1974: Ethiopian General Strike

1974: Ethiopian General Strike

In 1974 the regime of Emperor Selassie was badly shaken, the student protests shut down the education system and there were mutinies in the army. In addition the Main Trade Union Confederation kicked off a general strike. Most of the protests where about wages and benefits, which were largely won, but the events would also mark the beginning of the Emperor's downfall.

Confederation of Ethiopian Labour Union (CELU) general strikes for wages and union rights, 1974

For seven years prior to 1974 university students initiated protests against specific policies of the government of Emperor Haile Selaisse, protests which grew into a campaign for democracy. (See in this database "Ethiopian students protest against Emperor Selaisse's regime, 1967-1974.") The government responded with violent repression and opposition grew to the point that the student movement more or less merged with a broader campaign against dictatorship led by the workers.

Starting in mid-January 1974, Ethiopian soldiers in several bases mutinied. They called for an increase in pay and better living conditions. On February 18, the capital’s taxi drivers, university teachers, and students went on strike and crowded the streets of Addis Ababa with demonstrations. Due to a recent rise in gas prices caused by the OPEC increases, the taxi drivers wanted a decrease in gas prices. Meanwhile, the teachers and students had a variety of demands. In a petition that the Teacher Association submitted before the strike, they demanded the suspension of a recent reform called the Education Sector Review, increases in pay, and a range of demands from revision of demonstration laws to the addition of pensions for industrial workers.

In the following weeks, the demonstrations turned riotous and resulted in the deaths of three people and the injury of twenty-two. In addition, many cars, buses, trains, and houses were damaged and over 500 individuals were arrested. Yet, by mid-March the soldiers and taxi drivers had ended their protests, because the government met their demands. In addition, the teachers also ended their strike and resumed teaching after March 20, though many students still refused to return.

Throughout the February uprising, the Confederation of Ethiopian Labour Union (CELU) remained indifferent. Yet in March, CELU petitioned the government with a list of demands and the warning that if their demands were not met, CELU would commence a general strike. Their demands included the introduction of pension coverage and insurance, the postponement of the Education Sector Review, and revision of labour laws. Still, their chief goals were to attain an increase in wages and the right for government employees to unionize.

The government ignored CELU’s demands and on March 8, 1974, the members of CELU went on strike. With 85,000 members, the CELU strike effectively immobilized the majority of Ethiopia. After four days, the government issued an official agreement with seventeen points in which it agreed to meet CELU’s demands within three months. Consequently, the strike ended. Yet, both CELU and the government came out victorious, CELU emerged with the government’s promise to meet their demands and the government was blessed with the end of a crippling strike. Thus, the CELU campaign concluded.

Unsurprisingly, the Employers’ Federation of Ethiopia was extremely opposed to both the strike and resulting agreement. The Federation created their own petition, which they gave to the Labour Relations Board. It demanded that the CELU strike be proclaimed illegal and the agreement invalid. The board did declare the strike illegal, but did not annul the agreement. Furthermore, they did not give the Federation members the power to take action against anyone who had participated in the strike.

Though CELU’s strike ended, other workers’ strikes began. The Civil Aviation Agency and the Ethiopian Tobacco Monopoly both submitted demands to the government and began their strikes once those demands were denied.

In the aftermath of the campaign, a recently formed committee in the army, known as the Derg, began to oppose the government. Eventually this led to a coup d’état, which removed the Emperor and ended the ancien régime.

Influences:

CELU’s success influenced two labour strikes: One by the Civil Aviation Agency and the other by the Ethiopian Tobacco Monopoly, both of which took place in March 1974 immediately following the end of CELU’s strike. They both followed CELU’s blueprint of submitting a petition threatening a strike, and beginning the strike once the demands were ignored. (2)


Sources:

Haile-Selassie, Teferra. The Ethiopian Revolution 1974-1991. New York: Kegan Paul International, 1997.
Halliday, Fred and Maxine Molyneux. The Ethiopian Revolution. Norfolk: The Thetford Press Ltd., 1981.

Tiruneh, Andargachew. The Ethiopian Revolution 1974-1987. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Additional Notes:

CELU’s campaign occurred just after a series of protests had subsided in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. Though CELU remained indifferent and uninvolved in those demonstrations, it seems likely that CELU’s strike took direct advantage of the government’s instability and the climate of political unrest.

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy:

Lindsay Carpenter 3/8/2011

Published on the Global Nonviolent Action Database

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