Comment and Analysis

Ten things about Cosatu

Mail & Guardian Correspondent

Cosatu is the biggest union federation in the country, followed by the Federation of Unions of South Africa with about 400 000 members.

The Congress of South African Trade Unions was launched in Durban on December 1 1985. (Madelene Cronje, M&G)

1. The Congress of South African Trade Unions was launched in Durban on December 1 1985, when resistance to apartheid in South Africa was increasing substantially. Cosatu united 33 unions into a federation with about 450000 members. Today Cosatu federates 21 unions and has a membership of about 2.2-million, 39% of them in the state sector and 10% of them teachers.

2. Cosatu's 11th national congress takes place from September 17 to 20 in Midrand, Gauteng. At its 2009 congress, it set itself the target of four million members by 2012.

3. Cosatu is the biggest union federation in the country, followed by the Federation of Unions of South Africa with about 400 000 members and the National Council of Trade Unions with about 300 000 members.

4. The process of unifying South Africa's unions began in 1981 at the Langa summit, where 100 representatives from 29 unions met. The final summit was in June 1985 in Ipeleng, Soweto. Cyril Ramaphosa of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), the largest union to become a Cosatu affiliate, stated its core principles: nonracialism, one union one industry, worker control, representation on the basis of paid-up membership and national co-operation.

5. Cosatu demanded that May 1, International Labour Day or Workers' Day, be declared a paid holiday. On May 1 1986, in response to Cosatu's call, an estimated 1.5-million workers stayed away from work. The following year, to pre-empt such a stayaway, the government declared May 1 a public holiday.

6. Ahead of Workers' Day this year, Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille said: "Cosatu, which played such a pivotal role in creating South Africa's democracy, runs the risk of being left behind if it remains stuck in the 1950s British model of hostile central bargaining between 'bosses and workers'."

7. On May 4 and 5 1986, when a whites-only election was held, Cosatu and the United Democratic Front called for a stayaway and  2.5-million people took part. On May 7 Cosatu House was all but destroyed by two massive bomb blasts.

8. In June 1987, Cosatu adopted the Freedom Charter as its guiding policy document. The motion was proposed by the NUM and opposed by the National Union of Metalworkers (Numsa).

9. In 1990, Numsa workers at a Mercedes-Benz factory in East London, working after hours, took four days to put together a bullet-proof luxury Merc they presented to Nelson Mandela.

10. Cosatu has been accused of hindering employment by resisting the government's proposed youth wage subsidy. When the DA marched on Cosatu's headquarters in Johannesburg in May to protest against its rejection of the subsidy, it was met by Cosatu members and others throwing rocks, bricks and chunks of tar. Many DA marchers were hurt and forced to retreat.

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