Unions: The fading red giants


Stir The Pot

By Paidamoyo Muzulu

THE year 2000 marked the end of unionism in Zimbabwe. Labour leaders decided to engage in active politics, putting all their eggs in one basket and in the process letting the nation and the workers down.

Unionism in Zimbabwe started around the 1940s and marked its birth with the 1948 strikes. Benjamin Burombo was in the thick of things and so was Joshua Nkomo then a social worker at National Railways of Zimbabwe.

Unionism is a political movement. It looks after the interests of the working class. It speaks loudest about decent salaries, working conditions, job security, health of workers, housing, transport and pensions among other things.

It, once in a while chooses, which political horse to back at elections depending on its electoral manifesto aligning to the aforementioned interests. In other jurisdictions they have formed political parties and support them, but on the basis of their objectives as workers not simply the taking over of power for the sake of it.

Zimbabwe’s unions are a pale shadow of their glorious past. This has been a process and not an event. It began in the 1990s when the Zanu PF administration adopted the International Monetary Fund-sponsored Economic Structural Adjustment Programme (Esap).

Esap was a programme that sought to cut back on social spending. It sought to have governments run as lean, competitive corporates. It was about lean governments, economic liberalisation and forex deregulation.

A cutback on social spending meant Zimbabwe had to reduce the number of its teachers, nurses and doctors among other employees. In reality that was the beginning of privatisation of basic services such as transport, health and education. Zanu PF had changed colour, it had become neoliberal.

It is under the same Zanu PF administration that the country got the infamous 2015 Zuva judgment. This is a Supreme Court judgment that said companies or employers enjoyed the same common law right to fire permanent workers by three months’ notice just as employees can give a three months’ notice to leave employment.

The judgment created carnage in industry. Many companies fired employees on three months’ notice without any benefits. The late former President Robert Mugabe made some intervention by amending section 12 of the Labour Act, but the damage had been done. It is understandable, Mugabe had been a teacher in his early life which we cannot say about the present.

Today is May Day — a Workers Day — commemorated internationally. The fight has not changed. Workers are still fighting capital to lift its knee from their necks. Workers can’t breathe.

Workers are still fighting for better renumeration per hour of their labour in developed countries. Workers are still battling to unionise as noticed recently at Amazon the behemoth online business. Workers are still demanding job security, pensions and healthcare benefits. They still talk about housing and affordable energy.

This is a fight that has been lacking in Zimbabwe or it has been poorly communicated. Unions in Zimbabwe have gone to bed with capital. The fight about minimum wage has been muted.

The fight about public services such as health, education, housing and transport has become peripheral issues. The fight has been reduced to seeking to change government and the modern fad — human rights.

I am imagining what Zimbabwe’s union leaders would be saying today. I can hear them talking about the deteriorating human rights conditions, the arrests of opposition activists, the corruption in the public sector and the need for privatising State-owned enterprises. This sounds familiar because it has been sung ad infinitum since 2000.

Labour should be speaking to issues of minimum wages, preservation of value of pensions, health insurance and housing among other things. It should also be speaking to public transport, education and other social amenities.

Unions can speak about corruption, good governance and human rights. However, these cannot overshadow the real issues of labour — remuneration and workers rights. These are issues that would not divide unions, they are crosscutting. Unions rise or fall on the basis of their leadership.

This is not a lecture to unions of today, it is a reminder that they have to go back to their founding values. They have to speak to issues that immediately affect workers. They have to speak about job security, pensions, health insurance and education.

It is also a reminder that presently there is no political party that shares their aspirations. We have different shades of neoliberal political outfits. Listen not to what they say at political rallies, read their economic blueprints and you will find their true colours.

It may be time that unions in Zimbabwe look at other unions in the region and across the globe how they deal with their issues. Look at how they invest in teaching the shopfloor workers about unionism, how they engage governments and employers. They should look at how they frame and present their issues.

Unions should be building their capacities. They should be thinktanks of some sort, engaging and debating issues from an informed position. They should have principles and ideological clarity.

Unions have a duty to build alliances, amplify their issues and above all be a moral compass to the nation for they represent all the working class.

It is unfair to complete this piece without quoting Marx — Workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose except your chains. This is self-evident fact that should guide workers all the time.

There has been some temptation among others that by getting closer to the bosses they have crossed the line to be owners. History teaches otherwise. A worker will be fired one day or another.

Happy May Day to all workers in Zimbabwe.