Labour’s a con­fu­sion of unions

CityPress - - Business - Terry Bell busi­ness@city­

The best way to de­scribe the labour move­ment at present is that it is in a state of flux – of on­go­ing change and in­sta­bil­ity. As such, I think a suit­able col­lec­tive term for the move­ment might be “a con­fu­sion of unions”.

The ma­jor play­ers, at a lead­er­ship level, are Cosatu, the Na­tional Union of Me­tal­work­ers of SA (Numsa), the Na­tional Coun­cil of Trade Unions (Nactu), the As­so­ci­a­tion of Minework­ers and Con­struc­tion Union (Amcu) and the Fed­er­a­tion of Unions of SA (Fe­dusa). Of course, all the talk is about unity. But the May Day ral­lies last Sun­day re­vealed that unity is still il­lu­sive: a Cosatu rally in Mamelodi; a work­ers’ sum­mit/Numsa rally in Tem­bisa; and an Amcu gath­er­ing in Klerks­dorp.

But while Amcu hap­pens to be the largest af­fil­i­ate of Nactu by far, the lat­ter’s pres­i­dent, Joseph Maqhekeni, at­tended the Tem­bisa rally.

Fe­dusa took the po­si­tion of wish­ing a plague on all the di­vi­sive houses.

But then Fe­dusa and Nactu also com­prise the SA Con­fed­er­a­tion of Trade Unions, a sort of off-the-shelf united, party-po­lit­i­cally un­aligned and pu­ta­tive sin­gle labour fed­er­a­tion for South Africa.

What is clear from the Sun­day gath­er­ings is that Cosatu has no in­ten­tion of break­ing from an al­liance with govern­ment, which hap­pens to be the largest em­ployer in the land.

This is the is­sue that has be­dev­illed Cosatu since the ANC took power.

When the ANC won the 1994 elec­tions, 21 se­nior Cosatu mem­bers en­tered Par­lia­ment as ANC MPs. In­cluded in that union in­flux was the then Numsa gen­eral sec­re­tary, Moses Mayek­iso.

He left af­ter two years, com­plain­ing that he and the oth­ers had sat on the back benches and had never been con­sulted about any poli­cies.

The ANC had, by then, al­ready dumped the in­ter­ven­tion­ist, “re­dis­tri­bu­tion lead­ing to growth” macroe­co­nomic pol­icy drawn up by its own Macroe­co­nomic Re­search Group.

But the com­bined trade union move­ment took up the re­search group’s ideas and, in 1996, put them for­ward in a doc­u­ment ti­tled So­cial Eq­uity and Job Cre­ation.

Only weeks later, the govern­ment re­sponded with the skimpy Growth, Em­ploy­ment and Re­dis­tri­bu­tion pol­icy out­line, based on the “trickle down” the­ory of growth lead­ing to re­dis­tri­bu­tion – the an­tithe­sis of the union pro­pos­als.

Al­though there was much grum­bling within Cosatu, this pol­icy was ac­cepted and the al­liance re­mained in­tact, al­though car­ry­ing a fur­ther con­tra­dic­tion.

This was some­thing that ev­i­dently could not last.

And the “Zuma tsunami” that car­ried Ja­cob Zuma to the pres­i­dency of the ANC and the coun­try was the fi­nal gam­ble. It was sup­posed to sig­nal a new, pro-worker ori­en­ta­tion by govern­ment. That did not hap­pen.

Mat­ters were com­pli­cated by the scan­dal of Nkandla and the mas­sacre at Marikana. Cosatu is now badly frac­tured. So the cry on all sides is for a re­turn to ba­sics, to shop floor democ­racy, to real worker con­trol.

For the sake of all sellers of labour, this will hope­fully be achieved.

But what must also be taken into ac­count in build­ing a united labour move­ment is the ef­fect on work­ers and the com­mu­ni­ties in which they live of the dig­i­tal age, which can ei­ther lib­er­ate or pau­perise and en­slave them.

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