Labour’s ‘new dawn’

New union fed­er­a­tion is al­ready 700 000 strong and aims to breathe new life into SA’s labour sec­tor

CityPress - - Business - DEWALD VAN RENSBURG dewald.vrens­burg@city­press.co.za

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.”

PHOTO: AP

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

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