Time will tell if new union is wa­ter­shed

CityPress - - Business - Terry Bell busi­ness@city­press.co.za

In two weeks a new force in the trade union move­ment, the SA Fed­er­a­tion of Trade Unions, will be launched. It will be a ma­jor event in the coun­try’s labour his­tory, but whether it will be the “wa­ter­shed” pre­dicted by former Cosatu gen­eral sec­re­tary Zwelinz­ima Vavi time alone will tell.

To be a wa­ter­shed im­plies a ma­jor break with the past, not only in terms of ex­pressed goals, but also of or­gan­i­sa­tion.

As mat­ters now stand, there seems lit­tle chance that this new fed­er­a­tion, un­der what­ever name its in­au­gu­ral congress fi­nally chooses, will — at least ini­tially — of­fer any­thing new or­gan­i­sa­tion­ally.

Headed by the 350 000-strong Na­tional Union of Me­tal­work­ers of SA (Numsa) and claim­ing a mem­ber­ship of some 800 000, the group­ing has 20 af­fil­i­ates, a num­ber of them breakaway fac­tions of unions af­fil­i­ated to Cosatu.

Numsa it­self was, con­tro­ver­sially and un­con­sti­tu­tion­ally, ex­pelled from Cosatu.

So, it is un­der­stand­able that the new fed­er­a­tion is a man­i­fes­ta­tion of the re­bel­lion against the of­ten slav­ish adherence of the Cosatu lead­er­ship to the pol­i­tics and poli­cies of the ANC-led tri­par­tite al­liance.

And that al­liance is now in tur­moil, fac­ing much the same prob­lems as does that grow­ing group­ing within the ANC that are call­ing for change.

What it boils down to is whether change means fun­da­men­tally al­ter­ing ex­ist­ing struc­tures or merely hav­ing new faces in lead­er­ship po­si­tions ac­com­pa­nied by more mil­i­tant rhetoric and pledges of good gov­er­nance.

ANC dis­si­dents are still try­ing to change ev­ery­thing from within; the labour dis­si­dents have at least bro­ken away with the prom­ise of cre­at­ing some­thing truly demo­cratic, a “home for all work­ers”.

But at the same time, Numsa, as the driv­ing force behind the new fed­er­a­tion, per­sists in de­scrib­ing it­self, with­out any clear def­i­ni­tion, as a “Marx­istLenin­ist” or­gan­i­sa­tion.

And, with more than a touch of hy­per­bole, a state­ment about the launch of the fed­er­a­tion claimed: “[It] will turn the tide against ex­ploita­tion, mass un­em­ploy­ment, poverty and in­equal­ity and take us for­ward to the to­tal lib­er­a­tion of the work­ing class.”

A trade union move­ment could — and should — make a con­tri­bu­tion to these goals, but in the fi­nal analysis, this is the role of a po­lit­i­cal move­ment or party.

Trade unions should be, first and fore­most, demo­cratic.

This means they unite work­ers as work­ers, ir­re­spec­tive of gen­der, lan­guage, eth­nic back­ground, re­li­gion or po­lit­i­cal af­fil­i­a­tion, with ev­ery worker hav­ing equal rights and author­ity.

Unions are the shields for worker rights and com­prise a mas­sive re­serve army that can, when united, press for po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic change.

But they are not in them­selves the agents of change. The “to­tal lib­er­a­tion of the work­ing class” im­plies an egal­i­tar­ian so­ci­ety, a so­ci­ety with­out bosses – whether of unions, gov­ern­ments or in­dus­try – where all man­agers or co­or­di­na­tors are elected by their con­stituen­cies and an­swer­able to, as well as be­ing re­callable by, them.

In such an en­vi­ron­ment, no one in elected author­ity would earn more than the high­est paid con­stituent.

The labour move­ment can, as some unions did in the re­cent past, be­gin to in­tro­duce such a struc­ture that would have an ef­fect through­out so­ci­ety.

Some­thing of this kind, in­tro­duced now, would be a real wa­ter­shed.

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