A Tribute to ETA’s 60-year Struggle for Freedom of Association

August 12, 2008

Thought for the Day: July 13, 2008

A Tribute to ETA’s 60-year Struggle for Freedom of Association

By Addisu T

It is with great empathy, not sadness, that I read the closure of Ethiopian Teachers Association HQ. Of course, you may say, we all know that the writing was on the wall and it wasn’t a surprise. Yes, but, I felt sorry because the 60 years struggle for the rights of teachers against the last three governments had to come to an end in this way.

First, this shows how bad we are in institution building. Every time we get a chance to have power over something, we get itchy fingers to tamper or demolish it to start again from a scratch.

Second, we still remain prisoners of Stalinist ideology. ETA, for example, wasn’t an enemy to the government. However, for the students of leftist ideology, particularly the disciples of Joseph Stalin, anything that appears independent and out of control of the party machinery is a threat; hence, has to be crushed.

ETA has been dealt with the Stalinist mindset and it may be history. Nevertheless, I am hopeful it can make a good case for history students. In any case, I leave the history for future historians, but, just for the sake of argument, I would like to ask whether the end of independent trade union is good thing for the government. Will it make the regime stronger or weaker? Will it give peace of mind and security or lead it into complacency and vegetation? History is full of evidence which testifies that no growth and progress can be achieved by avoiding challenges.

Here is the case. A control of unions by the communist parties in the Eastern block didn’t save the communist governments from becoming history themselves. On the contrary, recognizing the rights of workers to organise, negotiate, strike and protest in the capitalist system didn’t destroy capitalism as the left envisaged it. In fact, it made capitalism a very competitive and creative system that strives to be less dependent on human labour, while fully negotiating and satisfying the unions’ demands. That in return accelerated technological advancement in the West, while the dissatisfied and party controlled labour forces in the Eastern block fell behind in creativity and productivity. It is this gap in technological advancement that eventually broke the backbone of the Soviet Union and Eastern block.

The irony is that, socialism got the test of its own prescribed medicine in “Social Darwinism and natural selection”. While the weaker party, socialism, has died its eventual death, the fittest party, capitalism, goes on to survive to pass its genes. So this mindset, where control is always good and freedom is bad is a false economy. If the government thinks that the end of ETA is a victory, I would say they are very naïve to say the least.

Isn’t it an old story repeating itself in new forms? Even in the time of slavery, Adam Smith (1723-1790), argued for abolishment of slavery because he wrote “free labor is always in the end cheaper than slave labor”. In the absence of freewill, he wrote “whatever work he [a slave] does beyond what is sufficient to purchase his own maintenance can be squeezed out of him by violence only, and not by any interest of his own,”

At the time, it was not accepted because the then normative mindset was into hunting of another human beings; shackle them with iron chains to force them work.

Long after slavery was abolished, the communist system brought back a new form of slavery under the party chains. It was believed that unquestioning, fearful, obedient, organized, and controlled work force is the way to bring about accelerated social and economic changes. Interestingly, accelerated economic development didn’t come through controlled and managed labour force. Despite some good virtues in Marxism, socialism and communism faced a humiliating defeat at the hands of capitalism because of the same principle that Adam Smith Advocated two century ago (free labour is always in the end cheaper). As a result, these days all the students of Marxism have to shave their beards off to pledge allegiance to Imperialism.

It is for this reason that having obedient, loyal, and unquestioning trade union is more dangerous to its master than to the teachers. Employer, in our case, the Ethiopian government, would have got a better deal for its money if it shows some respect to the teachers to negotiate with its association rather than denying them the right to organise and negotiate with the government.

Here is the hidden cost of dissatisfied employees. In the finial analysis, teachers are out there to shape the future. If teachers themselves cannot have an independent union and feel treated as slaves to the regime, then how can the government expect them to create an independent generation which is free from prejudice and bias towards its rulers? I was educated in the time of Mengistu and I do not remember most of my English lessons, but I do remember the date my English teacher told us the story of the animals, which later I learnt to be a story from George Orwell’s book of “The Animal Farm”. Even more, teachers are also voters, and loss of ETA as an independent union is more of a loss to the government than to the ETA.



3 comments on “A Tribute to ETA’s 60-year Struggle for Freedom of Association

  1. It would be a mistake to say that Ethiopians are not good at
    institution building.

    The institutions built served well and have been taken apart by someone with an agenda that is not part of building institutions, pan-Ethiopian feelings and community. The person is one Meles Zenawi whose agenda is the demise of Ethiopia.

    His efforts are to destroy institutions or replace them with his own form of subservient organizations – be it Education, Social groupings, political parties, economic structures, etc.

    As with all things, his end will come too.

  2. JMC, thank you for thought provoking reply. You may be right but the point I want to argue was, even that non “pan-Ethiopian” objective cannot be achieved through ineffective institutions or by recruiting unthinking, unquestioning yes men. It may appear academical but breaking up as well as building need competent institutions (business schools Organisation vs. behaviour arguments).

    The aim of War for example is destruction of existing order or breaking-up, while progress and prosperity is about building. In both cases you need effective institutions, such as competent army to destroy or civil institutions to build a nation or a company. An army led by unquestioning, unthinking personnel cannot achieve even the destructive policy one set to achieve. So that is what I called a false economy.

    But for sake of argument, we should not forget that this destruction of institution problem is not limited to this government. Mensgistu too has dismantled ETA to create revolutionary ETA in its own image, but the question is: did Mengistu manage to mobilise and rally the teachers through his ETA to defend himself? No.

    We all know time and resources was spent in creating huge revolutionary and unquestioning institutions like teachers, women, youth, farmers, workers and urban dwellers. A lot of money and national resource was invested in brainwashing them, promoting hand picking leaders and controlling them. The question I want to raise is: did all these investment pay dividend? Did these institutions help to mobiles their members to save the workers party of Ethiopia, WPE? No. So when are we going to learn from others mistakes?

    That is exactly the question I want to put forward to those who make decision to dissolve challenging, thinking and questioning institutions. That is where Adam Smiths argument make sense; “free labor is always in the end cheaper than slave labor”.

    From the hindsight even Mengistu would agree that the money and time he spent in building unquestioning revolutionary institution was a waste of money and time. The money and recourse he spent in creating a false sense of security could have been used to answer the real question.

    The relationship between teachers, employees, and government, employer, is a pure contractual business transaction. That has to be regulated through free will and bargaining power of both sides.

  3. I found the article original and lateral. The writer approached the issue form a totally unorthodox angle. I think, that is what they call thinking out of the box. I take my hat off to the writer.

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