This dissertation examines the interplay between the orientation of the Ethiopian labour movement and the shifting position of wage labour within the Ethiopian political economy over the past six decades. Key factors that have contributed to the growth and the decline in assertiveness of the movement are identified and are brought into relation with the different outcomes. In this, two cycles of growth and decrease of assertiveness are identified and analysed within the shifting context of Ethiopia’s political economy. Levels of unrest and real wages are mapped at an aggregate national level and compared to real wage development. Sources drawn upon include the hitherto unused archives of the Confederation of Ethiopian Trade Unions, the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs, the Bahir Dar textile factory, and the Ethio-Djibouti railway; the archives of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions and the ILO; private archives; interviews; and local newspapers. The findings indicate the prevalence of a relationship between an assertive outlook and militant practices on the part of the labour movement, and improvements in the position of labour within the political economy in general and real wages in particular. In particular, the period 1963-1975 saw a pronounced mobilisation and a steadily increasing level of militancy and assertiveness that drove a sustained incline in real wages. The increasing assertiveness culminated in the years around the revolution, but the flare up of labour radicalism, unlike what has been posited in the literature, preceded both the outbreak of the revolution and the formation of political organisations. However, as state repression intensified and increasingly came to target the labour movement in 1975-76, the movement collapsed. In the aftermath, wages plummeted and the position of labour sharply eroded. Industrial tranquillity prevailed until a new cycle of mobilisation ensued beginning around the break between the 1980s and 1990s. This cycle neither had the same depth nor length as the first, but it nevertheless led to renewed industrial contestation and the emergence, briefly, of a relatively autonomous confederation. However, it failed to affect the continuing stagnation and decline of real wages and the position of labour. On the theoretical level the findings of the dissertation includes sharp movements in real wage levels which cannot be attributed to economistic factors such as productivity alone. Wages appears largely to have been determined by the outcome of contestation. When the labour movements have displayed sustained militancy and assertiveness, it has led to wage gains, and when it has been co-opted and docile, wages have tended to fall or stagnate. The assertiveness of the labour movement, moreover, does not appear to lend itself to explanation from any one of the factors proposed in the literature alone. Rather, a reciprocal relationship between an improvement in the position of labour and the assertiveness of the movement has been found to prevail. The term inspirational/demonstrative factor is suggested to bridge the divide between and unify the strands of literature that is concerned with causes and outcomes of industrial contestation. It is posited that the development of a virtuous cycle of assertiveness and militant practices; betterment of the position of labour; growing ranks of membership; and a renewed ratcheting up of demands can be generated, and that such cycle displays a degree of path dependence. It is moreover suggested that the opposite is equally true, and that a vicious cycle of defeat; worsening conditions; and demobilisation can prevail.
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