There are unions…and then there are unions in Zimbabwe.
Posted by sanityinjection on February 5, 2010
For those familiar with the recent history of the African nation of Zimbabwe, it often seems like insanity has become the norm arther than the exception in that poor country, which has suffered many hardships thanks to its certifiably insane dictator-president, Robert Mugabe. Holding true to this pattern is Zimbabwe’s union of civil servants, which has just begun striking for higher wages.
Why is this insane? Let’s start with the fact that Zimbabwe’s government and economy are perilously unstable and hanging by a thread. Only the country’s drastic conditions and international pressure forced Mugabe to agree to an uneasy “unity government” with the opposition. The union may believe that they can exploit the government’s weakness, but in fact what they may end up doing is destroying it and giving Mugabe the excuse to return to his preferred form of rule – a ruthless and brutal dictatorship thinly disguised as democracy. Is that really worth the extra pay?
Now, let’s examine the union’s demands in the proper economic context. Civil servants are some of the most educated people in Zimbabwe and their skill level is high compared to the rest of the workforce. It is certainly appropriate that they receive above-average wages. The government has offered a 10% pay increase resulting in an average salary of about $170 per month. That doesn’t sound like a lot of money, but ask yourself if you got a 10% raise last year. Anyway, the union rejected the offer, so the government came back with a much better offer – a basic salary of $236 per month. The union rejected that, too.
At this point, it might be helpful to note that while we in the US are freaking out about an unemployment rate that is hovering around 10%, the unemployment rate in Zimbabwe is in the vicinity of 94%. That means people are incredibly fortunate if they have a job at all. Now, remember I said civil servants should earn an above average wage? The average wage in Zimbabwe is a whopping 30 cents per month. Seriously. That’s not a typo. The official poverty level in Zimbabwe is $41 per month. Source – Wikipedia: Economy of Zimbabwe (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economy_of_Zimbabwe)
So a little math: The government’s initial offer was about 4 times the poverty level. The US equivalent (based on 2008 federal poverty level of $11,000) would be about $44,000 annually. Not amazing, but not awful. The government’s second offer was about 6 times the poverty level, or the equivalent of $66,000 here in the US. I think most of us would consider that a reasonable salary for a qualified government official.
So what wages, pray tell, is the union demanding? They say they will not return to work for less than a minimum salary of $630 per month, or 15 times the poverty level – the equivalent of $165,000 in the US! I feel fully confident that if US government workers made a *minimum* of $165,000/year there would be an armed taxpayer uprising. Even the SEIU would be embarrassed.
Honestly, this is like mugging a homeless person and looking in his wallet for $100 bills! These guys even make the baseball players’ union seem easy to deal with.
What is really going on in Zimbabwe is a society that has totally collapsed. The union has no faith that this government is going to last and they are out to beg, borrow or steal whatever they can get while they still can. They see a government that for the past ten years has not cared about the plight of its people, so why should they care about anyone other than themselves? And yet they are hammering the final nail in the coffin of their own people.
There is a lesson here for Americans. This is the ultimate end of the road that we embark on when we engage in attempts to pit one group of Americans against another politically and economically – rich vs. poor, white vs. black, men vs. women, labor vs. management etc. Scapegoating and race/class warfare is exactly what has destroyed Zimbabwe, and it can destroy America too if we let it. It was John F. Kennedy who said, “A rising tide lifts all boats.” It was Benjamin Franklin who said, “We must all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.” Enlightened self-interest is the fundamental principle that has made our economy successful. But exclusive self-interest can just as easily destroy it. I hope that America’s unions take a lesson from the sad example of Zimbabwe.