So many members, so little labour unity
‘One is workers’ unity and evermore shall be so.” So goes a line in an old union song. It is a sentiment still agreed to – at least notionally – by unions and their federations across the board.
It is worth remembering this as the labour movement in South Africa today displays more disunity than at any time since the debates and fall-outs of 30 years ago. These involved mainly the Council of Unions, the Federation of Trade Unions and the Azanian Confederation, and gave rise to the Cosatu and National Council of Trade Unions (Nactu) federations.
It was also especially pertinent this week as Cosatu completed its four-day central executive committee meeting, which was heavily influenced by the political shambles in the ANC.
The meeting was held under the slogan Unity and Cohesion of Cosatu to advance the National Democratic Revolution for Socialism.
This reflected both the claim that Cosatu is the only real workers’ movement and that the ANC’s economic policy outline, the national democratic revolution, provides a route to an undefined socialist future.
At the same time, having banned President Jacob Zuma from speaking at the meeting, Cosatu gave an enthusiastic reception to Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa.
Here, on one level, was an equal measure of confusion and irony: a proclaimed “socialist” grouping supporting a national democratic revolution programme widely seen as “neoliberal”, while giving fulsome backing to one of the most prominent emergent capitalists in the land.
This confusing involvement in the presidential succession battle and in ANC politics generally is what led to schisms within Cosatu. It has also provided ammunition for the new SA Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu), which comprises largely former Cosatu affiliates, to continue sniping at Cosatu.
The expulsion from Cosatu of the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) and the departure of the Food and Allied Workers’ Union, along with numerous fragments of other Cosatu affiliates, means Cosatu may have lost as many as 500 000 members.
As in politics, numbers are important, although difficult to establish accurately in the labour movement.
The Numsa-led Saftu claims “more than 700 000 members”, while the Federation of Unions of SA (Fedusa), recently rejoined by probably the largest public sector union, the Public Servants’ Association of SA, puts its membership at “close to 700 000”. Nactu claims “more than 300 000”. In all cases, exact numbers are impossible to verify because only the annual financial statements lodged with the registrar of trade unions have to be independently audited.
But numbers will come into play when Saftu lodges its application to join the tripartite National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac), where all government policies are supposed to be discussed before implementation.
To be admitted to the Nedlac labour caucus, Saftu will require the agreement of Cosatu, Fedusa and Nactu, which together represent labour. Such an agreement is unlikely and, following several recent political examples, the matter will probably end up in court.
At the same time, leaders of all four federations claim to be the standard bearers of workers’ unity, again presenting a mirror image of party politics where expressed principle and practice are often poles apart.