Labour’s a confusion of unions
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.