CityPress - - Front Page - Zwelinz­ima Vavi, the for­mer gen­eral sec­re­tary of labour fed­er­a­tion Cosatu, was the con­vener of the steer­ing com­mit­tee for this week­end’s work­ers’ sum­mit. He spoke to De­wald van Ren­sburg

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

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