This internal strife reflects the general decline of the labour movement in the country due to a combination of economic and political factors. The country’s once vibrant labour movement is now a pale shadow of its former self due to internecine leadership wrangles, an unstable macro-economic environment, political repression and polarisation which have left it weak, fragmented and incapable of effectively defending the interests of workers, while playing a critical role in the democratic development of the country.
The split in the labour movement comes at a time harsh economic conditions have resulted in rising unemployment, which stands at unprecedented levels of around 90%.
This has forced most people into informal sector which has no representation in trade unions. Consequently, the ever increasing trade union bodies have to compete for the membership of the meagre 10% workforce.
The two ZCTU factions as well as the Zimbabwe Federation of Trade Unions (ZFTU) organised separate Workers’ Day functions, showing the labour movement is disintegrating.
The ZCTU descended into self-destruction last year after splitting into two groups, one led by Lovemore Matombo and the other by George Nkiwane.
The split has its roots in the dispute over the verification of some delegates from four affiliate unions to the trade union federation’s elective congress in August last year.
The incumbent, Matombo unsuccessfully applied to the High Court to stop the congress, which elected Nkiwane as new president.
Matombo said although the ZCTU split over alleged “electoral fraud” by the Nkiwane faction, “unity is possible but only if they agree to a congress where only verified delegates will be allowed to vote”.
Nkiwane blamed the split on Matombo’s refusal to accept the results of the congress, saying unity could only be achieved if Matombo accepted the outcome.
Former ZCTU vice-president Tabitha Khumalo believes that the problem lies in the labour body leadership’s penchant for power at the expense of workers’ interests.
“Labour has abandoned the democratic principles of leadership and followed the path of political parties into rigging, factionalism and jostling for positions,” Khumalo said.
Zimbabwe National Students Union president Pride Mukono and National Constitutional Assembly spokesperson Madock Chivasa noted the labour movement’s divisions were worsening the already dreadful workers’ plight.
ZCTU factions admitted in the absence of unity, the workers movement had proved incapable of meaningfully challenging low wages, poor service delivery and controversial government policies affecting workers.
The current ZCTU, which gave birth to the MDC, is different from that of the late 1990s which staged crippling mass stay-aways and forced government to reverse unpopular taxes.
President Robert Mugabe later invoked the Presidential Powers (Temporary Measures) Act banning stay-aways to stem increasing labour influence and unrest.
Apart from infighting, the labour movement was also gradually weakened by effects of the Economic Structural Adjustment Programme (Esap) of the 1990s and the post-1997 economic crisis which engulfed the country.
According to Professor Llyod Sachikonye of the University of Zimbabwe, Esap impacted negatively on the labour movement through retrenchments while disastrous economic decisions like the paying of unbudgeted gratuities to war veterans in 1997 contributed to massive inflation which left workers vulnerable and unable to continue as union members.
Zanu PF also weakened the labour movement through repression and sponsoring divisions, for instance through the formation of the war veterans- affiliated ZFTU led by Joseph Chinotimba and others.
Repressive laws such as the Public Order and Security Act, Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act and the use of the Presidential Powers (Temporary Measures) Act were used to deal with trade unions and suppress strikes, demonstrations and any forms of gatherings.
ZCTU’s fallout with Zanu PF worsened the situation. The Congress of South African Trade Unions has profited from its alliance with the ruling ANC and the South African Communist Party. Although Zanu PF assisted in the formation of the ZCTU at independence, the two organisations have fallen out.
According to Sachikonye, divisions within the ZCTU became pronounced in 1984 over whether it should align itself with the Zanu PF or not. The issue was only resolved at the 1985 congress when the faction that advocated autonomy won the elections.
Issues came to a head between 1997 and 1999 when the ZCTU organised stay-aways to protest government taxes and backed the formation of the MDC in 1999.
Professor Brian Raftopolous of University of Western Cape noted that the ZCTU joined civil society in campaigning for the rejection of the government-sponsored constitution in a referendum held in February 2000.
However, its alliances with the MDC formations have been strained after the two parties failed to deliver on promises to improve workers’ conditions after joining Zanu PF in a coalition government in 2009.
Former ZCTU secretary-general and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai has been accused by the Matombo faction of habouring a “right wing” agenda and fostering divisions.
“We will not lose sleep over Tsvangirai’s decision to side with Nkiwane,” said Matombo. “After all, every politician will want to associate with a weak labour movement,” he said.
Khumalo also described as “unfortunate” the fact that party leader Tsvangirai had apparently sided with Nkiwane by attending his splinter group’s May Day celebrations at Gwanzura Stadium in Harare on Tuesday. “It’s quite sad because l would have hoped the two parties would have been brought together to discuss re-unification,” said Khumalo.
However, Tsvangirai expressed his “displeasure” at the ZCTU infighting and called for unity in his May Day address on Tuesday.
“While factions may be associated with politics, it is certainly not in the interest of the workers to have a divided leadership claiming to represent their interest,” said Tsvangirai.
Workers may have commemorated May Day on Tuesday but negative economic and political factors, including infighting, has precipitated the dramatic decline of the labour movement in Zimbabwe and further erosion of workers rights. The decline of the labour movement has left workers exposed to exploitation and abuse.