VAVI’S GOT A BATTLE AHEAD
Why do we need a new federation? What does a federation achieve?
The trade union movement has been fragmenting at an alarming rate, but it has not translated into more workers belonging to unions. Only 26% of workers belong to unions, and it is declining by the day.
More importantly, most workers join unions to get protection for their jobs. No union or federation can claim it has been successful at stopping the jobs-loss blood bath.
So what we need is to broaden the unity of the workers. But this unity must now cut across the usual political and ideological differences. It must cut across the usual racial or skill-level differences. It must unite blue collar and white collar workers, white workers and black African workers. Only one existing labour federation, the National Council of Trade Unions (Nactu), is involved. Is the idea to dissolve them and create a new superfederation?
That is what we are discussing on Saturday at the workers’ summit. What kind of unity will we build? Fifty unions, which include all the affiliates of Nactu, will come together and ask how we will practically do this. What do you think should happen?
My very strong view is that there should be one federation, one country. There should be a new way of organising workers across all the sectors so that we express our principle of one union, one industry, in recognition of a changed economic circumstance. Several people in that room will be from unions that try to organise the same workers. So are you willing to dissolve or amalgamate a union? To what extent does the leadership of a union have an interest in keeping their union intact?
There are histories here that are important. There are colours and logos that are important and there are huge emotional attachments to all of these things. There are political and organisational considerations. All of these things matter. We have to tread very, very carefully. So unions have to recognise that the thing they organise has changed?
It is going to be a discussion that will require input from experts, people who could do research to look at how this restructuring by capital has impacted on the lives of workers. What about domestic workers?
The domestic-worker issue is the most difficult subject among trade unions all over the world. It is no longer limited to the domestic workers. Lots of small-scale clothing and textile work is homebased. It is easy to reach out to domestic workers, and you can find them in all of the suburbs. While the issue is to service them, to protect them against victimisation in an isolated workplace. That’s what makes it a nightmare. It’s going to be a huge challenge. Don’t some workers have opposing interests?
Very much so. In the context of South Africa’s apartheid history and our colonial history, there is no doubt that our history benefited white workers. The latest employment equity report just reinforces that. We are making no real progress. It is scary.
Inherently, there are those who are benefiting – there will be those workers who are aspiring. That usually leads to a clash and that is why white workers will tend to aggregate under a white union and why black workers will tend towards having a union that champions their aspirations.
They [white workers] are better paid, better skilled and enjoy better protection and better job security. That makes unity very difficult.
But to keep the status quo on the basis of those divisions will be committing treason towards both black and white workers. Unity must arise and be based on fairness. Fairness means that there must be redress and there can be no negotiation about that. When things were falling apart at Cosatu, you started using the term ‘social distance’ to describe the root of the problem. Is there a way to avoid an aristocracy developing when you have large unions? One reason why I don’t want a big rush to a new federation is that I would hate to see a replication of those mistakes.
The issue of social distance between leaders and their members is what gave us Marikana, basically. It happens at every level. Full-time shop stewards were given cellular phones, laptops and air-conditioned offices. The unions negotiate for them to get better salaries because they won’t get promotions. It becomes an area of competition, tension and stress. Then there is the social distance between the shop stewards as a collective and their members.
Shop stewards these days face a greater possibility of being targeted by management, which wants to weaken the unions, for promotions. So they easily end up in human resources positions and are more likely to be driving the posh car in the next year – and all of that.
That creates tensions in the workplace in that workers now say, ‘Ag, look, the union is about giving opportunities...’ A union by definition represents workers – people who have jobs.
Then you are speaking on behalf of something that is declining ... What South Africa needs is a broader labour movement that will seek to unify the unemployed with the employed, the informal sector with the outsourced, the outsourced with the permanent, and so forth. If you can’t do that, then you are slowly becoming a labour aristrocrat. And suddenly the DA, the right wing, makes sense. What can such an organisation do for the unemployed?
There are so many things. A new federation must, for example, as a matter of its ordinary campaign, campaign for the destruction of the colonial economy, for the destruction of the monopolies that control the economy. It must, as a matter of course, campaign for industrialisation, decent work, a social wage, better transport, better schools, better education, better training. It must campaign for a comprehensive social security system.
It must have a permanent desk that coordinates the activities of those unemployed people. South Africa is characterised as a place where strikes are too long. A strike is a cost to workers. It is their major tool, but is it being used well?
A union can never have a powerful strike if it organises only a small section of workers. The 26% factor is a big issue. That is your first problem.
The second problem is when you have levels of unemployment that work to the advantage of the bosses. Marx and Engels spoke about the labour reserve. It is so easy to replace strikers. It is so bloody easy.
Then there is a technical issue, number three. You don’t go on a strike that you are not sure you will win. A good strike should be three to seven days.
But once it is in a third or fourth week, you are in a crisis because of the levels of poverty and the fact that there are no strike funds in the country – and the employer knows that. There has been no appetite to build strike funds in this country. How do you feel about how the students’ #OutsourcingMustFall movement, at least at some universities, achieved what unions couldn’t do for decades?
True. Let me tell you what was the big difference between #FeesMustFall and the traditional unions placing demands in rounds of negotiations. #FeesMustFall was instant. It was impulsive. It was based on today and did not apply for a negotiating section so-and-so.
Then when there is a dispute, [the student movement] doesn’t go through the normal giving of notice and the [Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration], and when there is a 48hour strike notice...
No, #FeesMustFall and #OutsourcingMustFall is workers assembled along with students in the afternoon and they march tomorrow – and they are disrupting the whole life of the university and force a deal. They were very successful. How long until you have a federation up and running?
Well, let’s see what they say on Saturday. The steering committee has said up to four months, which is October. There is huge pressure for an identity, for a home for independent unions.
BIG PLAYER Zwelinzima Vavi convened this week’s summit for workers, where his involvement in the labour movement was to be made clearer