Time will tell if new union is watershed
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.