The proposals by the leadership of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions to become formally aligned with a political party, in this case the MDC-Alliance, and to have a quota of seats on the national standing committee of that party is a serious error and the affiliate unions need to block this.
The ZCTU needs, like business organisations, to be independent of all political parties so that it can perform its major function of representing the interests of organised labour in Zimbabwe and be able to work with every political party to gain the best deals it can in law and political platforms rather than be tied to a single party and see its fortunes rise and fall with that party and, in the end, be taken for granted by that party’s leadership.
The founders of the ZCTU knew the dangers and stressed the need for independence. The mission statement of the ZCTU is clear: “To promote, advance and safeguard the economic, social and constitutional freedoms of workers by securing legal, political, democratic and good governance framework in Zimbabwe through strengthening its capacity and independence and those of its affiliates.”
In other words, the ZCTU wanted to be a powerful body leading powerful unions independent of all other groups.
The mission statement was backed up by 13 listed objectives, and the first and most important also stresses effectiveness and independence: “To organise, develop and maintain a powerful, effective, democratic independent and united trade union movement in Zimbabwe.” You cannot get any clearer than that.
The original MDC was founded by the late Morgan Tsvangirai who rose to national prominence through the labour movement, first in the National Mineworkers Union of Zimbabwe and then as the secretary-general of the ZCTU. And as he moved into the party political arena he resigned his trade union post, knowing the need to keep unions and party politics separate for effectiveness.
Obviously members of unions can and will be involved in politics in varying degrees, but the leadership of individual unions and the leadership of the ZCTU need to confine their political activity to voting.
The business organisations that often peer at the ZCTU across the table at national negotiating forums know the need for independence from politicians. They are ready to work with whoever wins the Presidency and make sure that they have maximum communication with the ministers heading the economic ministries and, in their joint Employers Confederation of Zimbabwe (Emcoz) with the minister and officials heading the labour ministry.
By doing this they make sure their voice is heard, their proposals at least read and considered, and that they cannot be ignored. While there are business people who are active in party politics, the business sector organisations are careful to elect into top posts those who have no public affiliations.
The ZCTU needs to be the same and to have clear, well-thought arguments that it can present on any topic affecting its members. Right now Zimbabwe is considering and implementing a lot of administrative and legal reforms to make it easier to do business. Soon labour rules, regulations, policies and laws are going to come under the spotlight. The ZCTU needs to be there at the centre of the debate, not as a wing of a political party whose views can be dismissed as party politics, but as the core voice of the workers who need their rights protected.
A second problem is that the membership of all the affiliate unions is not uniform in its political affiliation and all unions are careful to make it clear that all workers in the sector they cover should join.
Indeed they go further and seek the co-operation of employers to deduct union fees from members’ pay. But if the unions are going to join one party, then a lot of active and prospective members are going to want to opt out of union membership and we might well get two unions in each sector, the independent one and the one aligned to the MDC-Alliance. Or will a MDC-Alliance ZCTU encourage employers to sack anyone with the wrong party card?
A ZCTU objective is a single union in each industry or sector, a policy employers also prefer since it gives them one negotiating partner who can make a deal stick and avoids any possibility of demarcation disputes. Splitting unions into party-affiliated unions helps no one.
A great deal of Zimbabwean labour negotiations and disputes are handled in the formal sector in the national employment councils. Workers and employers have equal representation and share the costs equally, forcing the permanent staff to be absolutely neutral and professional and help craft compromises and joint agreements that actually work. But if the workers representatives are to be put in by parties, they should not be surprised if the employers start at least thinking of the tactics of divide and rule.
The affiliate unions of the ZCTU now need to call their ZCTU leadership to order; if these leaders have political ambitions they must resign. Their own mission statement and objectives give affiliates the power to enforce independence. The ZCTU has permanent interests and needs to press these regardless of which party is in power.