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Young women from a producers' cooperative weave baskets to
be sold as souvenirs.
Courtesy Food and Agriculture Organization of the United
Nations (F. Mattiol)
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
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
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.
Data as of 1991