Global cri­sis fu­els the rise of unions

CityPress - - Business - Terry Bell busi­ness@ city­press. co. za

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.

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