The 1955 constitution guaranteed the right to form workers' associations. However, it was not until 1962 that the Ethiopian government issued the Labor Relations Decree, which authorized trade unions. In April 1963, the imperial authorities recognized the Confederation of Ethiopian Labor Unions (CELU), which represented twenty-two industrial labor groups. By 1973 CELU had 167 affiliates with approximately 80,000 members, which represented only about 30 percent of all eligible workers.
CELU never evolved into a national federation of unions. Instead, it remained an association of labor groups organized at the local level. The absence of a national constituency, coupled with other problems such as corruption, embezzlement, election fraud, ethnic and regional discrimination, and inadequate finances, prevented CELU from challenging the status quo in the industrial sector. Nevertheless, CELU sponsored several labor protests and strikes during the first decade of its existence. After 1972 CELU became more militant as drought and famine caused the death of up to 200,000 people. The government responded by using force to crush labor protests, strikes, and demonstrations.
Although many of its members supported the overthrow of Haile Selassie, CELU was the first labor organization to reject the military junta and to demand the creation of a people's government. On May 19, 1975, the Derg temporarily closed CELU headquarters on the grounds that the union needed to be reorganized. Furthermore, the military authorities asserted that workers should elect their future leaders according to the aims and objectives of Ethiopian socialism. This order did not rescind traditional workers' rights, such as the right to organize freely, to strike, and to bargain collectively over wages and working conditions. Rather, it sought to control the political activities of the CELU leadership. As expected, CELU rejected these actions and continued to demand democratic changes and civilian rights. In January 1977, the Derg replaced CELU (abolished December 1975) with the All-Ethiopia Trade Union (AETU). The AETU had 1,341 local chapters, known as workers' associations, with a total membership of 287,000. The new union thus was twice as large as CELU had ever been. The government maintained that the AETU's purpose was to educate workers about the need to contribute their share to national development by increasing productivity and building socialism.
In l978 the government replaced the AETU executive committee after charging it with political sabotage, abuse of authority, and failure to abide by the rules of democratic centralism. In l982 a further restructuring of the AETU occurred when Addis Ababa issued the Trade Unions' Organization Proclamation. An uncompromising MarxistLeninist document, this proclamation emphasized the need "to enable workers to discharge their historical responsibility in building the national economy by handling with care the instruments of production as their produce, and by enhancing the production and proper distribution of goods and services." A series of meetings and elections culminated in a national congress in June l982, at which the government replaced the leadership of the AETU. In l986 the government relabeled the AETU the Ethiopia Trade Union (ETU).
In l983/84 the AETU claimed a membership of 3l3,434. The organization included nine industrial groups, the largest of which was manufacturing, which had accounted for 29.2 percent of the membership in l982/83, followed by agriculture, forestry, and fishing with 26.6 percent, services with l5.l percent, transportation with 8.l percent, construction with 8.0 percent, trade with 6.2 percent, utilities with 3.7 percent, finance with 2.4 percent, and mining with 0.7 percent. A total of 35.6 percent of the members lived in Addis Ababa and another l8.0 percent in Shewa. Eritrea and Tigray accounted for no more than 7.5 percent of the total membership. By the late 1980s, the AETU had failed to regain the activist reputation its predecessors had won in the 1970s. According to one observer, this political quiescence probably indicated that the government had successfully co-opted the trade unions.
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