At a Workers' Day rally in 1997, a group of protesters chanted as Morgan Tsvangirai, then leader of what was a powerful labour federation, gave his speech. "Workers' party now," the group chanted.
Two years later, the workers got their "workers' party" – the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). But they lost their unions. Leading the chanting in 1997 was Munyaradzi Gwisai, a socialist activist and respected academic. He became one of the founding leaders of the MDC, born out of the labour movement, but was soon expelled for protesting at what he called the takeover of the party by capitalists.
In an interview with the Mail & Guardian this week, Gwisai mourned the death of the potent force that was the unions in Zimbabwe. He blamed the demise on what he saw as the greed of union leaders and the co-option of the MDC itself into Zanu-PF's culture of corruption.
For many years before the MDC was formed, the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) was leading anti-government protests and was virtually the opposition party. It has now been replaced by "spineless and corrupt leaders and unions who hide under the skirts of politicians, suffocating the masses", Gwisai says.
Among workers, frustration has been growing steadily over the failure by both the ZCTU and the MDC representatives in the government to fight for their rights. At the formation of the unity government in 2009 expectations had been high – perhaps too high, some say – that the MDC would deliver on promises of better conditions for workers.
However, the ZCTU has been bogged down by factionalism and, on top of that, the number of union members is being slashed owing to job losses, and critics say labour leaders are using unions more as launch pads into political positions in the MDC than to push for workers' rights.
Politics and pressure
A leader of one of the largest ZCTU affiliate unions, the National Mine Workers Union of Zimbabwe, who declined to be named, said pressure was building within the labour movement for a return to "a completely independent ZCTU" that would be "more radical".
"There is a sense among workers that the unions have been assimilated by politicians, on both sides. Because union leaders made their way into the MDC leadership, some see union leadership only as a way to political office," the unionist said.
However, Japhet Moyo, secretary general of the ZCTU, denies charges that the union's affiliation with the MDC is hurting its members' interests. "We are not in the MDC-T, but we are aligned to it. The ZCTU formed MDC in 1999, so we cannot ignore it," Moyo said.
But Gwisai insists: "Union leaders who should have known better decided to go under the skirts of political parties and be fed with crumbs while their members starve. Workers cannot expect salvation from such people."
Workers will continue to support the MDC, he says, but only because Tsvangirai's "less sophisticated" regime would be much easier for workers to confront than President Robert Mugabe's "entrenched dictatorship".
"Even if supported by the West it will be easier for the poor to take on an MDC government than the current Zanu-PF dictatorship, because the MDC has no solution to the current massive crisis of capitalism, other than more neoliberalism," he said.
The National Constitutional Assembly (NCA), a long-time ally of both the ZCTU and the MDC, has also shown disillusionment with the unions and the MDC. The NCA says the new draft Constitution approved by voters in March restricts "the right to strike for workers, whilst it bars civil servants from collective bargaining", and is therefore a betrayal of workers.
"We call upon political parties to stop meddling in union affairs and call for one robust labour body to confront the challenges faced by the working class every day," the NCA's Blessing Vava said.
According to Gwisai, unions have failed to put pressure on MDC ministers to fight for workers' rights. He points to a number of decisions made by MDC ministers. These include Energy Minister Elton Mangoma laying off workers at state power company Zesa to prepare for the privatisation of power supply and Public Service Minister Lucia Matibenga, a former unionist herself denying civil servants salary hikes. The government says it has no money for wage increases.
But members of a ZCTU splinter group, Concerned ZCTU Affiliates, points to the looting of a state fund given to MPs to develop communities, as well as to corruption in MDC-run urban councils, as evidence that their former leaders had "quickly joined the looting Zanu-PF gravy train".
To Gwisai, the "betrayal" can be traced back to when the MDC was ripped from its labour roots by more powerful interests.
"Educated civic elites, supported by the white farmers, NGOs and governments, used their money and expertise to hijack the MDC, even if a few trade union leaders remained at the top," Gwisai says.
Unionists say that while the early MDC leadership had been packed with labour leaders, they were soon marginalised.
They say unionists made up fewer than 20% of the parliamentary candidates in 2000, the MDC's first election. Most were in rural constituencies in Zanu-PF strongholds, and they lost.
In a 2002 paper on the state of the unions, Gwisai lamented the demise of the ZCTU as a potent force: "The roar of the 1997 lion had, by March 2002, been reduced to less than a kitten's meow."
There are no workers left to unionise
Getting accurate statistics on Zimbabwe's unemployment rate is a tough ask, as competing interests put out their own data.
Zimstat, the official statistics body, puts unemployment at 10.7%, a figure many dispute. But Zimstat director Mutasa Dzinotizei insists that these data are based on the "broad definition" of the unemployed – people who during a reference period were without work or were not in paid employment or were self-employed.
The Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) says the unemployed rate is above 80%, but it has few data to back up this claim.
Economist John Robertson puts the unemployment rate at more than 70%, with fewer than 900 000 out of the country's 13-million people formally employed. He estimates that 100 000 jobs have been lost since 2004.
Such is the absence of credible data on unemployment that any figure goes. Figures of 95% have often been used in media reports and taken as gospel.
What is not in dispute, however, is that the number of those in informal employment continues to fall, a trend that has gradually whittled down the number of union members and weakened the labour movement.
Since the economy abandoned the local currency and migrated to using the US dollar in 2009, 300 manufacturing companies have either shut down or cut back on production, according to data from the national pension fund.
Kumbirai Katsande, head of the Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries (CZI), says industries continue to lay off workers to stay afloat. Many are introducing shorter working weeks, he says, and would completely lay off workers if they could not afford to pay the workers. Dephine Mazambani, CZI's chief economist, says capacity utilisation in the manufacturing sector declined from 57.2% in 2011 to 44.2% last year.
Only the booming mining sector is recruiting at a large scale. More than 40 000 workers are employed in the mines, up from fewer than 3 000 at the peak of the economic crisis, said Edward Mubvumba of the National Employment Council for the Mining Industry. Thousands more are involved in illegal mining in the sector.
Farm labourers are among the lowest-paid workers in the country, with the minimum wage recently set at $65 – up from $59. Yet this is a constituency that the unions would find hard to mobilise.
Zimstat estimated the number of farm labourers in 2010 at 815 000. This is more than double the 355 000 in 1997, when only workers on commercial farms were counted. The figure now includes those who work on resettled farms, a constituency that is largely pro-Zanu-PF and unlikely to back pro-MDC unions.
With so many people in informal employment, the ZCTU finds it hard to mobilise workers into any meaningful collective job action. The informal sector is a legacy of the past decade of economic crises.
According to a labour survey of 6-million people last year, Dzinotizei says, only 11% of Zimbabweans are in the formal sector. About 84% are in informal employment, the largest group being in the "wholesale and retail sector", a euphemism for informal trade. – Jason Moyo