There are many who regard May Day as an anachronism. Something that is
era long ago and no longer relevant to our modern day. I could not
with them more. In my personal view, the trade union movement is just
relevant to our day as it ever was.
In a world where more than a billion people live in absolute poverty,
employment at any wage is preferable to being trapped in a subsistence
from which there is no escape. But switching absolute poverty in one
economic trap with another in a different guise is no real solution.
Trade Unions are one of the great transforming elements in our society
fighting as they do for the rights of the lowest paid in our society
protecting their interests against powerful interests that otherwise
hold absolute sway over their lives.
But there are other reasons for working towards a society where the
unions are well financed and professionally managed under
elected leadership. In Zimbabwe I think we have witnessed the
power of the Union movement in a remarkable way.
After 84 years of rule by the small white community, the trade union
movement in Zimbabwe was a tiny fledgling. Some 30 000 workers
a total workforce of over 1,4 million and only in three industries. The
reasons were quite plain - a consistently hostile legal framework,
government and the powerful interests of the white controlled private
sector. The main reasons for this attitude by the rulers of the day
both a justifiable fear of power centers developing in the union
and the desire to keep the workforce operating at wages and under
conditions that would make labour intensive practices viable and
With independence in 1980, little changed. Although the new regime
to have Marxist credentials and Zanu PF has always claimed to be a
Marxist/Leninist movement, they did not share the historical respect
those western creations held for the labor movement.
The reasons for this antipathy to the unions was simply that the new
feared that well organised unions would become alternative power
would undermine their desire to create an almost feudal society here
few 'chefs' would be able to lord it over the great majority who would
impoverished feudal vassals completely dependent on the State for their
survival and therefore submissive to the directions and will of the
That was the primary motivation of the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia and
rise to their justification of a complete purge of society of all
independent and educated thinkers and actors who were (rightly) seen as
impediment to their schemes. Two million Cambodians died in the
The Zimbabwean solution was a hybrid - the 'Workers Committee'. This
was given significant new powers and employers were obliged to consult
widely on matters affecting employment conditions. They were not
and were often dominated by political elements in a company with
consequences. At the same time they exercised little influence over
policy or even industry wide employment conditions.
Into that situation stepped a young textile worker who had recently
from textiles to the mining industry. He had little formal education
started out at the bottom of the pile. But he had a quick and
mind and was also a good organizer. He joined the Mineworkers Union -
the original three trade unions in the country and rose rapidly through
ranks becoming Secretary General of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade
when it was finally allowed to register after a decade of restrictions.
When I became Chairman of the Industrial Employers in the mid 90's I
deal with over 30 unions in different sectors of industry employing
000 workers and I found the Unions better organised and better trained
the employer's organisations. How did this come about? It was largely
work of a number of European trade unions that had decided to support
Zimbabwean organisation and the efforts of its Secretary General. They
provided funds, training opportunities and a few advisors and
help develop the local structure.
In many ways the Secretary General was a key to all this - he ran a
ship, there never was any hint of corruption and abuse of position and
was a well-organised person in himself. It is one of the toughest jobs
society to be the head of a workers Union and being head of a Congress
Trade Unions is an even tougher job.
No one else had the collective and institutional strength to take on
had become a corrupt and powerful oligarchy. Attempts by elements of
society to challenge the power of the ruling elite were simply brushed
aside. Not this time. Again the mark of that man at the helm of the
broad consultation, good organisation and disciplined action on the
The MDC was born and challenged the seemingly all-powerful Zanu PF.
After March 2000 there were no more sneers about men without education
the ability of the Zanu PF to 'crush' its opponents by fair means or
They had to pull out all the stops to hold onto power and as we now
from sources in Zanu itself and from other intelligence, Zanu only held
power by the slimmest margin and then with the benefit of a concerted
to rig the vote. They had to do that to defeat MDC in June 2000 and
2002 and again in 2005. Each time watching their 'real vote' slide to
and shameful proportions.
This year the MDC and its civil society partners have decided that they
cannot continue to do the same things with the same outcomes - so long
Zanu controls the management of the electoral system they will simply
allow an MDC victory. So the team from the Unions is about to take to
streets in an effort to finally force those who have destroyed what was
a proud and self sufficient country to accept that they must step aside
allow others to have a go at getting things right.
Bulawayo, 4th May 2006