Labour’s ‘new dawn’
New union federation is already 700 000 strong and aims to breathe new life into SA’s labour sector
The new union federation that had long been anticipated was finally formally launched this weekend. It promises to give South Africa’s failing unionism a “new dawn” by organising the informal sector, reinvigorating central bargaining and not becoming another top-heavy bureaucracy. “The long wait is over. A new dawn has broken. A milestone has been reached in the history of the South African trade union movement,” said Zwelinzima Vavi, chairperson of the steering committee of union leaders that has been at the heart of organising the new federation.
Almost 1 800 delegates from affiliated unions crammed a conference hall in Boksburg for three days to hash out symbolic and operational matters.
In a historically meaningful gesture, Jay Naidoo gave the opening address. Naidoo had been Cosatu’s first general secretary when it was formed at a similar event in 1985, with a similar membership base in the region of 700 000.
The new federation, provisionally known as the SA Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu), is already larger than two of the three major federations – The Federation of Unions of SA and the National Council of Trade Unions – combined. It is still less than half the size of Cosatu, but has previously argued that Cosatu’s large public sector presence already makes Saftu the largest private sector federation.
Delegates were set to vote on the final name, logo and colours of the federation.
More importantly, a leadership was expected to emerge from this weekend’s congress.
The three-day meeting was guided by a report prepared by the steering committee chaired for several months now by Vavi, himself a former general secretary of Cosatu. In it, the new federation’s major policies are spelt out.
A draft constitution was also distributed that already demonstrates efforts to learn from the fissures that tore apart Cosatu.
Ever since his expulsion from Cosatu, Vavi has blamed many of his old federation’s woes on the “social distance” between union leaders and the rank and file.
The draft constitution for Saftu given to delegates this weekend makes one concrete proposal in this regard: paying the general secretary and their deputy no more than “the average wage of the country”, in addition to legitimate expenses.
The most generous interpretation of this rule would be a gross salary of just under R19 000, which is the average gross earnings of formal sector workers, according to Stats SA.
This compares with the roughly R90 000 Vavi earned as general secretary of Cosatu before his expulsion.
The congress document does not address the relatively certain next step of becoming part of the National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac), where three existing labour federations get to influence legislation.
Instead, it tentatively plots the path towards creating a kind of political wing to the federation that will emphatically not be a political party.
It will need to be funded to pursue court cases and mobilise and pursue a propaganda strategy, said the report.
A major thrust of the new federation’s promise of a new kind of unionism centres on the informal and ununionised sectors.
“An army of vulnerable and marginalised workers is growing fast. Employers and government are striving to sabotage collective bargaining and drive down wages to the lowest level that desperate workers will be prepared to accept. They are moving through Nedlac to restrict our basic constitutional right to strike,” said Vavi.
How the new federation will expand its work beyond the formal workforce has not been figured out, but the report contains a number of proposals.
“Are we ready to give equal rights to organisations or informal workers in the constitution of a new federation, based on their proven membership?” asks the report.
The draft constitution already proposes having nonunion groups form a large part of the national working committee. This committee is effectively the board of the federation, meeting twice per month and making most day-to-day policy decisions.
The constitution and the report for this weekend’s congress address the obvious elephant in the room – the fact that the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) alone makes up half of the federation. At this weekend’s congress, Numsa delegates filled half the room and they will have half the voting rights in the federation’s central committee that meets once a year.
The report repeatedly makes assurances that Saftu will not allow a “big-sister-and-smaller-brother syndrome”.
Practically, the report already declares that affiliates will not poach members from one another and actively work for smaller unions to stay relevant and effective in bargaining councils and workplaces.
A service charter used by Numsa to regulate its officials’ relationship to members is being promoted as a model for all the other affiliates.
The report also commits the federation to not using majoritarian agreements to squeeze minority unions out of workplaces – a practice that saw small unions culled in the mining sector prior to 2012 and that contributed to the breakdown of the National Union of Mineworkers in the platinum belt.
The new federation’s economic policy stances are not that different from those avowed by Cosatu. It advocates reimposing exchange controls and lower interest rates from the SA Reserve Bank and attacks the neoliberalism of National Treasury.
It also promises to build a membership campaign around the national minimum wage, which is meant to be implemented next year.
The report asks delegates to consider what their stance should be on employee share ownership schemes and union investment companies, suggesting that these produce conflicts of interest.
Politically, the federation is not tied to any party, but is fiercely anti-Zuma while envisaging that it will collaborate with “a broad range of civil society organisations and players”.
“Some may be considered uncomfortable bedfellows.”
More than 900 gold coins that were found by a tuner in an old piano belonging to a school are displayed at the Ludlow Museum in the UK on Thursday. Officials say they have been unable to trace the rightful heirs to the trove of coins. The school that owns the piano and the tuner who found the gold may be in line for a windfall – under the provisions of the Treasure Act, the finder of a treasure hoard and the existing owner of the property are entitled to share the proceeds