Global crisis fuels the rise of unions
In the face of the ongoing global economic crisis, with massive unemployment and a wage and welfare gap continuing to grow, the remnants of communist parties around the world are seeing a chance of again becoming major, even leading, political forces.
And the prime vehicle towards this goal is the trade union movement.
It is this that lies behind the decision of labour federation Cosatu’s leadership to host the 17th congress of the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU). Until this week, none of the other South African trade union federations, or the major international body, the International Trade Union Confederation (Ituc), was aware of this decision.
Ituc general secretary Sharan Burrow has now sent a formal request to Cosatu to confirm whether the federation intends to host the WFTU congress.
In previous statements, Ituc has made it clear it does not consider the WFTU a “genuine trade union organisation” since it includes among its affiliates the state-sponsored unions of repressive countries such as North Korea and Syria.
However, formal affiliation to the WFTU and closer links with that body have been on the cards for Cosatu for more than three years. In the wake of May Day rallies in 2012, SA Communist Party general secretary Blade Nzimande urged Cosatu to affiliate to the WFTU. He maintained this would “advance the cause of national liberation and socialism in the world today”.
At the Cosatu congress later that year, several affiliates called for affiliation to the WFTU as an “anti-imperialist, class-based federation”. Significantly, one of the leading supporters of this position was the National Union of Metalworkers (Numsa), which was subsequently expelled from Cosatu. The move to host the WFTU congress again brings to the fore the ideological fragmentation that existed after World War 2, when the WFTU became, to a large extent, the agent of Soviet foreign policy throughout the Cold War period.
The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (now Ituc), was the largely USand British-inspired response.
With the disintegration of the Soviet Union and its satellites in 1990, the WFTU all but collapsed. This was a time of triumphalism for one side in a politically bipolar world; the private enterprise West had apparently finally dominated the state-centred East, and these models were portrayed as the only alternatives available.
Yet on an economic level, both functioned on the same principle: competition. And this meant the accumulation of profit in order to compete better.
On the one side was the fusion of government and business — of state and capital. On the other, the economy was privately controlled, with the government at apparent arm’s length. In the East, the trade unions became merely conveyor belts for party and state. In the West they were, to varying degrees, independent of party, state and business, although wooed by all.
But the concept of freedom of association, of the right of workers to independently form and manage unions, remains the Ituc cornerstone and sets it apart from the WFTU, which stipulates that “worker states” should be supported by their trade unions.