The State of the Unions

May Day, 1987: The state is everywhere — but then so is organised labour
The shootings and mass dismissals of South African Transport Services workers last week and other recent attacks on the workers’ movement have pushed trade unions and the government close to the edge of all-out confrontation. The question now is whether the angry mood among workers and unions and a desire in some state circles to crush what they see as a front for revolutionary forces will push the seething hostility over that edge.

The trade union movement is the best organised and most deeply entrenched opposition to the system inside South Africa. Where township-based organisations have borne the brunt of the repression under the State of Emergency, the unions have emerged relatively unscathed. The unions’ response to the Emergency last June and July — industry-based strikes and legal challenges — put pressure on employers and the state, and shielded them from the worst of the crackdown.

The state’s strategic aim was to smash the street committees and quell the township revolt — which was at least partially successful. The state’s security apparatus, including the Joint Security Management Committees, has been targeted at the townships. True the state has regularly interfered in labour relations through security force action and apartheid structures such as the migrant labour system.

But however imperfectly, the doctrine of “self- governance” between employers and unions has created space and relegated the state to a peripheral role in labour relations. This space has proved a curious double-edged sword. It has left organisations such as the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) more exposed and with more expected of them.

The sustained onslaught on their township allies has posed questions of political action and the development of correlative structures outside the factories in an era when Cosatu has embarked on the politics of alliance with community-based organisations. Both the SA Transport Services (Sats) strike and state reactions to the escalation of labour unrest on the Reef in recent weeks have revealed that the state is divided in its response to the unions. There is without doubt a large, security-oriented grouping who would favour an all-out confrontation to cripple the unions or at least force them to retreat from the political arena.

The Minister of Law and Order, Adriaan Vlok, last week warned trade union leaders whose activities were not in the interests of the country” that the security forces would take action against them. Vlok said Cesaro was involved in “the polarisation, politicisation, organisation and mobilisation of the worker to plan for a so-called having wage campaign”. He said that the African National Congress’s theme for 1987 was “Advance to People’s Power” and that the labour terrain was “an ideal area in which to reach the masses. “Repeated pronouncements by the organisation’s leaders are known: they say that the trade unions must be used for this goal (to ‘advance to people’s power’). Certain events surrounding the recent strikes, especially the rail strike, must be seen in this light ”

At the same time Alwyn Schlebusch, the Minister in the State President’s Office, warned that the government was planning to introduce new legislation to deal with strikes. While Schlebusch’s pronouncements could be dismissed as electioneering, Vlok’s have a distinctly ominous ring. Yet the director general of the Department of Manpower, Piet van der Merwe, placed a completely different interpretation on the Sats strike. Having repeatedly quoted the high rate of usage of the official disputes settling machinery as proof of the success of the labour dispensation, he saw the root of the problem in the fact that the public sector is excluded from this machinery.

Van der Merwe told Business Day: “One must weigh up the pros and cons of the government either providing for conciliation machinery in its own legislation or adopting the Labour Relations Act.” He pointed out that 50 percent of all strikes in the private sector ended within a day.

There is an influential school of thought within the state which blames the Sats and post office strikes not on the bloody-mindedness of workers, but on the absence of the machinery which has proved successful in regulating conflict in the private sector. This school is also mindful of employer concerns that the heavy hand of the state could mean employers will have to bear the brunt of the political struggle in their factories. Differences of opinion could also explain the length of time Sats allowed the strike to drag on before firing workers.

In 1982 when a few hundred General Workers’ Union members went on a go-slow in the Port Elizabeth docks, demanding that Sats deal with them, it was only a matter of hours before they were fired and deported on buses back to the “homelands”. When the City Deep dispute erupted Sats had just been through its own Wiehahn Commission and was clearly hesitant about how to deal with the escalating problem.

The fact that Sats was willing to reinstate Andrew Nendzandza (who had been dismissed over a weekend delay in handing over R40 in fares) was unprecedented, as the workers at the Port Elizabeth docks would testify to. But by then the long-standing grievances of Sats’ heavily discriminated against workforce came pouring out and other demands, such as recognition of the South African Railways and Harbours Workers Union (Sarhwu), came to the fore.

At the same time the government — wary of the mom than 100 000 white voters employed on the railways — could not afford to be seen to be giving in to the demands of black workers, particularly over recognition of a Cosatu affiliate. In the end it was the brutality of the security forces which prevailed and seemed to propel the dispute inevitably towards full-scale confrontation at the same time as giving warning of just what they were capable of.

The anger they have provoked, coinciding with the emotionally significant May Day celebrations on Friday and the white election next week, could only heap fuel on the volatile labour situation. But Cosatu’s strategic goal remains the establishment of a bridgehead into the railways, one of the most significant economic sectors still to be properly organised.

The next few days will tell whether the gap is still there, or whether the factories and mines will indeed become a battleground between the state and the workers. The choices confronting Cosatu are no less momentous than those which divide the state strategists – Phillip van Niekerk


Uwusa: Celebrating May Day at home this year
The Inkatha-backed United Workers’ Union of South Africa (Uwusa) has organised no fanfare to celebrate Workers’ Day and their first anniversary on May 1. Instead “we have announced to our members that we will have to celebrate in the relative safety of our homes,” Uwusa secretary general Simon Conco said in an interview yesterday. “With Cosatu rallies banned in Natal – despite our differences with them — and owing to our stringent financial position, we would have found it very difficult to celebrate the day.”

Conco said State President PW Botha’s declaration of Workers’ Day as the first Friday in May was unacceptable. Celebrating this day would have compromised Uwusa’ s belief that the government was wrong in deciding on the public holiday without consulting the workers. The lack of consultation on the part of the government confirms the view that they do the right things in a wrong way, he said.

Conco said he was not sure whether there was a growing militancy amongst workers. But the white elections will definitely have a bearing on the anger of every black South African as it confirms the view that whites are ganging up against blacks and in pursuing that goal they are co-opting the Indians and coloureds. “That makes me very angry,” Conco said.

He warned against union leaders engaging workers in protest demonstrations if rallies were banned. “South Africa is no stranger to senseless decisions and senseless killings. That is why we insist that before any decision is taken proper consultation should take place”. He said anyone who organises workers to “indulge” in a demonstration that may cause death without studying carefully the pros and cons and discussing the matter with those who will be directly affected would be acting irresponsibly.

Conco said there was a tendency amongst the leadership of certain organisations “to use the anger of-workers to achieve the ends that have not been canvassed with the workers”. Conco said despite a lack of funds, Uwusa has grown in expertise in industrial relations and managerial ability.

Uwusa had also been faced with very suspicious employer bodies. Most of its time had been used signing up membership and providing trade union training to workers and their leaders. Uwusa has not been involved in any strike action but has been concentrating on improving the conditions of employment of its members and has signed several wage and recognition agreements.

“The federation,” he said, “has also taken several offending employers to court and has concluded 50 recognition agreements in Natal and 20 in the Transvaal.” He said Uwusa was not an Inkatha union despite the fact that facilities were provided by the cultural organisation. “That was black money and we saw nothing wrong in availing ourselves of those funds.”

Although Uwusa is a federation, no affiliate unions have been established yet. “There is a policy that if any sector has a membership of 5 000 then they can form a union. But we have not yet gone around doing that.” He said unions might be formed in three weeks’ time when Uwusa holds its first annual conference.

It was wrong to compare Uwusa’s growth to that of Cosatu because “they have been in existence longer than we have.” Those who accused Uwusa of breaking the solidarity of workers should realise that “we desire everything that is desired by our opposite number in Cosatu, barring the change of the economic system in the country into socialism.”

Uwusa believes it is the right of every worker to propagate his beliefs in the same manner as those with opposing views, without fear of victimisation or intimidation, “Although the black man in South Africa has not benefited from the capitalist system as practised here, capitalism is the only known system that can change dust into loaves of bread,” he said. It is also the only system that can create jobs for people. “We have not yet found any successful mode of the socialist system in the African context.”

Conco said Uwusa was opposed to violence and anybody who has got evidence of Uwusa involvement in attacks is “free to come forward or seek the recourse of the law”. — Sefako Nyaka


Cusa-Azactu: Workers should strive for a new order
The heightened militancy among South African workers will make this year’s May Day celebrations different from other years. Pandelani Nefolovhodwe, assistant general secretary of Cusa-Azactu, says events such as the killing of striking railway workers last week the recent rent stayaway in Soweto, and the South African raid into Zambia had made workers more determined to challenge the state.

PW Botha’s declaration of the first Friday of May as Workers’ Day was a strategy to pre-empt this growing militancy, he said. ” The SA Transport Services (Sats) and post office strikes show there is a militancy, even among workers in the state sector.”

Nefolovodwe said his federation was determined to hold rallies tomorrow, regardless of possible state action. “And, despite the fact that Cosatu and Cusa-Azactu will not be able to celebrate together, there will be more rallies — and we believe they will be more successful,” he said. But his federation has a problem: all its applications to use venues in the township have been referred to the community councils “and we refuse to negotiate with councillors for the use of public venues”.

If these rallies go ahead, he warned people not to embark on a “defiance strategy” if confronted. “It is not a sign of cowardice. The government has clearly shown that it wants to create a certain mood in the minds of the white electorate. “If there is any defiance they are going to deal with it properly. At a time when the government is seeking a new mandate to govern the country it will crush, ruthlessly if need be, any opposition.”

The white elections have also played a part in heightening tensions between workers and the state, he said, as people are questioning the legitimacy of the government and its elections. Nefolovhodwe believes that although the trade union movement has grown substantially, that growth has not been equalled in understanding and solidarity.

His federation has been able to consolidate its position, and more than 35 000 workers from the electrical sector and 20 70 from the furniture sector are affiliated to Cusa-Azactu. This makes Cusa-Azactu — which tomorrow undergoes a name change to the National Council of Unions (Nactu) — the second largest union federation in the country, claiming 600 000 members.

But this growth in numbers does not impress Nefolovhodwe: “In certain quarters in the trade
union movement we are still obsessed with the ‘one- man-show-tendency’ and legitimacy. “I don’t have any problems with that — but as soon as these are used as a fundamental feature of a united force towards attaining our goal, then it creates problems,” he said.

He pointed to the OK strike, saying the solidarity of “the UDF, Azapo, Cusa-Azactu, Cosatu and other forces of differing political views made it very difficult to break”. He said separatism had, however, ruined several strikes: “We feel the Sats strike was easier to crush because of the lack of support from other organisations.”

Nefolovhodwe believes unity would have broadened the pressure on Sats to resolve the strike. He said it was Cusa-Azactu’s policy to co-operate with all workers despite their affiliation. The only criteria is that they must be supportive of “the broad liberation struggle”.

“On May Day workers should be more determined to see freedom and justice, and should resist efforts to divide them.” He said workers should strive for a new order where there will be no room for tribalism, regionalism and ethnicity. “There should be no room for racial groups or cultural groups — there should be one people in one country.”

Nefolovhodwe said the State of Emergency had only been a hindrance in as far as meetings were concerned. “There is a new understanding of trade unionism and militancy and the Emergency will not be able to break that.” He said the workers have not yet taken over the leadership of the struggle and in many cases have been scared off by the battles of the youth. “To some extent the youth has failed in fundamental issues like convincing the working class on the type of campaigns needed to bring about change.” — Sefako Nyaka


Cosatu: We must take up the issues
The government’s threat to pass further legislation to curtail the activities of trade unions will only escalate a tense situation, according to Jay Naidoo, general secretary of the Congress of SA Trade Unions. The SA Transport Services (Sats) strike, the killing of railway workers and last week’s Cosatu House siege have had an impact on the community at large. It has made the community more aware of what they are fighting for, he said this week.

“Any action by the government to further curtail and impose more restrictions on the labour movement is going to radicalise even more the position and strategies of the labour movement. What we are going to see is a situation where there is anger, massive demonstrations of people’s dissatisfaction in the way the regime is reacting to the democratic demands being made by the people.

“One sees throughout the country that workers are getting involved increasingly in using their main weapon, which is their labour, as leverage to gain what is legitimately ours. “The state has claimed that Cosatu’s Living Wage campaign and the Sats strike are a huge communist plot, a conspiracy by Cosatu, the United Democratic Front, the African National Congress and the SA Communist Party. “We believe that taking up issues relating to problems of workers in the community is a legitimate extension of our activity, given the fact that our membership and the millions of black people in this country don’t have political rights.”

This year’s May Day will be different from those in the past, he said. “A few years ago, it was just a few hundred workers meeting to celebrate May Day. “But with the formation of Cosatu, and with Cosatu leading the May Day celebrations last year, one-and-a-half million people were involved in strike action.”

Cosatu has not been granted permission to hold any open-air rallies. “I think this attitude, especially in the light of the fact that (President PW) Botha was forced to make a concession of Workers’ Day, is just going to further aggravate the situation and increase the conflict between workers and the state. There are alternative plans being made. We will use any venues that we can get but we are aware that the government might move even to ban indoor meetings.”

Naidoo said next week’s white elections would also have also bearing on this year’s May Day. “The fact that there is massive resistance in the country has put the issue of representation, of the right to elect a government of the people’s choice, firmly on the agenda. “We have a government that has plunged the country into political and economic chaos,” he said.

“There are six-million people unemployed; there is a massive housing and education crisis. The government has not been able to resolve any of these issues. The voters must realize that parliament no longer represents power. It is clear that the struggle for political power rests outside parliament. It rests in the struggle between the real seat of political power, the National Security Council and its appendages, like regional and local Joint Management Committees, on the one side, and the mass democratic movement on the other side.”

The growth of the labour movement since Cosatu’s launch has brought problems with it, such as insufficient resources and consolidation. “That is why in our executive message earlier this year we stressed that this is the year of consolidation and decisive action. “In the past year, Cosatu has established itself and rooted itself more firmly in structures. Regions have been set up and we have seen a number of mergers taking place. “We are running more cohesive campaigns, like the Living Wage campaign.”

Cosatu’s growth has been in relation to the most important sectors of the economy. We have the mineworkers union (NUM) which has a membership of 369 000. The metalworkers with a merger going ahead around May 23/24, will bring together 120 000 workers in that sector. Then we have Food and Allied Workers, Paper Wood and Allied, Ccawusa. “And in the public sector, you have seen massive activity. It is obviously a sector that is relatively badly organised but it is one that has seen the most militant activity in the past month.”

Naidoo conceded that the State of Emergency had had an impact on the growth of the labour movement. “It has forced organisations to retreat and consolidate,” he said. “We would say that in this year there is a mood of mass militancy. Mass organisations have survived the imposition of the State of Emergency. People have learnt to live under repression; they have learnt to fight repression. It has definitely had a radicalising effect.

“In fact we have not only survived the State of Emergency but also the attacks on our members in the Natal area. When Uwusa was lambed last year, some people predicted a mass exodus of our members in that area. Instead we have experienced tremendous growth in that region.” “What we have seen since the formation of Cosatu is that the workers are able to take decisive action. When one looks at mass action one finds that workers are very much in the forefront.”– Sefako Nyaka

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