4. The contribution of the Syndicate of Free Eritrean Workers on the 1958 General Strike.

Often described the 1958 General strike as the "first blood" of the Eritrean revolution.

Compiled and researched by Resoum Kidane 31.08.18

In 1958 the Workers' Syndicate organized demonstrations to challenge the Eritrea government over dismantling of Eritrean status. The General Strike held out for three days then it was crushed by the Ethiopian troops. This section looks briefly the onset of the 1958 General Strike and how it was brutally crushed by the army.

Background information  

After the Syndicate's office was closed by the Eritrea government, the Syndicate activists continued to lobby the Eritrean Assembly to promulgate a labour code. Throughout 1956, all the efforts of the Syndicate activists and their advisor, Ato Tewolde Tedla, were concentrated on drafting a labor code in collaboration with pro-independence members of the Eritrean Assembly.

 In 1956 member of the Workers Central Committee contacted a businessman, Cavaliere Mohamed Ahmed who was known to be a “government-brought person to be their leader. He was ostensibly elected as president together with another pro-Unionist Eritrean Blatta Isaac Teferi as a vice-president in summer 1956. [Killon, p25 cited by Gaim.]

Cavaliere Mohamed Ahmed President of the Trade Union in 1956

The effort of Syndicate activist to lobby the Eritrean Assembly to promulgate a labour code was successful. The first Eritrean Assembly passed the Labor Code. However  the Chief Executive Ato Asfha Woldemichael who replaced Ato Tedela Bairu in 1955 refused to promulgate it

According  Kinreab( 2008)  instead of promulgating the existing code, which the First National Assembly had ratified,  the Eritrean government formed a committee to draft another labor law without consultation with the representatives of the Syndicate. The whole purpose of the new Labor Code draft, then knew as the Eritrean Employment Act-including the infamous Article 84  was to destroy the autonomy of the labor movement. As a result of implementing the new Labor Code a tension mounted between the government and Syndicate which will be discussed briefly in this section.  

The tension between the government and Syndicate worsened when the Chief executive Ato Asfha Woldemichael wanted to increase voter turnout in the September 1957 elections for the new Ethiopian parliament.  The labor association used the occasion to organize a boycott of the election on the grounds that Eritrea was not part of Ethiopia and therefore had no role in the parliamentary process. The Chief executive was furious; he ordered the Syndicate office shut down

The syndicate demanded that their office be opened. Ato Asfaha turned the demands down and the young trade union activists reopened the office without permission. They informed the chief executive, The Eritrean Assembly and the Eritrean courts, arguing that Article 84 of the proposed Labor Law constituted a flagrant violation of Article 33 of the Eritrean Constitution which guaranteed the right of assembly, they threaded to call a general strike if the assembly pass article 84. Kibreab (2008)

The  new labour code, the banning of trade unions, the imposition of Amharic language in school etc  were became contributory factors to generate a powerful sense of patriotism in the late 1950s .Therefore, the General Strike which held in 1958  was the outcome of various protests carried out by students  and  works between 1954 and early 1958.. During those years major Eritrean urban areas were rocked with strikes and attempted strikes.  Regarding this Gaim states that in January 1958 when the emperor visited Massawa, he expected a heroic welcomes, but to the dismay of his lackeys in the Unionist government and his representative, Bitwooded Andergatchew Messai, he was met with large demonstrations protesting against the arrest of Sheikh Omar Gadi  (Killion cited by Kibreab, 2008)

The demonstrators were calling for his immediate release. According a US report, Sheikh Omar Gadi supporters included a substantial number of Christians [Killion quoted by Kibreab, 2008] This indicated that strategy of divide and rule by sowing seeds of discord along religious lines was no longer working.

The other minor incident which greatly contributed to the 1958 General Strike was the demonstration held on 3 March 1958 in Keren, when several young men were arrested for demonstrating against Ethiopian authorities. Groups of boys began pelting the arresting officers with stones, and the protest quickly across the city, turning into a riot that triggered more arrests and more protests. Within days, protests broke out in Agordat, where more than 100 were arrested, and spread to Tessenei, Massawa, and Asmara, while continuing in Keren.  On February 3 police wounded 17 people in Keren who protested against the detention of a member of the Muslim Youth League the wounded were all civilian [Killion p28 cited by Kibreab, 2008)

Gradually the protest movements extend to Asmara on 10, when Ato Asfha submitted the Labour Code to the Assembly then was supported by the Eritrean Assembly on March 8, 1958. Killion  states that  the 1958 General Strike was intended to be nationwide, but the major organization drive was in Asmara, where the HZSKSE had its strongest ties[ HZSKSE=Hara Zekhone Semret Kefletat Serahtenyatat Eritrawiyan, officially translated into English as the "Syndicate of Free Eritrean Workers. 

The launch of the 1958 General Strike and its aftermath

As a consequence of the passed the Labor Code including the infamous Article 84- on March 8, 1958, the Workers' Syndicate formed a strike committee comprising the four young organizers of Syndicate these were Tseagai Kahsai, Tekie Ilefe, Zere-Michael Ogbankiel and Berhe Ander Mchael and 18 workers representing of the unions in Asmara.

The leadership of the Syndicate of the Free Eritrean Workers issued a 72 -hours strike notice to the police immediately, as was required during the British Administration and set March 10 as a day when the general strike would begin

The strike committee planned a massive public demonstration at the Monophysite (Tewahdo) Cathdral of Kidist Mariam (St. Mary’s church). The plan called for a march the Cathedral plaza, Piazza Selama, where the workers would pray for their demands to be recognized. ([Gaim p145)

According Gaim (135) there were a number of reasons for holding the demonstration at the compound of the Orthodox Church: one of the reason was  that by holding the demonstration in the compound of St. Mary’s church, the organizers and supporters of the general strike hoped to constrain police brutality. In Eritrea, the premises of church or mosques were regarded as sacred sites. Other reasons was within the Eritrean society both Muslims and Christians were profoundly religious. They believed in the power and ability of God to make wrongs right. Therefore, holding the demonstration in the church premises was an occasion of praying for life, bread, justice, fairness, democracy and peace.

Workers strike at St Mary's Orthodox Church in Asmara On Monday March 10

The General Strike which held out for three days was started on Monday morning March 10, according Killion. On its first day no shops or business opened in Asmara, and an Italian journalist reported that the city was “paralyzed" including essential service. During the morning a "disciplined" crowd estimated at 80, 000 gathered in the Piazza Selama to hear speeches from labor leaders describing the purpose of the strike and the promised appearance of the Eritrean Chief Executive to explain the government position. After a long delay, at about 11 am Ato Asafha arrived with the national police commander[General] Tedla Ogbit, Keshi Dimetros and a large contingent of police which the government had brought in from every part of the country[Killion 1997:31]


Tedla Ogbit & Goitom Gebrezgh

Killion adds that through the HZSKSE's network of local trade unions, the strike committed mobilized 700 bicycle-mounted workers wearing white armbands to act as its peace guards"(selam zabenyatat) and assure public order and reduce the possibility of violent confrontations. As a word of strike spread through the city during the weekend, it was greeted with an outpouring of support...

On  Tuesday morning March 11 a second demonstration was held at the St Mary Church. Tedla Ogbit again ordered the workers and their supporters to disperse, but instead a group of women, symbolically blindfolded and carrying candles, surged up, the cathedral stairs loudly praying to Saint Mary for aid, and were roughly pushed back by the police.  The crowd angered by such behaviour, surged forward. The police commander of Asmara[Goitom Gebrezch ordered his force to fire teargas into the crowed and some members of the crowed responded by throwing stones.  The police fired live bullets wounding at least 30, several of whom later died[p31]

The presence of 80, 000 demonstrations in a small city such as Asmara  reflected of the extent to which the workers’ demands  lay very close to the hearts of the Eritrean public. The crowd shouted Asfaha down and his entourage retreated into the cathedral, while Tedla Ogbit and Cavaliere Mohammed unsuccessfully urged the crowed to disperse. The police then fired tear-gas and the crowd dispersed at the urging of Syndicate "peace guards" The HZSKSE[Syndicate] leadership to meet with the Asmara members of the Eritrean Assembly to discuss how to resolve the impasse over Article 84.

During mass demonstrations in Asmara and Massawa, shots were fired by Ethiopian troops, and more than 500 people were wounded, as many as a dozen fatally. Afterward, a group of militant nationalists, convinced the avenues for public protest had been closed, formed the underground ELM, also known as Mahber Shewate for its clandestine cell structure. [Conell p270]

Dr Bereket in his book the Crown and the Pen (2007, page 182) also mentioned that how the 1958 General strike started in Asmara as follow
"It was a bright morning in early March, Asmara was a stir with rumors of a popular uprising. Amid a general excitement among the city dwellers, police vehicle hurtled to and from .moving from one end of the city to the other. Curious onlookers seemed puzzled by the unusual movement; some of them whispered the word shobero. Soon the word was heard practically everywhere. Shobero is corruption of the Italian sciopero which means strike. It was a time of economic depression. On top of the political crisis caused by the interference of the Emperor’s Representative in Eritrean affairs, the poor harvest of that year and the diminishing purchasing power of the population led to hunger and distress. People did not have enough to eat and were angry but helpless. They would follow any protest movement at the slightest provocation The nationwide general strike paralyzed the city and all other major  cities, like the two ports of Massawa and Asab. The population came out in support of  the strikers by organization demonstrations. The demonstrators assembled at the main market place and began marching toward the government quarters. Their line of march was orderly and disciplined. They carried placards with slogans on freedom and the right of unions to organize. As they passed the main streets on their way to their intended destination, their ranks swelled.  They had just crossed what was popularly called the “38” parallel (The dividing line between the poorer and richer sections of the city) when shots were hears. The police had opened fire on the demonstrators on the order of the officer in command who later claimed that he was given the order by the Eritrean Chief Executive.” Several people lay dead and wounded in the street."

Dr Bereket add that, “my immediate boss at that time, Taddese Negash, who did not approve of the shooting , told me about a  conversation he overheard at the imperial palace, a few days after the shooting incident, the Eritrean Chief Executive, who had been summoned to Addis Ababa, had just come out of an audience with the Emperor. Interested people wanted to know, who authorized the shooting? Did the Eritrean Chief Executive verbatim, imitating his peculiarly slow manner of inflexion of his voice, and I can read it from his facial expression.

Kibreab (2008 :137) in his book mentioned that on March 12 the School Teachers Union and a Cultural Association held a solidarity strike action. However Killion states that by the third day, the strike became increasingly disorganized for a number of reasons. The leaders of the Syndicate and the Peace Guards were in jail, police brutality became increasingly gruesome and there was a potential threat on intervention by the Ethiopian military that most Eritreans, including the unionist government, dreaded.

On the evening of March 12 the remaining members of the Syndicates's Central Committee met and decided to call off the strike, but most workers stayed at home throughout the week. According to data elicited by Killion from Syndicate leaders “the human cost of the strike was 534 wounded and nine killed, all of whom were Eritrean civilian [Killion page 33  cited by Kibreab, 2008)

Raid (2011, 156)  adds that workers' protest culminated in the general strike of 1958 which was violently crushed by the Ethiopia security force, and although ostensibly the strike was concerned with workers' rights in reality it represented the crystallization of political protest against the undermining of Eritrean autonomy and civil rights more broadly.

In protesting against this in  March and April 1958, eighteen prominent citizens including Omar Kadi (note) were arrested for sending  a telegram to the UN Secretary-General protesting against Ethiopian violations of UN Resolution 390A(V).  As a result, coercion   of the Eritrean people by the Ethiopian government and the four days’ general strike   which greatly contributed in raising political awareness that led to the rebirth of Eritrean nationalism

The brutal suppression of the general strike culminated in the "destruction of the Eritrean labor movement and the suppression of all public anti-Unionist organization. Well over 200 people, and perhaps many more, were arrested in Asmara and provincial towns during the course of the strike [p33]

On May 13, 1958 Ato Asfaha promulgated the Eritrean Employment Act and the SFEW and its member unions were all deregistered" and according to Article 84 all forms of labor unions were banned.

The Ethiopian state then broadened its attack upon the Eritrean working class. It adopted the strategy of "drying the pond to catch the fish" Factories were dismantled and transferred to Addis Ababa, weakening the Eritrean economy while at the same time undermining the trade unions. But nothing could weaken the intense nationalism which had been aroused in the late 1950s. Wilson25. As a result of this, in late 1950s there were high migration of Eritreans to Ethiopia ( see fig 2). The Ethiopian Emperor’s policy was to modernize Ethiopia by running down

Eritrea's economy. This was  exacerbated after the Ethiopian government’s suppression of the four days General Strike in 1958 which caused 88 deaths and 440 wounded, and closed of many industrial enterprises..
As a consequence of the brutal suppression of the general strike and banned of the Trade Union thousands of workers migrated to Sudan, Saudi Arabia and Ethiopia. According Mengisteab, 2005:305). 30, 000 workers migrated to Saudi Arabia, and 20,000 workers to Sudan.

As can be seen from the graph the number of Eritreans migrant started to increase from 1958 indicating Eritrean skilled workers  going to Ethiopia either for finding work or to establish their own businesses.

Source: Adopted from the statement by the delegation of the State of Eritrea to the UNHRC, 4th August 1998

Indeed most Eritrean skilled workers who arrived between 1957 and 1975 in Ethiopia succeeded in securing jobs in road construction, transportation service. In  late 1950s and 1960s those  migrated workers became the backbone of Haraket and  a significant  role in the peaceful underground movement from 1958 to 1965

Dr Bereket Habte Selassie who was member of the underground movement Hakaket in Addis Ababa in his book states that there was a connection between the strike of the Spring of 1958 and the creation of Haraka. Bereket adds that The Sudanese labour unions, which were dominated by the Sudanese Communist Party, encourage the establishment and growth of a strong labor movement in Eritrea. When Dr Bereket was in Accara in 1958 was approached by an aide to President Sekou Toure of Guinea , who asked him about the Eritrean Synicate of Workers: why didn't they send a delegate. Sekou Toure was curious to know more , Dr Bereket met Sekou Toure who revealed to Dr Bereket that Sekou Toure was aware of the developments in Eritrea through his contacts in the Sudanese labour unions. Indeed the Syndicate of Eritrean Workers was on the list of invited organization. Curiously enough, their Sudanese counterparts and sponsors were not in the list of invited organization (pp182-183)

The Eritrean labour movement was in the vanguard of protest in mid-late 1950s, and continued to organize clandestinely and engaged in local strike actions in the 1960 (Killion ). Although the SFEW and its member unions were all deregistered according to Article 84, the struggle of the Syndicate activists and worker for political and civil rights continued after the 1958 General strike.

The Eritrean workers played active role in protest   against the Ethiopia government violated the Federal Act in late 1950s and early 1960s.   According Gaim the end of the 1950s marketed the defeat of all forms of civil and political society associations.  All  such associations were prohibited by law and because there was now no outlet for peaceful resistance all efforts shifted from the realm of civil society to clandestine political and military activities. This culminated in the birth of the Eritrean Liberation Movement.

The ELM was an offshoot of the civil society association, particularly of the labour union movement, but the ELF was not a direct offshoot of the Eritrean labour movement or of the ELM. [Kibreab, 2008 :138]

To conclude the brutal suppression of the four days of the General strike has been described as the Sharpeville of Eritrea, as a consequence of civil and political rights violation   a peaceful underground organization known as MaBerShewAte (Cell of Seven) formed in the late 1950s which will be discussed in the next section.


                      ehrea.org © 2004-2017. Contact: rkidane@talk21.com