How the good intentions of Zambian unions hurt workers
In Zambia’s mining industry, wages and working conditions have been falling steadily for 30 years. This is mainly due to changes in labor law. Strikes have been banned, the contracting out of workers has become easier, and wages are negotiated at each workplace, rather than for the industry as a whole.
Although the industry, which mainly extracts copper and accounts for 9.95% of GDP, is heavily unionized, unions have been unable to protect workers. Zambian miners are disappointed with their unions. Their disappointment is compounded by the tendency of unions to present themselves as strong. The mismatch of picture and reality leads workers to view union leaders as corrupt or cowardly, rather than helpless by national laws and international capital.
Rather, my research suggests that Zambian unions are close to management because they are trying to help workers. However, through their attempts to help the miners with their daily needs, the unions allowed lower wages and worse working conditions.
I studied Zambian mining unions between 2016 and 2019, to understand why they couldn’t protect workers’ wages and what they were doing instead.
I have examined the organizational practices of three of the largest unions in the country – the Zambia Miners Union, the Zambia United Miners Union and the National Union of Miners and Allied Workers. In more than 120 interviews, I have also explored the daily lives of trade unionists employed in mines, volunteer trade unionists and leaders.
The 12 months of participant observation resulted in two research reports. The first was published in April 2021, the second in June 2021.
Other studies often examine union tactics and the daily lives of workers without connecting the two. I see the day-to-day life of volunteer union leaders in the workplace (called section managers) and the tactics of senior union leaders as intertwined.
Based on these two studies, I argue that by taking moral responsibility for the lives of workers, unions have subsidized an unjust employment system. This argument has two parts. The branch executives justified the low wages that the miners received. And, by presenting themselves as entrepreneurs, by selling goods and services on credit, unions have enabled their members to live on low incomes. It subsidized employers, allowing them to pay less than a living wage.
Unions allowed workers to survive even if real wages were not enough to live on. This meant that the exploitation of wages and poor working conditions could continue.
Justify low wages
Zambia’s mining unions claimed to be powerful and militant. They motivated the workers with chants like “The People United Will Never Be Defeated”. Union leaders argued that they negotiated the highest wages by understanding the economic data and threatening to strike. But instead, they worked closely with employers.
They also opened stores that sold food on credit and offered loans to miners. The leaders of the union sections have come to see themselves as shrewd technocrats. They’ve invested heavily in learning about economic data and industry trends that they believe will shape wages.
Union leaders and members viewed their union as a financially influential entrepreneurial entity because of the companies it ran. They understood these debt-centric companies as a sign of union strength, rather than working poverty.
Miners and trade unionists came to view their wages and working conditions as determined by a fair “free market”, rather than a legal system that favored foreign employers and investors. Seeing it this way also encouraged unions to provide goods and services that subsidized wages below the cost of living.
The leaders of the trade union sections were generally popular miners who held leadership positions in their churches and communities. They helped their colleagues on a day-to-day basis, resolving disputes with management and providing material support to struggling peers. They were also nominally responsible for negotiating wages.
Despite the popularity of union leaders, miners have often accused them of receiving bribes to accept low wages in wage negotiations and to discourage strikes.
In contrast, I found that the mentally and emotionally demanding process of wage bargaining forced union branch leaders to derive their strength from portraying themselves as technocrats. For example, when negotiating wages, they compiled shopping lists showing the rising cost of living.
This encouraged union branch leaders to believe that the negotiations had been fair and had produced the highest wages allowed by the market. This even when legal structures made negotiations unlikely to result in higher wages.
Because the union branch leaders also offered their increasingly poor colleagues gifts and loans, the miners were able to live on steadily declining wages. They were therefore more inclined to listen to branch managers when they discouraged strikes which had sometimes raised wages.
To finance the material support offered by the union branch leaders to the miners, the headquarters of the Zambian mining unions operate small businesses. These target members as customers and charge above market prices. Despite this, they are popular because they offer long (albeit expensive) lines of credit.
Both in Zambia and elsewhere, this is seen as a cynical form of corporate unionism. This implies that unions benefit workers rather than help them in their disputes with management. I found that Zambian mining unions increasingly saw themselves as entrepreneurs. The profits of the small businesses they operated paid for the costs of organizing workers, whose wages were falling.
These unions as businesses have also helped small businesses run by other miners and unemployed Zambians. Rather than seeing this as caused by the inability of unions to secure wages that cover the cost of living, union leaders and local semi-employed miners conceptualized themselves as powerful entrepreneurs, within a free market. fair “.
Unions and workers have helped their unemployed and casual peers by offering them loans or buying their expensive goods and services.
Pathways for Zambian unions
My work calls for understanding the closeness of Zambian unions to management as being caused by unionists’ attempts to improve the lives of workers, rather than by corruption or cowardice. This proximity occurs in the context of a global capitalism that they have been taught to perceive as fair or to accept as inevitable.
A major challenge for unions is to maintain membership numbers without promising wins that are unlikely to happen. Unions may need to continue to use their entrepreneurship and wage negotiation skills to help their members. But, they must also stress that business and union negotiations take place in an unjust national and international labor system.