May Day

There are many who regard May Day as an anachronism. Something that is of an era long ago and no longer relevant to our modern day. I could not disagree with them more. In my personal view, the trade union movement is just as relevant to our day as it ever was.

In a world where more than a billion people live in absolute poverty, any employment at any wage is preferable to being trapped in a subsistence world 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 and protecting their interests against powerful interests that otherwise would hold absolute sway over their lives.

But there are other reasons for working towards a society where the trade unions are well financed and professionally managed under democratically elected leadership. In Zimbabwe I think we have witnessed the transforming 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 unionized in 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 were both a justifiable fear of power centers developing in the union movement and the desire to keep the workforce operating at wages and under working conditions that would make labour intensive practices viable and profitable.

With independence in 1980, little changed. Although the new regime claimed to have Marxist credentials and Zanu PF has always claimed to be a Marxist/Leninist movement, they did not share the historical respect that those western creations held for the labor movement.

The reasons for this antipathy to the unions was simply that the new elite feared that well organised unions would become alternative power centers and would undermine their desire to create an almost feudal society here where a few 'chefs' would be able to lord it over the great majority who would be impoverished feudal vassals completely dependent on the State for their survival and therefore submissive to the directions and will of the minority in power.

That was the primary motivation of the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia and gave rise to their justification of a complete purge of society of all independent and educated thinkers and actors who were (rightly) seen as an impediment to their schemes. Two million Cambodians died in the consequential bloodbath.

The Zimbabwean solution was a hybrid - the 'Workers Committee'. This body was given significant new powers and employers were obliged to consult them widely on matters affecting employment conditions. They were not democratic and were often dominated by political elements in a company with disastrous consequences. At the same time they exercised little influence over national policy or even industry wide employment conditions.

Into that situation stepped a young textile worker who had recently switched from textiles to the mining industry. He had little formal education and started out at the bottom of the pile. But he had a quick and inquisitive mind and was also a good organizer. He joined the Mineworkers Union - one of the original three trade unions in the country and rose rapidly through the ranks becoming Secretary General of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions 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 had to deal with over 30 unions in different sectors of industry employing over 300 000 workers and I found the Unions better organised and better trained than the employer’s organisations. How did this come about? It was largely the work of a number of European trade unions that had decided to support the Zimbabwean organisation and the efforts of its Secretary General. They provided funds, training opportunities and a few advisors and specialists to help develop the local structure.

In many ways the Secretary General was a key to all this - he ran a tight ship, there never was any hint of corruption and abuse of position and he was a well-organised person in himself. It is one of the toughest jobs in society to be the head of a workers Union and being head of a Congress of Trade Unions is an even tougher job.

No one else had the collective and institutional strength to take on what had become a corrupt and powerful oligarchy. Attempts by elements of civil 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 ZCTU - broad consultation, good organisation and disciplined action on the ground. The MDC was born and challenged the seemingly all-powerful Zanu PF.

After March 2000 there were no more sneers about men without education and the ability of the Zanu PF to 'crush' its opponents by fair means or foul. They had to pull out all the stops to hold onto power and as we now know from sources in Zanu itself and from other intelligence, Zanu only held onto power by the slimmest margin and then with the benefit of a concerted effort to rig the vote. They had to do that to defeat MDC in June 2000 and then in 2002 and again in 2005. Each time watching their 'real vote' slide to dismal 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 as Zanu controls the management of the electoral system they will simply not allow an MDC victory. So the team from the Unions is about to take to the streets in an effort to finally force those who have destroyed what was once a proud and self sufficient country to accept that they must step aside and allow others to have a go at getting things right.

Eddie Cross
Bulawayo, 4th May 2006