Tuesday, 29 April 2014

May Day: Remembering, Reviving the Zimbabwean Labour Movement

By Takura Zhangazha*

Commemorating Workers Day in Zimbabwe is no longer as ideological as it was in the past 20 or so odd years.  There will be no big catchy slogans nor radical programmes of action to be announced by labour leaders or even from what remains of the Zimbabwean left. There will also be limited grandstanding by politicians of the one time working peoples’ party, the MDC.

Some of its leaders will be invited to address whatever events will be called. Their messages will however  be more about themselves (and their factions) than about setting out an emancipatory agenda for Zimbabwe’s workers.

It is trite to remember that the second and decisive phase of Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle began with labour unions. The same is true for the further democratization struggles that took place in the 1990s.  Labour, to date, has always provided both the initial consciousness as well as the grassroots mobilization numbers in our historical struggles for social and economic justice.

Unfortunately, this role has however always been hijacked at one point or the other by elements more loyal to elitist politics and rather primitive accumulation in capitalist settings.  From the early 1980s where labour ministers of the majority government were quick to condemn workers strikes in defence of settler capitalism through to the late 2000s when previous labour leaders, then ensconced in an inclusive government  derided workers for querying government priorities in an age of austerity.

There has also been the further undermining of workers by the utilization of broad economic terminology to divide them. Terms such as ‘informal sector’ have essentially run rings around organized labour to the extent that the latter has never had any effective strategy of unionizing the former. 

So to state the obvious, the labour movement in Zimbabwe is at its lowest ebb. Both in relation to its ability to make effective demands on capital as well as its political influence on government and political parties aspiring for power.This however does not mean it has ceased to exist

Nor should it come to mean that labour is irrelevant in an age of high unemployment, privatization of the state and entrenched systematic corruption.  Instead, it remains relevant in both the national consciousness as well as the lived realities of a majority of Zimbabweans. It just has to reinvent itself.

Firstly by incorporating with greater seriousness the ‘informal worker’ into its very definition of who is a ‘worker’.  This would also include the labour movement deliberately seeking to unionize the civil service beyond the comfortable mechanics of getting government to agree to deduct union fees from the salaries of its employees.  It must set out a new agenda that reverts back to the old union adage, ‘an injury to one, is an injury to all’ by roping in all sectors that have labour as their backbone. From mining, to farming, education, health, civil service and domestic services, a revived labour movement must embrace both the formal and informal workers in all of the aforementioned.

Because memberships to unions are not token, a revived national labour union, in this case the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU),  would have to offer specific member-centered services.  These would include but are not limited to knowledge production and dissemination about government policy that affects workers. Such action would then be fortified by relevant training programmes that are both professional as well as grassroots based.

There must also be the proffering of policy alternatives that are based on firm social democratic ideological footing. This would mean that before these alternatives are anything else, they must be people centered. They therefore must  articulate socio-economic rights such as the right to free and affordable health, education, water, land, transport and energy as non negotiable. 

In order to avoid the mistakes of the past where labour was upended by the false sophistry of neo-liberalism, there is further need to base these alternative policy frameworks on wider consultative grounds in a manner akin to that of the Zimbabwe Peoples Charter of 2008 to which the current Zimbabwe ZCTU  is a signatory.

Finally, the labour movement needs to revert back to its own values and principles with greater honesty. It must out of necessity articulate its own position without recourse to political formations that have since betrayed it. Where it fails to do so, a rampant state capitalism will invent a new Zimbabwean elite reality in which it will not have any meaningful role.

*Takura Zhangazha writes here in his personal capacity (takura-zhangazha.blgospot.com)