Missed opportunity, or new beginning?
Cosatu’s congress begged for action on many levels, but the federation affecting its members
At the end of Cosatu’s congress, I was left wondering if it had ushered in a new era for the labour federation, or if it had been a missed opportunity. Congresses are about a public show of unity, speeches and the serious business of taking stock of where the organisation is after its last congress, implementing previous resolutions, conditions of workers and the poor, the economic and political situation, and the international “balance of forces”.
I was taken aback by Cosatu’s lack of prioritisation, with the organisational report only being discussed on the last day of the congress. As a result, issues pertinent to workers, including retrenchments, rallying the unorganised, servicing of members, poaching, new ways of organising workers in light of the changing nature of the workplace and the implications for Cosatu when its members are primarily public sector workers, were neglected.
While much transformation of the workplace has occurred in the public sector, the private sector remains largely untransformed, with many workers being exploited despite a favourable labour dispensation.
So it is important for Cosatu to have industrial workers in the ranks of its affiliates, or it runs the risk of becoming a public sector federation with little say on wage and industrial policies, and transformation of the workplace.
Just as in 2007, the congress spent a lot of time debating the position to take on the ANC leadership succession. There was no discussion about what happened the last time the ANC engaged in such debates, its effect on Cosatu and any gains made in the process. Nothing was said about the challenges facing the organisation, economically and socially, and the kind of leadership needed to steer the ship forward.
It all became about giving Cyril Ramaphosa’s election campaign a head start in response to the perceived one around that of Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.
While I am not a proponent of the notion that trade unions are just about gumboots and overalls, I firmly believe they are first and foremost about organising the unorganised and servicing members across the economy regardless of their political affiliations.
A congress, or the parliament of workers as it is often referred to, should do an honest assessment of why an overwhelming majority of workers remain outside of organised labour despite a favourable labour regime.
Why is it that municipal union Samwu, transport union Satawu and, to some extent, teachers’ union Sadtu have had workers splitting off to form their own unions? It surely cannot just be about the need to access workers’ money.
Speaking of Samwu, the congress should have discussed why Cosatu supports its leaders when they are on trial for corruption and plundering workers’ money.
Why has paper workers’ union Ceppwawu, which has not been to a congress beyond the stipulated time, not submitted audited financial statements to the labour department? Why is this tolerated in a federation that has publicly stated it is against corruption?
The last congress agreed on the need for a minimum wage. Here was an opportunity not to just accept that the matter was before Nedlac, but to give content to Cosatu’s position and draft a programme of action to realise a positive outcome.
Workers were left uninformed on what the position of the employers and the government was, beyond agreeing to investigating the modalities thereof. What is the relationship between Cosatu’s demands and the living wage demands raised by the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF)?
Or is the fact that these issues were raised by the EFF not worth looking at?
Metalworkers’ union Numsa was expelled for, among other things, extending its scope in contravention of the Cosatu principle.
Farm workers’ union Fawu and other unions allege that they and many others did the same, yet there was no discussion on how to avoid a similar situation in the future.
Also not discussed was if the time had not arrived to move forward with the merging of industrial unions into the much-vaunted superunions, as resolved in the 1997 national congress.
Furthermore, because this was the first opportunity after the emergence of mine workers’ union Amcu, and its growth in numbers that saw it displacing the NUM from several mining houses, one would have thought an analysis of what went wrong and how other unions could avoid the same scenario would have been presented or debated.
But the congress spent a considerable amount of time on credentials, which is understandable given the positions of Fawu and Saccawu on Cosatu’s second deputy president, Zingiswa Losi, and new metalworkers’ union Limusa, and on the principle that should be followed by the ANC in deciding on its presidency.
This despite the fact that the last Cosatu congress resolved never to venture in that area as it has had an effect on the federation’s internal affairs.
So is it all doom and gloom for Cosatu? It will depend on what position the leadership takes to unite the federation and focus on shop floor issues, minimum wages, a living wage campaign, corruption, labour brokers, e-tolls, the misuse of trade union funds, servicing of members and a need to act firmly against wrongdoers that is not based on factional interests.
Furthermore, having taken a decision to expel Numsa and former general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, and being aware of the forthcoming “workers’ summit” – which is a precursor to the formation of a new federation – Cosatu needs to be careful on how it engages in the upcoming local government elections while remaining focused on servicing its members, or risk losing them to the new federation. Can it rise to the occasion? Only time will tell.
Shilowa is the former general secretary of Cosatu