South Africa: Workers need to speak with 'one voice', but whose voice?

[For more on COSATU, click HERE. For more on South Africa, click HERE.]

By Terry Bell, Cape Town

September 14, 2014 -- Terry Bell Writes, posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with permission --  The labour movement is coming under increasing pressure as the global economic crisis continues to bite. On the South African front the pressure is growing as the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) labour federation fails to deal with the internal divisions that threaten to tear the federation apart. Or at least further fragment the country’s largest union organisation.

This much has been admitted by COSATU general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi. He noted in August that “unions are in a state of paralysis”. Addressing the Food and Allied Workers’ Union congress in Johannesburg he said that “workers’ issues are being sidelined even by COSATU itself”. And it is the unions themselves that should sort these matters out.

Within the bureaucratic ranks of COSATU this was not a popular statement, but it is true: there is a definite decline in the membership numbers of the country’s largest trade union federation. And there is a fair amount of evidence that there is widespread disillusionment at rank and file level.

In recent years COSATU has consistently maintained that the federation represented “more than 2 million organised workers”. But even the federation website never supported this claim, although COSATU remained clearly the largest of the four federations in South Africa.

Today, although the claim continues to be made, it is unlikely that COSATU represents more than 1.6 million trade unionists. But this is still, by far, the largest grouping in the labour movement. But trade unionism, by every available survey and method of calculation, still comprises slightly less than 30 per cent of the working population.

This level of unionisation, divided among four federations, would only constitute a major power bloc if it acted in a united fashion. And, as Vavi notes: “The working class is in dire straits, divided and weakened.”

This has led to the drive among some COSATU unions to demand that unity must, at all costs, be preserved. But what they are arguing for is the preservation of COSATU as part of the African National Congress-led alliance; that unity of the alliance must be the priority.

Leading this charge is the South African Communist Party (SACP), its youth wing and party members who play leading roles in a number of COSATU unions, notably the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union. They remain fixed on the idea that the multi-class and fundamentally nationalist ANC is the only route to a so far ill-defined “socialism”.

It is this concept that has come under direct attack by the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) when last year the union distanced itself — as permitted by the COSATU constitution — from the alliance. But then NUMSA, with the backing of eight other union affiliates, called for the COSATU executive to convene a special national congress of all affiliates in order to deal openly and democratically with all the problems that were emerging.

It has been nearly a year now, but there is been no move toward a national congress. Instead, after numerous delays, ANC deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa and his deputy, Jesse Duarte, emerged to negotiate some kind of settlement between the COSATU factions.

That this has not worked is obvious. However, the intervention has apparently had some effect on some of the supporters of the special congress call who are concerned about making a final break from the ANC. In the absence of any viable political alternative, they remain wedded, politically, to an ANC in which they have waning confidence.

This situation has given confidence to those elements within the business fraternity that see the union movement as the enemy. It is from among this group that the demand emerged not to sign into law the latest amendments to the Labour Relations Act that had been debated over four years in the National Educational Development and Labour Council (NEDLAC) stakeholder form.

What they demanded was that a compulsory arbitration clause should be written in to the law; that unions should be forced to settle on the basis of arbitration — if a strike was deemed to have gone on for too long or had become excessively violent.

Since this demand was clearly unconstitutional (interfering with the right to strike), it was thrown out. More problematic was the demand, echoed within ANC government ranks, for compulsory secret ballots before any strike. Such suggestions also interfere with the democratic right of unions to make their own decisions about the way they should conduct their affairs.

The latest move is the announcement by Ramaphosa that he will convene a labour relations indaba (discussion forum) in November to discuss and make decisions about he state of labour relations. This gathering, the deputy president says, would “seek agreement” among “social partners” with the apparent object of establishing some form of social compact between government, business and labour.

“Let us remove the word ‘dispute’ from our vocabulary and replace it with the word ‘negotiate’”, Ramaphosa told the NEDLAC annual conference.

Clearly, at the November indaba, it would be essential for COSATU — hopefully with other federations — to speak with one voice. Especially if proposals such as prices and incomes policies surface.

But a united front, with clear policy positions, will be impossible for the labour movement unless the COSATU unions confront their differences and difficulties. This they can only do democratically at a national congress.

According to the COSATU constitution, such a congress should have been convened nearly a year ago when the nine unions called for it. If it is not held before the November indaba, the position of the labour movement as a whole will be further weakened.