The contribution of the citizenry in contemporary Uganda in shaping government policy on matters of national development has been a subject of discussion in a number of spaces. And I have been thinking about how workers have or have not engaged in processes of policy formulation to transform society.
Are there still credible, independent and focused trade unions that negotiate for their members, and later on influence public policy? What has changed that has made these once-so-powerful entities seem almost irrelevant in the face of the greater working community, whose interests they are supposed to defend and work for?
To answer some of these questions, we need to look at how trade unions engage in politics either by being part of political parties, taking a lead in their formation, or by refusing to join party politics altogether, and how this has affected their work.
History reveals close workers’ unions-party relations globally. Take, for instance, the involvement of unions in the formation of social democratic or labour parties in Europe, including the Labour Party in UK and the Social Democratic Party of Germany. In these cases, unions have bulk voting rights in party congresses, and influence party policy on national development. And actually, most of these parties have dominated the political scene in their countries.
Unions, therefore, must influence politics for a number of reasons. First and foremost, workplace matters and the wider issues of national development cannot be separated. Therefore, workers should engage in politics to ensure labour-friendly outcomes.
The political engagement of unions is unavoidable as seen, for example, in the cooperation between the Congress of South African Trade Unions and the South African Communist Party over issues of succession and policy orientation in the African National Congress, and how the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions influenced the formation of the Movement for Democratic Change, the leading Opposition party in Zimbabwe.
Trade unionism and its role in public policy are facing a survival threat in Uganda. Their organisational capacity and influence on socioeconomic policy has been curtailed.
Trade union leaders have been taken up by the ruling NRM party at every level. Trade unions now vie for representation on the party’s National Executive Committee and on the Central Executive Committee, the party’s core decision-making bodies.
The NRM Workers League is dominated by trade union leaders from whom workers’ representatives are chosen, including parliamentary and district representatives. This clearly hampers the capacity of unions to negotiate independently on policy issues that greatly affect their members and the wider issues of national socioeconomic transformation.
One could argue that these unions influence policy within the NRM and, therefore, indirectly influence national policy. But I highly doubt that unions have a lot of influence on this process.
Trade unions, therefore, must fight hard to gain independence. They must recruit extensively and also form partnerships with other forces that fight for the interests of workers and the overall transformation of society. It is only then that workers will be regarded as equal stakeholders in policy formulation for a better Uganda.
Mr Barigye is labour rights advocate.