Trade unions today and the multi-front neoliberal offensive: Re-organise, Fight or Perish

​ THE year 2015 was a horrible year for workers and trade unions. In the midst of a growing economic crisis, multiple attacks were launched ...




THE year 2015 was a horrible year for workers and trade unions. In the midst of a growing economic crisis, multiple attacks were launched against them from bosses, government, parliament, judges and the IMF.
The  17 July 2015 Supreme Court decision of Nyamande and Gumbo v Zuva Petroleum (Pvt) Ltd, upholding the employers' common law power to dismiss employees on notice led to the massacre of  nearly 30 000 jobs in places like ECONET, Steward Bank, GMB and NRZ. This added to the over 200 000 lost in the last decade and to the 85% unemployment rate. Many workers are in wage arrears of up to 33 months. This is, in a drought year when 4 million people face starvation.
Capitalism has not recovered from the 2009 Great Recession. Zimbabwe is worse off because of the hyper-inflation years and sanctions. The GNU recovery was superficial. With China slowing down the economic crisis has deepened. Our rulers have no solution other than more brutal neoliberal austerity measures against working people. At the same time elites are enmeshed in cannibalistic dog eat dog civil wars as they fight for a declining cake. This has led to increasing trade wars, rise of economic nationalism and wars in the Middle East and Africa with the possibility of a global war increasing. Attacks increase on civic, political, refugees and trade union rights – authoritarianism and fascism grow. 
Locally the same applies. Whilst the growing crisis of capitalism has driven elites across and within political parties and in business into cannibalistic civil wars, they are all united on one economic agenda - to intensify neoliberal austerity attacks on workers and the poor. Under an IMF programme the government aims to slash its wage bill from 82%  to 40% and repay $2 billion to the international banks by April 2016 - that is job massacres of teachers, nurses…more students out from schools, universities. Yet $15 billion of diamonds was stolen since 2009. ECONET, the most powerful company in the country has unleashed "a war on deflation", a thinly disguised war on workers and unions involving slashing of jobs and wages. This war is now supported by most elites under the mantra of "internal devaluation."
In relation to workers the bosses and government are pursuing a three pronged agenda. Firstly huge job cuts and casualisation of labour. Older, permanent workers are replaced with younger contract workers, especially female workers, earning much lower wages without job security, pensions, medical aid. Secondly, big cuts of wages and benefits or internal devaluation. The third prong is smashing industry collective bargaining and trade unions so that wages are set by employers at the workplace in a non-unionised casualised labour force with wages linked to productivity – chibharo. 
The Zuva Petroleum decision and the Labour Amendment Act, 2015 facilitated this by making retrenchment dirty cheap at 2 weeks salary for every year or less. The High Court ruled in the Tel-One case that it was not compulsory for employers to be members of NECs. This cripples NECs financially, together with the amendments to the Labour Act that increase state supervision and control of unions and NECs. The Amendment specifically now requires collective bargaining to promote "high levels of productivity … economic competitiveness and economic sustainability." The Labour Act will be excluded from the newly introduced Special Economic Zones, that is neoliberal sweatshops copied from China. 
Unions, organized labour, collective bargaining are facing an unprecedented existential threat.

Unions on their knees – MOTU!
Yet the state of unions is terrible. Unions are on their knees suffering from fragmentation, dwindling membership, disillusionment and crisis of leadership.  The reasons for this are external and internal. 
Instead of merging in the face of dwindling numbers due to the job cuts and casualisation there has been an explosion of unions. New unions are being registered every year in every industry by a state happy to see workers divided. Established unions are splintering due to fights for positions, refusal by leaders to leave and infiltration by bosses and political parties. Like churches, unions have become big business. It is MOTU – my own trade union! These little unions, usually of less than 5000 members are financially unviable and incapable of leading any meaningful actions against the bosses. 
A labour aristocracy has emerged of opportunistic, corrupt and ideologically reactionary and right-wing leaders who have entered into unholy alliances with bosses, NEC officials, lawyers and parties. Many leaders use unions as springboards to advance political careers in MDC-T and Zanu PF. Ahead of 2018 and as they aim to be councilors, MPS and ministers they subordinate the union agenda to their party's agenda. They oppose independent united actions across unions and federations which are not supported by their parties. This was one of the reasons the anti-Zuva protests failed in 2015.


NECs killing unions
Even more deadly has been the poisonous impact of the National Employment Councils. NECs have become the graveyards of unions. The union leaders no longer care about building the unions as long as they get NECs allowances and loans, which they use to buy posh cars, run little businesses besides enjoying the high life in posh hotels in NEC meetings.  Most leadership fights and union splits are over the NEC gravy train. Corrupt relationships are being done in the NECs with the bosses and NEC officials. In one industry, some formerly radical union leaders, formed a joint company with NEC officials and bosses to get tenders from the NEC. Not surprising these leaders have agreed to several zero per cent wage "increments" in the last five years! The NEC money has corrupted the union leaders and killed internal union democracy. Leaders refuse to leave when their terms expire. Helped by corrupt lawyers, they amend constitutions and use courts to remain in power for ever. NEC funds are used for rigging union elections. Losers form splinter unions to get back on the NEC gravy train.
Because of the above union leaders are deadly opposed to militant actions like strikes, preferring courts and arbitration. But such a strategy is useless. The same courts gave us Zuva.
To facilitate the above, internal union democracy has been strangled. Congresses are postponed indefinitely or manipulated, elections rigged, rivals disqualified, some positions not even contested.
No audited financial reports or holding of constitutional meetings and labour forums. Collective bargaining on wages is done by cliques of leaders without mandate from members. Opponents are expelled outside constitutional provisions. A Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions report of October 2015 as reported by the Financial Gazette of 14 April 2016, revealed a damning situation of the labour movement. According to the report, presented by ZCTU secretary general, Japhet Moyo, many of the federation's 25 affiliates refused ZCTU officials access into their offices, thereby "raising fear of fraud, financial mismanagement and corruption."  Moyo lambasted affiliates for driving ZCTU into "insolvency and extinction" due to non-payment of subscriptions. 
The report stated that - "Some unions had no information such as bank statements, income and expenditure statements, membership registers … large amounts were being spent on leadership monthly allowances and travel and subsistence costs yet nothing being paid to ZCTU."    
Another factor has been the corrupting influence of funds from international trade unions and NGOS. Many unions and federations now heavily rely on these for their sustenance.  Unholy corrupt relationships have been built between officials of the international organizations and the local unions, thereby again subverting internal union democracy. The ZCTU report showed that the ZCTU itself gets over 85% of its revenue from international donors and only 15% from subscriptions. Between 2011 and 2015, such donors provided US$5,7 million against US$1million from affiliates.
Much of these funds are tied in to the regime-change agenda, one of the factors that has pushed union leaders to subvert the union agenda in favour of opposition politics. Further donor fatigue has grown especially after 2013 when Mugabe and Zanu PF have now embraced the IMF neoliberal agenda. The donor funds for the unions (just like their bed-fellows, the civic society NGOs) have drastically dwindled, leaving the ZCTU on the verge of bankruptcy with a reported US$1.4million debt. There is a big fight over the little remaining funds, within unions and between the affiliates and ZCTU.
The problems are not confined to ZCTU. The other main federation, the state and Zanu PF – controlled ZFTU, is similarly riven by massive divisions mirroring the intense factional fights in the ruling party around the Mugabe succession question. The new federation, COZITU, is still new and fledging but also already facing challenges as some of its affiliates have splintered, with sections returning to ZCTU.
In a shrinking economy, unionism has become a zero-sum game, a winner take all game, moreso because there are no pensions for retiring leaders and because many union leaders lack education and skills qualifications to get alternative jobs that will maintain their current lifestyles.    
With the above, a huge social distance has emerged between the labour leaders and ordinary members across most unions except for a handful. Massive disillusionment has set in amongst the ordinary members, a major contributing factor to the disastrous fall in union membership, besides the closure of companies. The ZCTU membership has dropped from 585 000 in the mid 1990s to less than 108 000 today. Not surprising when the three federations called for protests against the Zuva decision less than 150 people attended, i.e. less than the national and provincial leadership of one union! 

Don't abandon the unions – fight back!
Whilst the union movement is rudderless, the consensus now shared by bosses and all the political parties, ruling and in opposition, is to intensify austerity.  Under growing attacks and desperate, workers have started fighting back such as strikes by Chiredzi sugar cane workers, Chitungwiza council workers and Mutare nurses. In February was the 32 days sleep-in protest by GMB workers, protests against banks by ZIBAWU. Currently is the sleep-in strike by over 2 000 NRZ workers in a strike organized by rank and file workers drawn from the four unions in the industry but without the union leaders.  Indeed so powerful is the strike, which is reminiscent of the 2012 Marikana Strike in South Africa, that the union leaders themselves are not going to work, even as they protest at court that they did not organize the strike!
The above is encouraging. However, without united massive co-ordinated struggles, individual actions by groups of workers will be isolated and eventually crushed. For bigger actions we need the strength, numbers and co-ordination that only unions can bring. Throughout the history of capitalism unions have been the basic defence organ of workers and led the most powerful and effective struggles.
So workers must not abandon their unions or make them weaker by forming splinter unions. Serious workers must fight to win back their unions from the corrupt jackals who have hijacked them. They should co-ordinate rank and file pressure groups across branches taking advantage of the new social media facilities like Whatsapp and Facebook. They must fight for the merger of the small unions into bigger effective unions. They must push for the unions to adopt the strategy of defending jobs and wages using direct action like sleep-in strikes and protests, uniting permanent and contract workers as we saw with the GMB workers, and not relying on the courts. If the union leaders refuse, workers must organize actions and strikes independent of the union leaders, just as the NRZ workers did.
They must fight for internal union democracy. Labour forums and congresses must be held regularly and no leader should stay in office for ever. Terms must be respected otherwise what moral right do we have for saying Mugabe must go? Leaders who sell out must be booted out! Internal union democracy is the lifeblood of any serious union. Crucially there must be accountability over NEC funds and representation, with rotational representation at the NECs and allowances being ploughed back into union coffers rather than individual pockets. These funds should be used for union struggles and solidarity with other workers in struggles; for educational and ideological teach-ins for large numbers of union activists against the bosses and capitalism.
Throughout the world, from South Africa, Egypt, France, Greece, are growing struggles against austerity and capitalism. That self-described "socialist" Bernie Sanders is trouncing establishment favourite Hillary Clinton in the USA primaries elections and the election of socialist Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour Party in the UK, shows the growing attraction of socialist ideas even in the belly of the beast of capitalism. In South Africa 50 000 EFF supporters marched on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. Struggles are also growing in Zimbabwe. From these struggles a new layer of union leaders and a new union movement can arise based on united class solidarity and clear working class consciousness.
Despite the treachery of many union leaders, across all the federations are still some radical and progressive leaders and activists who want to fight, as shown in the recent struggles. On the third day of the GMB strike as the rains pounded the workers, the leaders of ZIBAWU, opened their offices to the striking workers, giving women and children a cottage to sleep in. They availed toilets and food. Their role was critical in the success of the strike. Yet they did not say we are ZCTU affiliated and the GMB workers are not. ZCTU and ZFTU issued solidarity statements. Similarly, COZITU affiliated unions like PTUZ, ZEWU and COLAZ gave chickens and cash donations to the GMB strikers. When ZIBAWU organized a demonstration against ECONET –owned Steward Bank for cutting jobs, over 50 GMB strikers joined them. And on 1 April, on the 3rd day of the NRZ strike, Steve Machaya, the president of the GMB Workers Union and some of his colleagues visited the striking workers to give solidarity.
Rebuilding our unions, class solidarity, unity, socialist consciousness and direct action are the only way to stop the bosses' offensive and stop the disintegration of unions. The same in the on-going reforms to amend the Labour Act. Because the Amendment Act "moved mountains" for employers and the state as boasted by Finance Minister Chinamasa and commended by the IMF, they will not be in a hurry to change these laws, but will drag the unions in unending talks, unless they are confronted with united, massive action of workers and unions across the federations and those unaligned.
Ultimately we need to understand that the source of poverty and oppression is the system of capitalism.  That only the overthrow of capitalism, bringing the wealth of the whole of society under the democratic control of working people, and construction of socialism at a global level can stop the barbarism of capitalism and bring emancipation for the generality of humanity.

Munyaradzi Gwisai
 
local news


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The Mirror: Trade unions today and the multi-front neoliberal offensive: Re-organise, Fight or Perish
Trade unions today and the multi-front neoliberal offensive: Re-organise, Fight or Perish
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