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Tanzania's Unions: Striking While the Iron's Hot?

Teacher strikes this summer follow in a trend of unions using industrial action to demand better pay and conditions.
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A school house in Kazita, Tanzania. Photograph by New Course.

Arusha, Tanzania:

This July, Tanzania’s teachers conducted strikes demanding pay increases of more than 100%. The strike – supported by around 200,000 teachers, representing 95.7% of the Tanzania Teachers Union (TTU) – was called following failed negotiations with the government. The action ended when the High Court ruled that the action was illegal.

The teacher strikes followed on from doctor strikes earlier in the year which also called for better pay and working conditions. Meanwhile, anti-government sentiment is reportedly growing in many sectors of society amidst rising costs of living in Tanzania.

As support for the ruling Chama cha Mapinduzi (CCM) (‘Party of the Revolution’) wavers and the influence of Chama cha Demokrasia na Maendeleo (CHADEMA) (‘Party for Democracy and Progress’) – one of Tanzania’s opposition parties – grows, space for unions to assert power after decades of being strangled by state control and collusion is widening.

Yet questions remain over what the emerging union agenda will look like – will it be able to break out of bureaucratic centralism, will it address the paramount questions of organising women and informal workers, and what will the growth of CHADEMA mean for the labour movement?

Negotiating, striking, and appealing

Teachers in Tanzania earn an average of around $120 a month, but wages are often late or not paid at all. Teachers demanded a pay increase of 100%, as well as allowances and extra pay for working in remote rural areas. The union has also leveraged the fact that the schools lack books and desks, as well as libraries and laboratories.

The teachers also demand a 55% raise in allowances for science teachers and 50% for other teachers.

Although the government expressed willingness to discuss teacher demands at a “proper negotiating forum,” the union refused to return on the government’s terms. While the government increased next year’s salaries by 14% in July, the TTU argues that this does not fulfil their demands as they were not consulted over the change.

The dispute between the teachers and the government was registered at the Commission for Mediation and Arbitration (CMA) in June. But the CMA failed to resolve the dispute after a month of futile mediation. When the negotiations collapsed, voting began to allow the teachers to strike.

The High Court declared their striking illegal, since the notice given on Friday, 29 July did not allow the employer the legally mandated 48 hours’ notice to safeguard its properties. Judge Sophia Wambura of the High Court's Labour Division demanded that the TTU pay damages and compensate students who missed classes.

Education and Vocational Training minister Shukuru Kawambwa asserted that the government may withhold the salaries of teachers found taking part in the boycott.

TTU president Gratian Mukoba called off the strike, but announced in mid-August that the dispute would be taken to the Court of Appeal for further adjudication.

Moving towards strike action

The teachers’ strike follows on from a trend of industrial action by unions whose influential appears to be growing. The teachers’ demands were, for example, supported by the Trade Union Congress of Tanzania (TUCTA), the first trade union federation in Tanzanian history completely autonomous of the government, though it is still finding its feet as an independent body.

In 2010, TUCTA advised workers to air their grievances peacefully around May Day and proposed an indefinite general strike in protest at the government's failure to increase the minimum wage. President Jakaya Kikwete threatened striking workers with expulsion or legal action, claiming the strike was illegitimate because the trade unions were still in negotiations with the government, and TUCTA called off the strike.

Industrial action has also been organised in recent years by the Tanzania Mining and Construction Workers Union's (TAMICO) in the Bulyanhulu Gold Mine as part of an ongoing dispute with Barrick Gold Tanzania. 1,000 of the 1,971 mine workers walked off in October 2007 calling for better pay and conditions.

$2.5 billion of gold has been exported in the last five years, yet 33% of Tanzania's 46 million population still live on less than $1.25 a day. The government has reportedly only accrued about $21 million a year in royalties.

The politics of continuation

These moves towards strike action as a key tactic of the labour movement in Tanzania highlight unions’ protracted struggle against international capital with which CCM has aligned itself since the introduction of the World Bank’s structural adjustment policies at the end of the 1980s.

These neoliberal policies shrunk the state and, by liberalising prices, led to further inequality and poverty, forcing unions to engage not only with the government but also with the forces of global capital to protect and promote workers' rights and demands.

As it stands now, neither the government nor unions can afford the possibility of prolonged industrial fall-out. The government cannot afford to lose face in the build-up to the 2015 elections, which many believe will be the closest fought since independence in 1961. The CCM has maintained political dominance for 50 years, but it is far from united, and with divisions likely to grow, CHADEMA could take advantage as the 2015 elections approach.

The unions, on the other hand, cannot afford to continue an indefinite strike both for financial reasons and in terms of public opinion. Tanzanian unions face scarce resources and lack a unified vision for 21st century unionism free from the shackles of state control.

Furthermore, in the eyes of many workers, unions are corrupt appendages of the political system. Many trade union officials grew up under state control and old habits die hard. And with many believing that financial corruption and laundering amongst union leaders is prevalent, a significant proportion of workers simply choose to operate un-unionised.

As international capital takes an ever deeper foothold in Tanzania and the government continues to refuse public sector workers' demands, inequalities and injustices could become amplified. With a greater degree of political space open,  the trade union movement has an opportunity to cast off its old cosy tactics, take advantage of the situation and represent workers interests more stridently in Tanzania's emerging political economy.

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