Labour force gets a new face

CityPress - - Business - Pa­trick Craven busi­ness@city­press.co.za

The long-awaited new trade union fed­er­a­tion will be launched at a found­ing congress from April 21 to 23 that will be at­tended by del­e­gates from 21 unions rep­re­sent­ing 684 865 mem­bers.

It comes at a time when work­ers face their most se­ri­ous chal­lenges since the end of apartheid.

More than ever they need a strong, in­de­pen­dent and mil­i­tant or­gan­i­sa­tion to rep­re­sent them.

It would prob­a­bly be worth the new fed­er­a­tion’s while to read a book about build­ing a trade union.

In his re­cent book, Sol­i­dar­ity Road, Jan Theron – for­mer gen­eral sec­re­tary of the Food and Can­ning Work­ers’ Union – vividly de­scribes the hard strug­gle to re­build the union fac­tory by fac­tory to elim­i­nate cor­rup­tion and build a worker-con­trolled lead­er­ship, which ex­pected no fi­nan­cial re­ward for its work. This hap­pened un­der the apartheid regime’s dra­co­nian and di­vi­sive anti-union laws, which banned mul­tira­cial unions.

Trade union­ists were also sub­ject to per­se­cu­tion by the po­lice’s Spe­cial Branch.

The new fed­er­a­tion will have to re­vive that tra­di­tion and put the work­ers back in con­trol.

Theron, in the early 1980s, when Cosatu was yet to emerge, prophet­i­cally warned that “a new fed­er­a­tion would be a pa­per tiger un­less the unions that formed it had prop­erly or­gan­ised work­ers”. The same ap­plies to­day. The new fed­er­a­tion’s lead­ers will have to re­ject the temp­ta­tion to de­pend mainly on funds from over­seas donors and union in­vest­ment com­pa­nies and not elect lead­ers who use the trade unions as step­ping stones to well-paid ca­reers in busi­ness or gov­ern­ment.

They will have to fight un­com­pro­mis­ingly to elim­i­nate cor­rup­tion that has seen sev­eral unions’ lead­ers hauled be­fore the court on charges of em­bez­zling their mem­bers’ money.

These are the chal­lenges that the new lead­er­ship will have to con­front ur­gently.

If work­ers can­not turn the tide and fight back against their ap­palling con­di­tions of life, we shall slide into a new age of bar­barism.

The launch of the new union comes at a time when un­em­ploy­ment is al­ready at one of the high­est lev­els in the world, yet thou­sands more jobs are now un­der threat at Eskom and re­lated trans­port ser­vices, the chicken in­dus­try, cooldrinks man­u­fac­tur­ing and the me­dia.

Many ex­ist­ing jobs are in­se­cure and low-paid, as out­sourc­ing, ca­su­al­i­sa­tion and the ex­ploita­tion by labour bro­kers con­tinue un­abated.

An army of vul­ner­a­ble and pow­er­less work­ers is grow­ing, and all this threat­ens to get worse, as many em­ploy­ers want to de­stroy col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing and drive down wages to the low­est level that des­per­ate work­ers are pre­pared to ac­cept.

The big­gest chal­lenge of all is that more than three-quar­ters of work­ers are not or­gan­ised by any union.

The trade union move­ment is frag­mented and ex­ist­ing fed­er­a­tions, which ought to be the cham­pion of work­ers, have caved in to the em­ploy­ers and gov­ern­ment by their ac­cep­tance of a min­i­mum wage that is be­low the poverty line, as well as their will­ing­ness to agree to le­gal mea­sures to sab­o­tage work­ers’ hard-fought-for and con­sti­tu­tional right to strike.

The unions that will be launch­ing the new fed­er­a­tion held a work­ers’ sum­mit last year, which com­mit­ted it­self to re­vive the great tra­di­tions of the South African trade union move­ment, to or­gan­ise the un­or­gan­ised, and adopt a rad­i­cal pro­gramme to con­front the new chal­lenges I have out­lined.

One of the most im­por­tant prin­ci­ples is to en­sure that the new body is in­de­pen­dent of both em­ploy­ers and gov­ern­ment.

That does not mean be­ing apo­lit­i­cal, and, in­deed, the work­ers’ sum­mit prin­ci­ples in­clude a com­mit­ment to “so­cial­ist ori­en­ta­tion”. Se­condly, it should be demo­crat­i­cally con­trolled by – and ac­count­able to – the work­ers.

This means, power in the hands of branches that give man­dates to, and re­ceive re­ports back by, the lead­ers, who can be re­called if they break those man­dates.

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