Together, we are turning the tide for the working class in this country,” UAW president Shawn Fain said.

The victory by the workers — who have historically been on the front line of the fight for American workers’ rights — does appear to be part of a larger trend indicating that the US labour movement is gaining strength.

In August, Teamsters members ratified a five-year deal with American shipping company UPS, which will see workers receive total raises of at least $7.50 an hour, or more than $15 000 a year for full-time workers. 

In September, United Airlines pilots approved a deal that would see their pay rise 40% over four years. Delta and American Airlines also locked in pay rises earlier this year.

Commenting on this recent wave of trade union wins, American labour expert Thomas Kochan wrote that workers in the US “have mounted the greatest upsurge in union organising and militant collective bargaining seen since the 1970s”.

In a separate article, Kochan said historians are likely to label 2023 as the “year of labour’s discontent” in the US.

“There is a lot on the table in the year of labour’s discontent,” he added. 

“If this level and scope of activism continues and produces results that then get other workers, unions and employers to match them, future historians might indeed record this year as the dawn of a new social contract fitted to today’s workforce, technologies and economy.”

Crucially, this realignment comes in the wake of a crisis which — as was the case in previous crises — might have moved the dial in the opposite direction. 

As the UAW statement alludes, in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis, Ford cut hourly wages from $70 to $55.

Recounting this period in a union’s bulletin, UAW noted that right-wing politicians sensed an opportunity to wring unprecedented concessions from its members, as anti-union rhetoric swept the country.

The 2008 crisis also rippled through South Africa’s labour movement, then regarded with a sense of reverence by trade unions abroad. 

By early 2009, the country had fallen into a recession for the first time since the late 1980s. The economic slowdown gnawed at the country’s industrial sector, inflicting large job losses. As a result, membership in South Africa’s trade unions became skewed towards the public sector, which grew amid the government’s efforts to bolster its civil service during the period.

But as trade union federation Cosatu became more aligned to the public sector — and thus an ANC-led government increasingly tarnished by corruption — its unpopularity grew and anti-union commentators began associating the strength of the country’s labour movement with its economic malaise. 

Ructions in Cosatu culminated in the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa splitting from the federation and forming the South African Federation of Trade Unions, alongside Zwelinzima Vavi.

Public service workers would soon be on the receiving end of the government’s anti-economic policies, enduring efforts to cut the sector down to size.

According to a recent Sunday Times report, South African trade unions have lost 600 000 members in just over a year and half of the country’s registered unions have shut down in the past two decades. This is as economic stagnation has set in and as work has become more precarious.

That said, South Africa’s labour movement still has life in it and is continuing to assert itself in the wake of politically and economically tough conditions.

There is a lot separating the US and South Africa, particularly in the different ways each country’s government has managed to respond to the various crises hitting the global economy and the workers at its coalface. 

This week’s Agoa forum will give labour in sub-Saharan Africa and the US a chance to compare notes on how to grow its influence amid ever-shifting times. 

According to Cosatu, trade unions will be placing the cause of decent work firmly on the agenda, calling for provisions that will penalise employers who flout labour laws.  

Agoa, forged under Bill Clinton’s administration, is supposed to be more than a trade pact and those in the Biden administration have consistently underlined its developmental aspects. 

The inclusion of labour unions at this year’s Agoa forum signals an understanding that policymakers are not the only stewards of said development — and that workers should no longer have to make themselves small in the name of economic growth.