Saturday, August 09, 2008

Unions have no substitute to struggle, engagement

Unions have no substitute to struggle, engagement
By Editor
Friday August 08, 2008 [04:00]

WORKERS and their organisations need to seriously participate in politics to help determine policies that affect their lives. For this reason, we find it difficult to accept the narrow trade unionism that is being advocated by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). ITUC maintains that trade unions should stick to their mandate of representing workers instead of turning into political tools, and that it is unacceptable under ITUC rules and regulations for trade unionists to engage in political operations of a particular country.

ITUC insists that it will never allow trade unions to turn political or to be used by the government because that does not fall under their mandate.

Demagogue is easy – we all know that – and not for nothing has our working class, our trade union movement, learned so much over these years.

Economism is easy – and we all know that – and one of the weapons of capitalism to prevent and block the influence of the workers is precisely economism.

Economism has caused many a headache to more than one democratic process before the workers have had a chance of becoming aware of their role in society. And because in as much as a policy is not their policy, then it is not a policy for the workers.

The labour movement has a role of watching over the interests of the workers and of watching over their rights, over all the prerogatives the state gives it to protect the interests of the workers against any misunderstandings, arbitrary action or injustice. It must be the spokesperson of the interests of the workers as such; of all their problems, of all the legitimate, just interests of the workers in all fields and in all senses.

And in this world, things are complicated and are decided by many factors. We should look at problems from different aspects, not just from one.

The wealth of society is created by the workers, peasants and working intellectuals. If they take their destiny into their own hands, follow a correct political line and take an active attitude in solving problems of society instead of evading them, there will be no difficulty in the world which they cannot overcome.

From our own experience, and having observed the international developments, no trade union can avoid political struggles if it is to bring tangible benefits to its members. Yet, a political engagement holds many complex challenges and opportunities for a trade union movement.

Perhaps one of those challenges is how to balance shop-floor struggles and broader political struggles.

If not carefully managed, this can produce an imbalance – over-reliance on political deal making and abandonment of the trade union base and shop-floor struggles.

A union movement reliance exclusively on political deal and lobbying underestimates its power and is generally reluctant to use power to tilt the balance of forces in favour of the interests of its members. As such, it becomes part of the elite that has a stake in maintaining the status quo.

Our trade union movement has before and after independence learnt to combine workplace struggles with broader political struggles. From inception, the labour movement in Zambia recognised and understood that workplace injustices under colonialism were linked to the broader political system of colonialism.

And under the one-party state, our labour movement recognised and understood that the solution to its problems lay in the broadening of democracy and the dismantling of the one party political system.

At the same time – and in all stages – our labour movement recognised that it would not, on its own, defeat colonial operation and exploitation and had to enter into alliances with a range of other forces, in particular the independence struggle movement, to do so.

And at the beginning of the 1990s, for the same reason, the labour movement entered into alliances with a range of other forces to return the country to plural politics. It is in this vein, that the labour movement became a key component of our independence struggle and the campaign for the return to multi-partism.

At the same time, it did not abandon the workplace struggles – in fact, workplace grievances were utilised to mobilise the workers in the broader political struggles. So, workers’ workplace struggles were knitted together with other sectoral grievances. This historical position had put the labour movement in a position of strength politically after independence although it didn’t succeed in doing so after the return to multipartism.

And with this experience, there is no need for our labour movement to retreat to a narrow trade union movement – concerned solely with workplace issues. Of course, both after independence and the return to multipartism, the trade union movement was faced with two stark choices: retreat from the political train and revert to a narrow trade union role or continue to play an active political role whilst ensuring that the new regimes begin to deal with the old contradictions.
However, there is need to realise that even in the best democratic society, workplace struggles and political struggles cannot be divorced from one another.

Whatever the disappointments, setbacks and betrayals, our labour movement’s strategy of engagement in the political terrain to shape policies and legislation has in some way – especially after independence – paid off to the working class. It played an active role in shaping labour, social and aspects of economic policy.
Trade unions are by nature not political parties and form alliances with political formations. Trade unions or workers on their own cannot deliver independence or liberation or a better life for all and have to form alliances with political formations.

There are prerequisites that make any alliance between a trade union and political parties in particular once those political parties win political power. The trade union movement has to be strong both organisationally and politically – after all, without power, one cannot negotiate or force a deal.

The trade union movement must jealously guard its independence and develop a willingness to stand firm on matters of principle or issues that will have a negative impact to members. The trade union movement must develop an array of tactical alliances with a range of civil society organisations so that it learns to have a broad approach to issues and at the same time make it difficult to be isolated. There have to be rules and structures that govern its involvement in the determination of policy; otherwise it ends up being used as a vote catcher by the political party. The trade union must have the capacity to engage in complex transformation issues at the policy level.

Clearly, there is no substitute to struggle and engagement. In a nutshell, our labour movement has to learn to combine a multi-pronged strategy of forming strategic and tactical alliances. It has also to develop its capacity to formulate policies and maintain its ability to mobilise members in support of its demands. Equality is important, and our trade unions should embark on struggles to represent workers on the shop-floor for better working conditions. Without that no trade union can survive.

The central argument being articulated here is that trade unions can represent members’ political interests by articulating clear policy positions around which they can galvanise their members; second, in forming political alliances, they must choose political parties that can best represent workers’ interests but who are also capable of winning an election; third, they must never relinquish their ability to mobilise their members and society in broad struggles to achieve their aims – the boardroom must be combined with mass struggle; fourth, members should be actively involved in shaping the positions of the trade union movement and internal democracy guarded jealously; lastly, trade unions must continue to represent workers’ interests at the shop-floor.

In this way, we think unions can best represent their members politically.

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