Slow progress in union unity talks

Like the soap opera Dallas the trade union unity talks seem to lurch from season to season without ever reaching finality.

Last weekend’s meeting at the Ipelegeng community centre in Soweto, which ended inconclusively, had hardened hacks shaking their heads and saying they had seen it all before. Even optimists in the ranks have long since stopped predicting that the much-vaunted “super-federation” is around the comer. But the lack of unanimity should not obscure the fact that unity is indeed getting close.

If one untangles the complex knots of trade union politics, the core of the new federation — representing the bulk of workers in the emerging union movement — is ready for unity, approved draft constitution and all. By the “core” one means all the unions in the Federation of South African Trade Unions (Fosatu) , the National Union of Mineworkers, the Food and Canning Workers Union, the Commercial, Catering and Allied Workers Union of SA, the General Workers Union and the Cape Town Municipal Workers Association.

Unionwise, these groups command the country’s most industrially important industries — mining, the motor industry, metal, food, retail and the dockers. They have the structures, the expertise and the worker leadership to extend the ,union movement into the unorganised areas, and to consolidate in the already-organised industries. It was clear from the Ipelegeng conference that the core was ready to go ahead with the October launch date for the new federation, but agreed to be flexible if necessary to allow the smaller unions to prepare.

The real question is what will happen to the rest of the emerging union movement. One can start by counting out the affiliates of the Azanian Confederation of Trade Unions (Azactu), as their in-principle opposition to the federations non-racial constitution seems an insurmountable obstacle. A more significant force, the union’s affiliated to the Council of Unions of SA (Cusa), were ambivalent about the federation.

Participants at the conference gained the impression that Cusa, with the sole exception of the NUM, who walked out of the Cusa congress last year over the unity issue, would not join. Cusa’s absence from the federation will be a blow, particularly unions such as the SA Chemical Workers Union and the Transport and Allied Workers Union, but it will not be fatal. A grouping of nine unions closely linked to the United Democratic Front, and calling themselves the Inter-union Project (IUP), were not clear on when they would be prepared to go into the new federation.

Mr Samson Ndou, chairperson of the IUP, argued that while they were in favour of unity — pointing out that Saawu had initiated the unity talks — unity could not be dead-lined as it was a process happening at the “grassroots”. It was differences bet.ween this group and the core unions which held up the unity talks in the past and their readmission at Ipelegeng at the behest of Fosatu was not without tension.

Mr Ndou, while denying that the IUP was the beginning of a rival “progressive” federation, said they were going ahead with the formation of unions in the agricultural sector, the steel and metal industry and the food industry. The aim, said Mr Ndou, was to set up industrial unions for workers now in the general unions, the first step on the road to “one union, one industry”.

A smaller group of independent unions which did show interest in the federation were two breakaways from core unions, the United Metal, Mining and Allied Workers of SA (Ummawsa) and the Federation of Commercial, Retail and Allied Workers (Fedcraw). The probability exists that in opening up the unity talks again (a controversial move), Fosatu could well have allowed several important unions back into the fold. And, if after four years of delays, it means another few months of waiting, that could well be worth the effort.

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