Labour force gets a new face
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.