Organising Across Classes? Social Movements and Trade Unions in Burkina Faso
Trade unions, in the narrow sense, organise wage-dependent workers in order to improve working conditions, bargain wages, etc. In contexts characterized by industrialization, Fordism, and Post-Fordism, this is likely to result in systematic differences between social movements and their organisations on the one hand, and trade unions on the other, regarding their organizational structure, means of action, and the resources at their disposal. However, in states where the formal and industrial sectors employ only a relatively small minority of the working force, trade unions seem to be more likely to be entangled with other forms of social organisations, notably social movements, community based organisations, and the like. This tendency is even more pronounced where trade unions are organised along ideological or party political lines.
In this paper, I analyse relationships between trade unions and social movements in Burkina Faso. Ranking among the world’s poorest and ‘least developed’ countries, Burkina Faso’s industrial sector can be considered being more or less irrelevant. As in most other African states, civil servants form the largest group among trade union members in Burkina Faso; the trade unions in the fields of education and health are by far the largest and most influential. Due to the weak state of industrial development, large industrial trade unions are less common than in Europe. Since trade unions are embedded above all in the urban, well educated ‘middle classes’, alliances and joint protests among trade unions and students occur frequently. Gaps exist between the urban elite on the one hand, who form the basis of the trade unions, and the rural population on the other. Trade unions thus face the key challenge of organising the informal sectors on the one hand, and the rural population, the bulk of them being peasants and herders, on the other. Trade unions confront this problem by entering into alliances with social movement organisations, and thereby frequently succeed in mobilising informal sector workers for the strike movements.
I argue that collaboration between trade unions and social movements is not to be explained solely—as it is frequently done in the literature—by strategic needs of the trade unions, but rather by ideological linkages and personal overlaps. As a consequence of these, diffusion of organisational structures, knowledge and tactics happens reciprocally between trade unions and social movements. This becomes obvious in Burkina Faso where most recently, for instances, also small-scale farmers and the unemployed have started to organize in trade