Zim workers pay for congress's political focus

Commentators say this year's May Day celebrations were a damp squib, reflecting the ZCTU's sidelining from mainstream politics. (Str/AFP)

Commentators say this year's May Day celebrations were a damp squib, reflecting the ZCTU's sidelining from mainstream politics. (Str/AFP)

Dabbling in politics and factionalism appears to have weakened the country's largest workers union, the ­Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), leaving workers with very little to celebrate on May Day.

Although the congress rolled out Workers Day commemorations across the country this week, political observers said the celebrations were futile as the labour union had become a shadow of its former glory.

The entering into mainstream politics of Morgan Tsvangirai, the congress's former secretary general, appears to have sounded the death knell for the labour movement.

"The migration of the core of the ZCTU's leadership into politics, meant that focus shifted into the political arena and the interests of workers, which the union relied on for support, were abandoned," said Trevor Maisiri, a political analyst with the International Crisis Group.

However, Japhet Moyo, the ­congress's secretary general, defended the labour union's migration into politics and its strong ties with the MDC, saying it could not abandon the MDC as it had played a role in its formation.

"We were founded by Zanu-PF in 1981, but we split in 1986 when Zanu-PF proposed a one-party state. The ZCTU formed the MDC in 1999 and we are not in the MDC, but are aligned to it. It is important to us that we remain independent," said Moyo.

But the congress's independence from the MDC has remained questionable, with the former doing very little to reflect workers' grievances, even during the tenure of the MDC's Tendai Biti as finance minister.

Salary increases
Public servants have been at the forefront, led by the Zimbabwe Teachers Association, in pressing Biti for salary increases, from the current $250 a month to match the poverty line of $550 a month.

The congress's weakness in pushing for an improvement in the material position of public servants has fuelled a perception among the working class that the labour union has become a mere extension of political interests.

Munyaradzi Gwisai, a labour expert and a law lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe, said the labour movement in Zimbabwe no longer represented workers following its alignment with political parties. "The truth of the matter is that it is the bosses and politicians who will be celebrating and eating across the political divide at the expense of workers themselves," said Gwisai.

"Union leaders, who should have known better, decided to be fed with crumbs, while their members starve, hence workers cannot expect salvation from such people."

The congress has, itself, been caught up in a power struggle, with its leader, George Nkiwane, battling to ward off a challenge from a rival faction led by Lovemore Matombo.

During last year's May Day celebrations Tsvangirai admitted that the split in the congress had robbed the labour movement of "one strong voice" and appealed for dialogue between the two factions.

The August 2011 split in the ­congress has its roots in a dispute initiated by Matombo, who refused to recognise a congress that sought to elect a new leadership. Matombo claimed that the congress was full of irregularities and aimed to push him out of office.

Links between unions and political parties are common in South Africa. The largest labour body, the Congress of Trade Unions, lends support to the ruling ANC.

Ray Ndlovu

Ray Ndlovu

Ray Ndlovu has been a correspondent for the Mail & Guardian in Zimbabwe since 2009. His areas of interest include politics and business. With a BSc honours degree in journalism and media studies, Ray aspires to become a media mogul.   Read more from Ray Ndlovu

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