So many mem­bers, so lit­tle labour unity

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

‘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.

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