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Although unionized workers have rarely represented more than a small minority of the population anywhere in sub-Saharan Africa, trade unions have played, and continue to play, a significant political role. Trade unions still occupy strategic choke points in many African economies, particularly around transport infrastructure, and retain a spatially concentrated organizational base as well as a degree of symbolic power drawn from participation in struggles against colonialism, apartheid, and authoritarianism. Three persistent dilemmas have strongly shaped the role of African trade unions and driven much of the academic debate about them. First are debates about the relationships between trade unions and political parties. These date to the often-fraught relationships between unions and anti-colonial movements in the last years of colonial rule. Pitched struggles, both within trade unions and between unions and governing parties, were often fought in the decade after the end of formal colonization over the degree of autonomy that unions should have from governing parties. These were often resolved through the widespread repression of politically independent unionism in the 1970s. This relationship, however, became untenable under processes of structural adjustment, and unions have often played a significant role in protests against neoliberal reforms, which have spurred widespread political transformation. Second are debates about the relationships of trade unions to non-unionized workers, especially the unemployed or the “informal” sector. Critics on both left and right have long pointed to the relatively privileged position of trade unions. This has consistently been invoked by governments seeking to justify the limited political role of trade unions as well as policies for wage restraint, state retrenchment, or currency devaluation that have negatively affected organized labor. However, given the increasingly widespread nature of informality and unemployment in contemporary Africa, trade unions have begun to make tentative steps toward organizing informal and unemployed workers in some cases. Finally, the relationships of African unions to the international labor movement and to international organizations have often been important. African unions have frequently drawn on links to international trade unions, regional institutions, or the International Labour Organization (ILO) as a way of compensating for domestic weaknesses. These strategies, however, have often engendered significant conflicts around the differing objectives of African and metropolitan actors, between African unions over access to international resources, and concerning “imperialism” by American and European unions.

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Globalization, or increased interconnectedness between world regions, is a dialectical and recursive phenomenon that consequently tends to deepen through time as one set of flows sets off other related or counterflows. This is evident in the history of the phenomenon in Africa, where transcontinental trade, and later investment, were initially small but have grown through different rounds including slavery, colonialism, neocolonialism, and the early 21st-century era of globalization. However, globalization on the continent, as in other places, is not unilinear and has generated a variety of “regional responses” in terms of the construction of organizations such as the African Union and other more popularly based associations. The phenomenon of globalization on the continent is deepening through the information technology “revolution,” which also creates new possibilities for regional forms of association.