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MG Africa

Unions have historically been important agents of socio-political change in Congo. But today, the rights of workers are increasingly violated in the context of the current economic crisis. Fearing repression, some union leaders submit to the political party in power in the hope of collecting short-term dividends.

Dealing with trade union mobilization in the Congo - without looking at the politics - is to refuse to understand the current apathy of social actors. Despite the widespread impoverishment and programmed precariousness of the living conditions of the workers - that contrast with an exponential enrichment of the ruling elite - the trade union movement is idle and does not contribute to the formation of the active mass. This form of trade union indolence prompts us to ask three questions at the centre of our thinking: how to explain the paradoxical spasms of unions? What is the current situation of the trade union movement in the country? Which path exists for the emergence of the workers’ movement in the Republic of the Congo?

The emergence of the workers’ movement in the Congolese political field

The history of trade unionism is inseparable from the advent of modern political life. The birth of the first unions in the Congo, and more generally in French-speaking black Africa, merges with that of the first political parties. The first unions appear between 1947 and 1949, and three federations affiliated to metropolitan trade unions, concentrated most of the mobilization of workers until 1963: The Confédération africaine des travailleurs croyants (CATC - African Confederation of Believing Workers), the Confédération générale africaine des travailleurs (CGAT - General African Confederation of Workers) and the Confédération africaine des syndicats libres (CASL- African Confederation of Free Trade Unions).

From the year 1961, trade union action was already beginning to blend in with the political opposition to the powers that be. Indeed, following the adoption in April 1963 by the National Assembly of the law on the creation of a single party, the unions eventually united and challenged the tendency to regimentation and deprivation of freedom. The arm-wrestling between the unionists and the power of Abbé Fulbert Youlou, the first President of Congo, began. The traditions of struggle of the Congolese working class and the fighting spirit of the labour movement mingled. It was the general strike initiated by the three unions, which changed the course of history of the Congo. Unions led the popular action that led ultimately to the overthrow of Youlou.

After their victory, the three unions could not agree on the terms of government that they just won. Although they were aiming for the same goal, namely, better working conditions, these three federations didn’t agree on the role they would play in the ongoing process.

After the overthrow of the Youlou government and the establishment of a single party - the National Movement of the Revolution (MNR), Congolese unionism headed into a new direction. The single Union was born in 1964 under the name of the Confédération Syndicale Congolaise (CSC - Congolese Trade Union Confederation).

The trade union movement in the era of the single-party system (1963-1991)

For nearly thirty years, the Union - being both an appendix of the revolutionary government and the defender of the interests of the proletariat - was not particularly decisive. Its role of change agent was blunt and was only shown sporadically. Union leaders abandoned the collective challenge, namely, the defence of the material and moral interests of workers, for other needs: accession to positions of power and the accumulation of economic and symbolic capital. The era of monolithic Union was both the gravedigger of democracy - as an appendage of the State party, the MNR, and later the Parti congolais du travail (PCT - Congolese Party of Labour) - and the promoter, the bearer of a new ideology. It remains the leader of socio-political changes.

In the preamble to the founding document of the CSC, it is written: “the Congolese working-class in connection with its party, the MNR, wanting to save the achievements acquired at the price of an uphill struggle, culminating in the revolution of 13,14 and 15 August 1963, engages firmly to maintain its unwavering organic unity and to achieve scientific socialism.

The struggles amongst the single trade union leadership would succeed. Idriss Diallo, first Secretary of the CSC is fired in 1966, compromised in a financial case. He is replaced by Paul Banthoud, who seems to be best placed to embody and strengthen unity within the working class. There is, within the trade union movement, latent rivalries between several trends that can be found in the political sphere.

Unity once more takes a hit after the movement to readjust the revolution in July 31, 1968, when Captain Marien Ngouabi ousts President Massamba-Debat. Some unionists coldly welcome this movement, which seems a sharp turn to the right. Marien Ngouabi, who chairs the Conseil national de la Révolution (CNR - National Council of the Revolution) undertakes to tyrannize mass organizations. He wants to have a truly revolutionary Union behind a vanguard party.

From 1973, the PCT, a party of the vanguard of the working class that has been created on January 1, 1970, and the CSC, a mass organization, opt for a decisive trilogy called collegial management mode, which translates into neo-patrimonial state management. It would take till 1976 before the Central Union keeps its distances from the single party. The general strike on March 24, 1976, is stifled by the Special Revolutionary Headquarters, set up by President Marien Ngouabi on 12 December 1975, to ensure the purge of the PCT, i.e. the exclusion of all the degenerate elements that hampered the good march of the revolution.

On March 18, 1977, Marien Ngouabi, president of the PCT and President of the Republic, was assassinated in his residence. In this difficult political situation, the Central Committee of the PCT entrusted power to an interim body, responsible for restoring calm in the country. It was named Comité Militaire du Parti (CMP – Military Committee of the Party) and headed by Joachim Yhombi Opango.  The new political leader found himself facing an even more acute financial crisis. The watchword was “live in harsh conditions today for better living tomorrow”. As a result, all sectors of national life came to a standstill. The working class became very nervous and the strikes were common, despite the official discourse concealing these work refusals and reassuring the population of the ability of the government to rectify the situation. The Union then found its back to the wall, stuck between its allegiance to the party and its duty as a defender of the interests of the working class. The Central Union, now led by Jean-Michel Bokamba Yangouma, who was elected as Secretary General at the end of the 5th Ordinary Congress held from August 31 to September 2, 1977, in Brazzaville, became more radical.

The trust which had always prevailed between the CSC and the PCT began to deteriorate when the economic crisis became more severe. State-owned enterprises, short of breath by the weight of their burdens, were unable to pay the salaries of their numerous and expensive staff. Workers from this important sector, who had never known such a situation, thus joined their public service counterparts whose monthly salaries were paid haphazardly according to the amount of tax revenues of the Treasury. These parastatal companies then became fertile breeding grounds on which any speech could elicit dreams of all kinds. This quite gloomy social climate doubled as a serious political crisis. The Union, which had been partly responsible for economic failings, was like the arsonist who shouts “fire” and accuses the first person who comes into sight.

The meeting of January 30, 1979, at Freedom Square, was a great opportunity to denounce mismanagement of the country and insecurity of employment. Trade unionists took a great risk to their own safety and had to find hiding places. The pressure of the Union, that could quickly win over youth, then led to the convening of a session of the PCT Central Committee that put an end to the existence of the CMP. A new political leadership placed Denis Sassou Nguesso at the head of the Party and the State. Jean Michel Bokamba Yangouma restored good relations between the union, the government and the party.

For ten years (1979-1989), the CSC acted as the sounding board of the government. The international context born of perestroika gave a fatal blow to the regime. The Central Union demanded autonomy from the single political party. The call for a general strike in 1989 was followed on the national territory. This would push President Denis Sassou Nguesso to take into account a number of trade unionists’ claims. It was the sovereign national conference held from February 25 to June 10, 1991, which put an end to the single union and allowed the plurality of trade unions.

The workers’ movement in “democratic regime”

The National Sovereign Conference of 1991 endorsed a multiparty system, and as a result multi-unionism. Since then there is a struggle between, on the one hand, trade unions seeking to assert and defend the interests of the workers, and on the other hand, the government coming up with indoctrination strategies. The euphoria of the early 1990s, when trade unions were a threatening force, was short-lived.

Under the transition plan led by the Prime Minister André Milongo (July 1991-August 1992), the Union is divided. There is on one side, the historical CSC hosted by Behnaz-Yangouma, leader of the UDPS, and the Confédération syndicale des travailleurs du Congo (CSTC - Trade Union Confederation of Workers of Congo) of Louis Gandou. These confederations would struggle to get the government to increase the index point of the salaries of civil servants from 110 to 160.

Under the mandate of Pascal Lissouba, elected in August 1992, the trade union mobilizations keep multiplying. When in March 1993, the CSC asked the government to pay wages of three months, it would seem that its leader, being close to the presidential milieu, had information on the talks of President Lissouba with the American company, Oxy.  This case would serve as a trigger of the armed crisis between the militiamen of the opposition (Ninjas and Cobras), led by Bernard Kolelas, and those of the presidential environment (Aubevillois and Cocoyes) between June 1993 and February 1994.

Social demands continue despite economic conditions caused by the devaluation of the CFA franc. In February 1995, the CSC called a general strike and claimed 13 months of back wages. The CSTC followed suit. Lissouba agreed to pay two months of wages and the CSC put an end to the strike, while the CSTC kept the movement in the public service.  It is in this context that the government ordered, in June 1995, the decrees to reduce indexed wages and to stop the financial effects of advancements, in line with the application of the Reinforced Adjustment Program (PARESO). This reduction amounted to 27.5% for administration officers and 15% for national education officers. The CSTC, which seemed to participate in the manoeuvres to destabilize the regime, weakened increasingly, and Lissouba eventually won the sympathy of its leader.

The regimentation of the labour movement

The civil war of 1997 and the dangerous climate that prevailed in the country until 2002 dealt a blow to union organizing. For security reasons, all confederations were put on hold. With Pascal Lissouba and Jean-Marie Michel Bokamba Yangouma having become exiled opposition, political and trade union activities were low.

Yet, the fundamental act adopted in October 1997 allowed unions to conduct their activities without interference. This text recognized the right to strike for workers, provided that they had exhausted beforehand the long and complex conciliation procedures and non-binding arbitration, and had filed a request within the legal time limits. As a result, when planned demonstrations were against the interests of the government, it persuaded union leaders to put an end to workers’ protest.

It was thanks to the strike movement of so-called temporary teachers, i.e. unemployed graduates assigned to schools in exchange for a scholarship (started in September 2000) that the authorities were pushed back. President Denis Sassou Nguesso agreed to their claims and promised to repeal the advancement-freeze measures. The government signed on 10 June 2001 an agreement with the CSC and the CSTC for a two-year social truce. Louis Gandou of the CSTC accused the government of wanting to create devoted trade unionists so as to avoid giving benefits to workers and to extend the social truce.

The dialogue between the unions and the government about work issues, such as basic salary scales and bonuses, continued. Wage increases, promised by government officials during the 2013 negotiations, have not yet materialized for certain categories of officials.

Strikes are often repressed and intimidation is used by the government. In addition to the arrest of some union leaders, threats of suspension of wages and stopping the negotiation process, there is the problem of professionalism of the trade unions. The overnment has generally not been able to effectively enforce laws. Resources, inspections and corrective actions are still inadequate. 

What future for the rights of workers?   

For many observers, the rights of workers are being increasingly violated in the Republic of the Congo in the context of the current economic situation. Fearing repression, several union leaders generally choose to whisper their suffering. They have no other remedies than to submit to the tentacles of the political party in power in the hope of collecting dividends.

The situation of public finances is becoming increasingly worrying. The tumble in the price of a barrel of oil reveals all the amateurism of the public authorities, unable to face the yet predictable recession for many years.  After being accustomed to a great lifestyle, thanks to oil wealth, the country should prepare for lean periods ahead with a barrel below $50, especially since the famous economic diversification has barely taken place, despite the insistence of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the African Development Bank (AfDB).

The social climate may deteriorate if drastic measures are not taken. Strikes are not to be excluded, despite the fact that most of the unions are weak and subjected to the influence of the government because of corruption. Since the beginning of 2016, disturbed by the contrast between governmental expenditures and requirements of austerity, trade unionists are not prone to give up on organizing. When workers can no longer trust the union leaders and poverty becomes unbearable, there is no barrier to corporate claims.

The fundamental problem concerns the change of the relationship between the regime and the forces of opposition. Yet, union activism appears more and more as a source of income, a business. The policy of repression and the corporatisation of the trade unions during the monolithic era seem to have traumatized the social actors.

Unions were often agents of socio-political change. In addition to the defence of the material and moral interests of workers, poverty and homelessness, they often demanded, and received, in a context of widespread dissatisfaction, some reform policies: the fall of Fulbert Youlou and the introduction of the socialist option in 1963; the fall of Yhombi Opango in 1979 and the end of the single-party system and the re-establishment of political pluralism.

[Translated into English by Jean Yves Dick of LALIT, Mauritius]

* Dr Etanislas Ngodi is a Research Teaching Fellow at Marien Ngouabi University, Republic of the Congo. Email : [email protected]

Notes and references

See on this subject: Wagret, J.M, Histoire et sociologie de la République du Congo, Paris, LGDJ, 1963

The fall of President Fulbert Youlou, on 15 August 1963, has been the subject of several works: Banzenguiissa-Ganga, R., Les voies du politique au Congo. Essai de sociologie historique, Paris, Karthala, 1997.

Kissita, A., Congo, Trois décennies pour une démocratie introuvable (Congo, Three decades for an untraceable democracy), Brazzaville, SED, 1993, page54

Confédération Syndicale Congolaise, Histoire du syndicalisme au Congo  (CSC, History of trade unionism in the Congo), SD, SL, Editions Voix de la classe ouvrière

Declaration of President Marien Ngouabi, at the 3rd Congress of the CNR, April 27, 1969.

See, Missie, J.P., “Union and Power in the Congo (1990-2005)” in Gamandzori, j., ' Congo Brazzaville: State and civil society in a situation of post-conflict.", Paris, L'Harmattan, 2009, p.61

Lissouba through this contract had obtained $150 million by selling 75 million barrels of oil on the Nkossa deposits. For more information on this case, see Charles, E., Oil and Geopolitics in Central Africa, Paris, L'Harmattan, 2008.

Native Menga, J.M., Congolese Political Chronicle. The Mani Kongo to the civil war, Paris, Harmattan 1997, pp.344 - 345

Missié, J.P., op.cit, p.63

Begun in 2001 and extended in 2003, this social truce seems to be at an end. The Trade Union base has stopped to ask its leaders to not give in to Government pressure.

The rating agency U.S. Moody's note a marked deterioration of public accounts that could, besides "deteriorate substantially in 2015-2016, in a context of declining oil prices and because of the limited capabilities”, wrote the Agency in its report published on April 29, 2016.