By Thomas Mcnamara

In Zambia’s mining industry, wages and working conditions have consistently declined for 30 years. This is primarily because of changes to labour laws. Strikes have been banned, the subcontracting of workers has become easier, and wages are negotiated at each workplace, rather than for the industry as a whole.
Though the industry, which mines mainly copper and accounts for 9.95% of GDP, is heavily unionised, unions have been unable to protect workers. Zambian miners are disillusioned with their unions. Their disappointment is made worse by the tendency of unions to portray themselves as strong. The mismatch of image and reality leads workers to see union leaders as corrupt or cowardly, rather than as disempowered by national laws and international capital.
My research suggests instead that Zambian unions are close to management because they are trying to help workers. However, through their attempts to assist miners with their daily needs, unions enabled lower wages and worse working conditions.

The research

I studied Zambian mining unions between 2016 and 2019, to understand why they could not protect workers’ wages and what they did instead.
I examined the organisational practices of three of the country’s largest unions – the Mineworkers Union of Zambia, the United Mineworkers Union of Zambia and the National Union of Mine and Allied Workers. In more than 120 interviews, I also explored the daily lives of union members employed on mines, volunteer unionists and leaders.
The 12 months of participant observation culminated in two research reports. The first was published in April 2021, the second in June 2021.
Other studies often examine union tactics and workers’ daily lives without connecting the two. I see the daily lives of workplace-based volunteer union leaders (called branch executives) and the tactics of senior union leaders as entwined.
Based on both pieces of research, I argue that, by taking on moral responsibility for workers’ lives, unions subsidised an unjust employment system. This argument has two parts. Branch executives justified the low wages that miners received. And, through framing themselves as entrepreneurs, selling goods and services on credit, unions made it possible for their members to live on lower incomes. This subsidised employers, by enabling them to pay less than a living wage.
Unions made it possible for workers to survive even though actual wages were not enough to live on. This meant wage exploitation and poor working conditions could continue.

Justifying low wages

Zambia’s mining unions claimed to be powerful and militant. They motivated workers through chants like “The People United Will Never Be Defeated”. Union leaders argued that they negotiated the highest salaries by understanding economic data and by threatening strikes. But instead, they worked closely with employers.
They also opened stores that sold food on credit and offered loans to miners. Union branch executives came to understand themselves as savvy technocrats. They invested heavily in learning the economic data and industry trends that they believed would shape wages.
Union leaders and members saw their union as a financially influential entrepreneurial entity, because of the businesses it ran. They understood these debt-centric businesses as a sign of unions’ strength, rather than workers’ poverty.
Miners and unionists came to see their wages and working conditions as determined by a just “free market”, instead of by a legal system that favoured employers and foreign investors. Seeing things this way also encouraged unions to provide goods and services that subsidised wages below the cost of living.
Union branch executives were typically popular miners who held leadership positions in their church and community. They assisted their co-workers daily, by resolving disputes with management and providing material support to struggling peers. They were also nominally in charge of negotiating wages.
Despite the union leaders’ popularity, miners often accused them of receiving bribes to accept low wages in salary negotiations, and to discourage strikes.
In contrast, I found that the mentally and emotionally demanding process of negotiating wages forced union branch executives to draw strength from depicting themselves as technocrats. For example, when negotiating wages, they compiled shopping lists showing increased living costs.
This encouraged the union branch executives to believe that negotiations had been fair and had produced the highest wages the market allowed. This, even when legal structures made negotiations unlikely to result in higher wages.
Because union branch executives also offered their increasingly poor co-workers gifts and loans, miners were able to live off ever-decreasing salaries. They were thus more likely to listen to the branch executives when they discouraged strikes that had on occasion raised wages.

Union entrepreneurship

To fund the material support offered by union branch executives to miners, Zambian mining union head offices 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 business unionism. It entails unions profiting from workers rather than assisting them in their conflicts with management. I found that Zambian mining unions increasingly conceptualised themselves as entrepreneurs. The profits from the small businesses they operated paid for the costs of unionising workers, whose salaries were decreasing.
These unions-as-businesses also helped small businesses run by other miners and unemployed Zambians. Rather than seeing this as caused by the unions’ inability to obtain wages that covered living costs, the union leaders and local semi-employed miners conceptualised themselves as powerful entrepreneurs, within a “fair” free market.
Unions and workers assisted their unemployed and casually employed peers by offering them loans or buying their overpriced goods and services.

Ways forward for Zambian unions

My work calls for understanding Zambian unions’ closeness to management as caused by unionists’ attempts to improve the lives of workers, rather than by corruption or cowardice. This closeness occurs in the context of a global capitalism that they have either been taught to perceive as just or to accept as inevitable.
A core challenge going forward for the unions is maintaining membership numbers without promising victories that are unlikely to occur. Unions may need to continue using entrepreneurship and wage negotiating skills to assist members. But they must also highlight that union businesses and negotiations occur within an unjust national and international labour system. (Credit: The conversation).

Thomas McNamara, Lecturer, La Trobe University