Zimbabwean Unionism: Focus on challenges not ratings

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Free market sympathisers of the partially ruling Movement for Democratic Change [MDC] in Zimbabwe must be wondering where to draw the line between constructive trade unionism and the destructive model of populist representation.

By its very nature, trade and industrial unionism is part of working life in most free economies. In other words, it is a by-product of political freedom. And yet for MDC, being able to accurately draw this line is a matter of life and death.

There are two simple reasons to this paradox: the genealogy of MDC can be traced back to the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions [ZCTU] and secondly, unions tend to portray this irritating characteristic of being anti-free market. Therefore, it will be interesting to see how the MDC, caught between the constitutional principle of free association and the desire to respect rights of sustainable corporate existence will pacify the appetite of ‘good wages’ for ZCTU while at the same time reinvigorating the paralysed productive sector.

Even liberals like me who passionately believe in the doctrine of free association, become sceptical on the contribution of unionism to the productivity. I may have support from western compatriots that the American Motorcar Industry is on the brink of collapse mainly due to years of conceding to ‘irrational’ union demands. Hollywood scriptwriters and actors have on several occasions flexed their union muscles to push for better deals, but I still remain unconvinced that this has increased film ratings.

If anything, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirayi has ensnared himself by promising all and sundry wages in a currency manufactured only in Washington. The paradox is award-winning, yet for the new Government of National Unity [GNU] in Zimbabwe, the challenge is more than just a loss in ratings. Raymond Majongwe of the Progressive Teachers Union [PTUZ] insists on a USD2000 minimum wage since he sees this as compensation for years of abusive neglect by successive generations of ZANUpf education ministers. Herein lays my point: the question of viability and sustainability that pales in significance in the game of populist unionism. Perhaps Majongwe has a point. When liberal elements in the MDC and market sympathisers urge him to conform to conventional wisdom, he points to the bloated GNU cabinet and demands thriftiness at the highest echelons of governance first.

Not only about food and wages

On my part, this is not another case of rabid sarcasm towards the right to progressive industrial representation. Matthew Takaona of the Zimbabwe Union of Journalists [ZUJ] understands better the nature of level-headed holistic representation I have in mind. He is quoted to have told the new minister of information that he “should work to restore the integrity of the journalism profession by helping to diffuse polarisation and help bring down hate speech that has become the hallmark of our media”. This is testimony to the fact that effective unionism is not only about food baskets and minimum wages. We Zimbabweans are all too familiar with the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU] who have persistently argued for more political rights in Zimbabwe. They have been at the helm of knocking holes into Mugabe’s illusion of dynastical life presidency.

My argument against the Majongwe-type unionism is that it is placed wrongly in the context of the post-Mugabe reconstruction era. There must be acceptance, even by those radicals in the MDC that as the economy grows, only then will Government revenues improve significantly to allow for greater investment in social programs. In the long-term, it is more value-adding for workers to support policies that stimulate production and in particular production for exports by avoiding populist minimum wage-related demands.

Some practitioners argue that minimum wages must be based on the expected price impacts rather that an attempt at mitigating effects of hyperinflation. Progressive unionism is not about today, but the future of industry. I see it more in the context of access to wealth, rather than mercenary-type bargaining over wages, hours and working conditions. ZANUpf sowed the seed of antagonism between labour and employers for political gain. It would be such a tragedy for the MDC to perpetuate this counterproductive stone-age mentality.

A fair day

Zimbabwe’s industrial capacity has been decimated, currently operating at below twenty percent, with a 95% unemployment rate to match. Thus, the Samuel Gompers type of unionism under American Federation of Labour is a better model as it was said to be ‘businesslike and pragmatic, adopting the motto, “A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work”.’ What I advocate is a sensible balance between what employers can afford and what the few workers at work would require to remain barely above water, since everyone is under the same hyperinflation scourge.

Revolutionary unionism that peddles perishable theories that all employers are heartless capitalists who would kill to protect supernormal profits margins is outdated. I am arguing for a case of partnership, not antagonism, pragmatism, not exaggerated fantasies that play to the gallery of self-serving populism. Labour–employer relations must be borne of mutual benefit and respect. Of course in the process of re-construction, we will get isolated cases of slave-driver mentality. There are numerous reports of abusive labour practices by newly resettled commercial farmers and Chinese investors – a matter for the justice system. Yet such cases should not be allowed to contaminate what could be business-friendly models of labour legislation. After all, if trade unionism is allowed to choke industry, Wellington Chibhebhe’s ZCTU will remain with a stunted and paralysed constituency.

Rejoice Ngwenya
is director of Coalition for Liberal Market Solutions in Harare and an affiliate of African Liberty

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Rejoice Ngwenya is a regular columnist for African Liberty. He is a Zimbabwean Freemarket Activist and Political Analyst based in Harare.
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