Zimbabwe's politics and unions have always been intertwined. Godfrey Huggins, prime minister of then Southern Rhodesia between 1933 and 1953, once gave his reasons for barring black workers from forming a union: "The Europeans in this country can be likened to an island of white in a sea of black," he said. "Is the native to be allowed to erode away the shores and gradually attack the highlands?"
But black workers were already organising; the railway workers' strike in 1945 and the general strikes of 1948 forced Huggins to recognise black unions.
With that, the unions had placed themselves as a nursery for politicians for many years to come, from the nationalists that were later to lead the struggle for independence to many decades later, those who were to oppose the order in independent Zimbabwe.
Unions such as the Bulawayo Federation of African Workers' Union and the African Workers' Voice Association had become involved in the struggle for black workers in the 1940s. The protests, especially, laid the foundation for strong unions, among them the Southern Rhodesia Trade Union Congress, which was set up in 1954 and led by Joshua Nkomo.
The union paved the way for the formation of what was the first nationalist movement in Rhodesia, the Southern Rhodesia African National Congress. Its leaders, among them Nkomo, were drawn from the unions. In 1981, a year after independence, the government went about forging a united federation of different, divided unions. Calling it the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), the government stuffed it with loyalists. Among them were Albert Mugabe, President Robert Mugabe's half-brother, and Alfred Makwarimba.
That ZCTU leadership helped the new government put a cap on labour unrest that year, pushing for negotiation over confrontation.
An article in 1981 quoted the ZCTU as saying: "This country needs a disciplined work force to encourage development – we are not going to achieve anything by going on strike, no matter our grievance."
However, a new crop of leaders emerged in the late 1980s. Among them was Morgan Tsvangirai, who had been branch chairman of the Associated Mine Workers Union of Zimbabwe. Others included Gibson Sibanda, a leader of the Zimbabwe Amalgamated Railways Union, who would later become Tsvangirai's deputy in the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).
The unions became disillusioned as the government turned to free market policies, part of which included changes to labour laws that made it easier for employers to fire workers.
Labour began building alliances with other disgruntled groups, among them, students. Arthur Mutambara, a student leader at the University of Zimbabwe at the time, and led the first post-independence anti-government protests.
In 1989 Tsvangirai was detained when he backed student protests over the closure of the University of Zimbabwe and the arrest of student leaders. The seeds of protest had been sown, and there were more strikes in the 1990s as workers protested the effects of the government's free market policies, such as the International Monetary Fund-backed Economic Structural Adjustment Programme, which cut social spending and caused price hikes.
A three-week strike by more than 200 000 civil servants in 1996 pointed to a tough period ahead.
December 9 1997 was a major turning point. The government, cornered by 50 000 war veterans protesting over gratuities, announced a new tax to raise cash to pay them. The ZCTU rallied nationwide protests that forced withdrawal of the tax plans.
"These were the largest protests since independence, there was no precedence for such direct challenge to the regime," says Antony Muguyo, who was a unionist at the time. "It made us bolder; we now knew strikes and demonstrations could work."
A month later, a bread price hike sparked protests in Harare's townships. These quickly turned into riots across the country, and the army had to be called in to quell the unrest.
"The January 1998 riots were more spontaneous; unplanned. If anything, the ZCTU failed to organise workers, and workers took things into their own hands," Muguyo says.
In March 1998 the ZCTU held a two day "stay-away" against high taxes and rising prices. Encouraged by its success the congress planned more stay-aways. In February 1999 the ZCTU held a National Working People's Convention, where workers' long bid for a "labour party" resulted in an agreement to form the MDC. It was launched later that year.