Missed op­por­tu­nity, or new be­gin­ning?

Cosatu’s con­gress begged for ac­tion on many lev­els, but the fed­er­a­tion af­fect­ing its mem­bers

CityPress - - Voices - Mb­haz­ima Shilowa voices@city­press.co.za

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

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