HARARE is burning!, screamed a front page headline in a local daily in August 1996 when Zimbabwe experienced a crippling nationwide strike by scores of thousands of civil servants.
About 70 000 public sector workers had downed tools in protest against job losses, poor working conditions, authoritarian industrial relations and government corruption. The job action had far-reaching consequences countrywide as it brought most government operations to a halt and paralysed service delivery, leaving authorities shell-shocked.
Most notably, the strike changed the trade unionism landscape and labour relations in Zimbabwe. Although it was limited to the public service, the country’s primary trade union federation, the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) and the International Socialist Organisation (ISO) supported the civil service unions, forming a strong front that rattled government to its core.
A leader of the ISO, which is “committed to building an organisation that participates in the struggles for justice and liberation today — and ultimately, for a future socialist society”, Tafadzwa Choto, who helped mobilise civil servants for the strike, was quoted in the media at the time as saying the strike was “a turning point” that “really gave confidence to so many workers”.
The industrial action was a roaring success for the workers, yielding an agreement that included a substantial increase in wages, promise of improved labour relations, a guarantee that workers would receive bonuses, and the recognition of public sector unions.
The late 1990s were tough for government as ZCTU’s increased organisational capacity, especially at grassroots level, formed a central nexus in the explosion of mass actions from 1996 to 1998.
During this time, war veterans also organised themselves into a force to reckon with and vigorously demanded compensation by, among other activities, disrupting state occasions and denouncing President Robert Mugabe at public forums.
In 1997, veterans of the 1970s liberation war were subsequently given Z$50 000 in gratuities each, with government also introducing a war veterans’ tax on workers to fund pensions for the liberation war fighters, but this did not go done well with struggling workers.
As the labour movement became stronger and militant, it confronted government to assert its rights and demand changes. As a result, the ZCTU organised a two-day strike in December 1997 against undesirable taxes, dubbed a “stayaway”, which at the time was the largest mass action seen in Zimbabwe. Government was so shaken that the police invaded the ZCTU offices in Harare and bashed then ZCTU secretary-general, Morgan Tsvangirai, now MDC-T leader.
Government however backtracked by shelving the offending piece of tax legislation as a result of the strike.
But more was to come. In January 1998 government was further shaken by bread riots accompanied by widespread looting as thousands of people displayed their anger at the increase in prices of basic commodities, and a general fall in living standards.
Government’s reaction was heavy-handed as armed police officers and the army were deployed in townships to ruthlessly crush the protest, assaulting and injuring many people in the process. There were reports at least 10 people died during the process as government resorted to a “shoot-to-kill” backlash.
A leading activist at that time, former Finance minister Tendai Biti, who is now MDC Renewal secretary-general, was quoted in the International Socialism Journal of 2002 saying: “This was a momentous occasion in the history of this country because it brought confidence — you could smell working class power in the air”.
According to a dissertation by Joe Sutcliffe titled Labour Movement in Zimbabwe 1980-2012, between 1996 and 1998 ZCTU organised strikes that attracted approximately 1 073 000 workers, demonstrating the power the organisation wielded.
So strong was the trade union movement then that in 1999 it culminated in the formation of a strong opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), as social and economic discontent surged amid political agitation for change.
The labour-backed MDC subsequently gave Zanu PF a good run for its money in elections that followed between 2000 and 2008.
Fast-forward to 2015 and you have a ZCTU that is now a pale shadow of the massive movement that gave the government sleepless nights almost two decades ago. One of the major factors is the country’s economic meltdown which has resulted in the majority of formal sector workers losing employment, severely weakening the labour movement in the process. The country has an unemployment rate of more than 85%, and counting. This has decimated the labour movement’s support base and structures.
As a result, the ZCTU has in recent years dismally failed to mobilise workers to demonstrate against the collapse of the country’s industry which has seen the manufacturing sector operating at 36,3% capacity, down from 57,2% in 2011.
At least 7 000 employees were retrenched last year, with more than 50 companies letting go of workers amid operational challenges epitomised by a swingeing liquidity crunch.
In the past three weeks, about 20 000 workers lost their jobs in an unprecedented wave of retrenchments and dismissals following a Supreme Court ruling confirming employers’ right to remove workers on three months’ notice without paying severance packages.
So pre-occupied are hard-pressed Zimbabweans with eking out a living, mostly in the burgeoning informal sector, that they seem to no longer have the time or appetite to heed the ZCTU’s strike calls — dancing in the streets and waving placards.
The ZCTU has lost its mass support, capacity to mobilise and gravitas largely due to the protracted economic problems which have been gripping the country since the late 1990s, that resulted in massive company closures and intensified job losses. So the labour movement is now largely a shell and thus powerless.
This was the case in April this year when only a handful of workers responded to a call by the ZCTU to demonstrate against government’s failure to take the Tripartite Negotiating Forum (TNF) — comprising government, labour and business — seriously.
An indication that government knew the demonstration would lack bite was the fact that it was monitored by a few uninterested police officers, whereas in the past the cops would have been out in full force, ready to mete out “instant justice”.
According to the Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency (Zimstat) 2014 Labour Survey report, 94% of the currently employed aged 15 years and above are informally employed while 98% of the currently employed youths aged between 15-24years and 96% of the currently employed youths aged between 15 -34 years were in informal employment.
This week the ZCTU called for countrywide mass demonstrations tomorrow in response to massive job cuts in both the private and public sectors, triggered by the Supreme Court ruling.
The response to the ZCTU’s call to arms will test if the union can still boast of relevance apart from sitting on the negotiating table in TNF meetings.
Judging from recent such botched attempts, the strike is likely to be another damp squib, serving only to reflect how the labour movement’s fortunes have nosedived.
Social commentator Blessing Vava says there is no doubt that the ZCTU is losing its clout due to economic and labour shifts.
“It’s an open secret that the ZCTU is a now beleaguered union, led by career unionists who are now serving interests of political parties, especially the MDC-T, at the expense of its membership, the workers,” Vava said.
“The ZCTU has lost ground; they have become spineless and clueless. They do not represent workers, hence they only shout from their air-conditioned offices when workers are wallowing in poverty. It is now an empty shell of its former self in that it is now like the proverbial empty vessel making a lot of unco-ordinated noise aimed at massaging the egos of factional politics.”
However, ZCTU secretary-general Japhet Moyo is adamant that the labour movement can still pack a punch, arguing that the union’s membership is still very much alive.
“We represent workers at national, regional, continental and ILO (International Labour Organisation) level,” Moyo said. “We run one of the biggest research institutes in Zimbabwe which assists unions and workers’ committees with data for collective purposes. We are currently dealing with labour law reform at national level.
“Workers need unions now more than yesterday; therefore labour unions are more relevant when the state abdicates its role to protect them through favourable legislation.We were ambushed by capitalists using the state, but the struggle is not lost.”
As for the April demonstration flop, Moyo said: “These are casualties in a battle, but the war is not lost. It was successful because a demonstration is a form of airing views, the numbers might no longer be important in our economy which is informalised. The publicity we got is what matters and it’s enough to send a message.
“Mind you the decline of trade union membership has been as a result of company closures and restructuring, and capital migration because of political risk factors, not that trade unions were weak in defending their turf.”
While the proposed mass action tomorrow could be a barometer to gauge ZCTU’s clout and relevance, the job losses over the years have surely taken their toll on the former vibrant organisation. Suffice it to say, that “smell of working class power in the air” is now hardly discernable.