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Trade Unions' Stay-Away Strike Flops

No sign of riot police as people turn up to work as usual, despite calls for a massive strike.
By Nonthando Bhebhe
The trade union federation, once President Robert Mugabe’s nemesis, has faded into oblivion as a political force, analysts say.

A “stay-away” strike called by Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, ZCTU, flopped last week as workers ignored the call for a nationwide strike on September 19 and 20 in protest against a government wage freeze.

ZCTU, the dominant trade union federation in Zimbabwe, was formed in 1981 through the merger of six unions, and currently has 30 members.

In the Nineties, the ZCTU grew increasingly opposed to the government of President Robert Mugabe and was the main force behind the formation of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, MDC, headed by a former ZCTU general secretary, Morgan Tsvangirai.

Demonstrations organised by the ZCTU threatened to bring Zimbabwe to its knees in the late Nineties, but subsequent protests have been less effective. In September last year, the ZCTU was forced to abandon plans for mass protests after its leaders were arrested at the start of the main demonstration.

The labour movement had hoped that this time round, with tensions in Zimbabwe running high because of shortages of basic commodities including bread, and the collapsing value of wages, the majority would heed the call.

Despite this, shops, businesses and factories in the country’s major cities stayed open. In the capital Harare, it was business as usual, and some people professed complete ignorance about the general strike.

The riot police are usually out in force whenever labour unions or opposition parties call for strikes, but this time there was no sign of them in Harare’s central business district or in high-density suburbs around the city such as Highfield, Glen Norah, Budiriro and Glen View, which police refer to as “hot spots”. During past protests, residents in such areas have woken up to army and police vehicles rumbling through the streets to deter people from participating in the mass action.

A junior officer in the riot police told IWPR that although his men were put on high alert from four in the morning on the first day of the strike action, they remained on stand-by rather than deploying in the streets.

“Normally we would have been deployed to areas that we call hot spots and road-blocks would have been mounted along the city’s major roads. But because the general feeling was that it would fail, we were just told to be on high alert and should be ready if there was trouble,” he said.

Interviews around Harare’s central business district revealed a mix of reasons why people did not heed the ZCTU’s call to stay at home. Some said that they could not afford to jeopardise their job, in an environment of 80 per cent unemployment, others that they had not even heard there was a strike. Many felt that labour protests had proved futile.

“What strike? What job stay-away when most people are unemployed?” asked Juliana Marufu, who works in one of the few factories that are still operating. “I heard about it but thought it a huge joke.”

Memory Ncube, who works at the checkout in a supermarket, said, “I cannot risk losing my job. I am already struggling to make ends meet and I would rather keep my low-paying job – at least I am getting some money, even though it’s little, but it’s better than nothing.”

Like many others, this supermarket worker felt it would be pointless to join the strike action.

“What’s the point of participating in a stay-away when they have never succeeded?” asked Ncube. “Why they keep on calling for these stay-aways, I just don’t know. They need to come up with better strategies, and they are starting to lose their credibility. What happened in the Nineties can never be repeated, and that they have to accept.”

One street-wise bakery worker told IWPR that he needed to come to work so that he could earn extra money on the side to supplement his meagre wages. Like many workers in Zimbabwe these days, he and his friends pilfer from their employer, in their case by loading extra loaves of bread onto the outgoing delivery trucks.

“I make all my deals at the office. Staying at home would not bring food on my table, so why stay at home? Even if I did, would that make government review its decision? I don’t think so,” said the bakery worker, who did not want to be named. “I think the ZCTU has seen its better days as a political force.”

Some senior MDC members felt the timing of the strike was all wrong as it coincided with the debate on a constitutional bill paving the way for joint parliamentary and presidential elections next year.

The bill was passed unanimously in the lower and upper houses of parliament on September 20 and 25, respectively. The MDC came under fire from other parts of the opposition, which felt it had made far too big a concession to ZANU-PF by allowing the amendments to go through unopposed.

Joseph Gumbo, a worker in Harare, said the ZCTU should have known better than to call last week’s “stay-away”.

“The ZCTU has exposed itself badly and will never again be taken seriously by anybody,” he said. “The ZANU-PF government now sees it as a dead donkey. I think politically they are no longer a force to be reckoned with.”

Nonthando Bhebhe is the pseudonym of a reporter in Zimbabwe.

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