Labour and government – competitors, allies or foes

After 31 years of independence and its promise, it would not be wrong to seriously reflect on the evolution of the relationship between State and organised labour actors.

At independence, organised labour was fragmented with as many as six trade union federations.

The colonial political economy benefited from the politically divided unions and inevitably the unions that represented the oppressed black majority legitimately expected independence to provide a new window for consolidation and enhanced power at workplaces.

It is easy to take for granted the power of organisation in bringing about the kind of change that we want to see.

Zimbabwe’s past is pregnant with rich experiences about the role of political institutions in driving the change agenda.

Political parties and unions have the same genesis in that they are member-based institutions whose survival is and ought to be premised on service delivery.

The role of the founding State actors in promoting and facilitating the reorganisation and consolidation of the 52 unions that existed then to a congress on February 28 1981, barely one year after independence, where the union umbrella body, the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), was formed cannot be underStated.

The struggle for independence was also a struggle of the working people to get recognition and be treated with respect.

So it was hoped ZCTU would acquire the same status as Zanu PF in the labour market underpinned by its own sovereignty and independence.

By institutionalising union rights through the creation of a consolidated voice, it was hoped that free collective bargaining as well as political participation would take root.

In fact, the founding fathers regarded the new labour voice as a friendly and complementary voice in the struggle to reduce the frontiers of poverty.

Recognising organised labour as an equal partner of business and the State in the governance of the post-colonial political economy was meant to create a new order of tolerance, recognition, institutionalised cooperation, regulated conflict, mutual respect and progress.

For the first five years of ZCTU’s existence, the relationship between State actors and the new federation of unions was close and cordial.

In fact, political actors saw in the federation a reliable and dependable ally in the mobilisation of support from the working people.

The origin and architecture of post-colonial social partnership was flawed in its design, construction and performance. It was premised on an equal relationship between State and non-State actors.

Political actors who after all played a significant role in bringing about independence appropriated to themselves a senior partnership role.

With respect to employers, they gradually faded into political oblivion leaving the two social partners, ie labour and State, as players.

In many countries that have advanced their cause, the tripartite social partnership is really a platform for negotiating what works for the good of the country.

Regrettably, in many developing States, a partnership framework has been elusive and difficult to institutionalise largely because of key foundational deficiencies that were not addressed at independence.

What should be the role and mandate of organised labour? What should be the role of political actors? What should be the role of the State?

Dominant political institutions tend to regard the State as their own instrument to achieve political ends rather than a platform for citizens to get what they are entitled to.

The transformation of political actors into State actors has its inherent challenges.

It is easy to transform a community organiser into a State actor without arming the individuals with the necessary values that are required to administer institutions that depend on the willingness of individual actors to be bound to a social contract that is mutually beneficial.

Political people like union actors have their own constituencies but in between elections, those who are elected to serve the interests of the country and working people, respectively, have a duty that extends beyond narrow partisan interests.

A political actor can be transformed into an employer through an electoral process.

The working people are the backbone of any nation State as it is their incomes that provide a reliable source of revenue for the State.

Notwithstanding, it is not unnatural that State actors do not respect their true employers because the connection between the State and income earners has never been clearly articulated and, in fact, was not the driving force behind the initiatives supported by State actors to create an omnibus centre of power for the unions ie ZCTU.

After 31 years independence, we see the centre of gravity in terms of political contestations being occupied by political and union actors.

Most of the political actors have come from the womb of unions and academia.

The culture of income production, which is what the country needs to increase the number of income earners, has regrettably not been institutionalised, in as much as it was during the colonial order.

During the colonial era, a real partnership existed between the social agents that have been difficult to achieve during the post-colonial experience.

Some see union activism as a stepping stone to State power and when they assume State power, they behave no differently from the despised employer that unions seek to dethrone.

Is or has the post-colonial State been a better employer because of its umbilical relationship with the working people?

It is important that we interrogate the relationship between State and non-State union actors in the post-colonial era to establish if the State has lived up to its promise in terms of better working conditions and expanded opportunities.

Are union and State actors better friends in 2011 than they were at independence? Has the post-colonial experience played a part in transforming union and State actors into competitors?

As observers of history, we all can analyse the objective conditions that have contributed to creating a nation without the kind of shared centre that ought to provide the necessary checks and balances required for progress.

A nation informed by shared values is better than a nation informed by a monolithic worldview.

A nation in which community and political activists monopolise the worldview can never hope to rise above the politics of yesterday.

Zimbabwe’s future is and ought to be the business of all its citizens who must be prepared to serve at any station without being afraid of victimisation.

Has consolidation of union and political power produced the kind of outcomes that independence promised? This question can only be answered by each and every one of us.

Mutumwa Mawere is a businessman based in South Africa. He writes in his personal capacity.

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