A series of weekend meetings was what it took to convince striking teachers to return to work. At the end of an unusual Sunday afternoon meeting, teachers’ unions sang a different tune as they urged their members to start reporting for duty to allow for negotiations to continue. This move brings temporary relief to parents and the government. Temporary because actual grievances have not been dealt with and the situation remains delicate.

A joint statement by the Zimbabwe Teachers Association (ZIMTA) and the Progressive Teachers Union of Zimbabwe (PTUZ) noted that the strike had captured the attention of the executive and the legislature but said the executive had failed to address their concerns hence the need to engage the legislature and the judiciary. The statement also lamented what it called “wanton disregard and violation of constitutional and collective labour rights” from state and non-state players. “The industrial action (strike) which commenced on the 5th of February 2019 is hereby suspended… The employer is thus advised to take advantage of this detente to introspect and come up with well thought out, meaningful and long lasting solutions on the salaries grievances or risk similar or more dislocating and disabling labour actions in accordance with the laws of the land,” read the statement.

Further negotiations

The call to suspend the strike is surprising given the vigour that the unions displayed from the onset. It looks like they have given in too quickly. After the joint statement, Zimta posted on Twitter explaining that they decided to suspend the strike as they wait for another National Joint Negotiating Council (NJNC) meeting which is slated for this week. At NJNC meetings, the Apex Council, and not individual teacher unions, takes the leading role. Have the teacher unions realised that they cannot go it alone? Have they failed to make an impact without their mother body, the Apex Council? Well, one thing is certain. We are back where we started and negotiations will go on. Whether those negotiations will yield the desired outcomes for teachers and other civil servants, time will answer that.

Harassment and intimidation

Reports that some teachers were being harassed and intimidated during the strike are a genuine cause for concern. More so with the recent violent protests that rocked the country and a rather heavy handed response by the army and the police. The country has not fully recovered from that episode as security agents are still on the streets. It seems the teachers’ unions are trying to put the safety of their members first by calling off the strike. It is interesting to note that government, through the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education assured the unions that teachers’ safety would be guaranteed as they return to work, something which they never did during the strike. It is reasonable to speculate that government is attempting to buy time because they are only able to award a full cost of living adjustment in April. By convincing the teachers to go back to work as NJNC negotiations drag on, government has bought itself some breathing space and this favours them more than it favours the teachers.

As we watch from the side-lines, the expectation is that students will be helped to make up for lost valuable lesson time. Also, the teachers’ trust in negotiations need not be abused or misplaced. All employees deserve to be heard. If not, we may see more strikes and this is very unproductive.