Cosatu feels credit pinch

The Cosatu congress this week deliberated on how to deal with sharply declining union membership that has landed affiliates in a financial pickle.

The federation presented a picture of healthy growth at the conference at Gallagher Estate in Midrand. But the Mail & Guardian has established that the ANC’s alliance partner has been bleeding tens of thousands of members.

Official membership figures covered only the period ending in December last year, which did not include trends during this year’s deepening recession.

Cosatu president Sdumo Dlamini said in an interview that the federation has suffered a membership decline and that retrenchments threaten to weaken Cosatu and its finances.

The federation’s main source of income is affiliation fees from individual unions, which Dlamini said totalled R36,9-million last year.

“We bill our unions based on total membership figures provided at the beginning of the year,” said Dlamini. “They can’t afford to pay the subscription, meaning that they can’t afford to run their operations in the normal way.
Income has been curtailed by retrenchments. It’s happening on a wide scale.”

He said payments by affiliates to the mother body were lagging by up to three months. “When Cosatu threatens to stop recognising the union as an affiliate, then they will come and settle the debt,” he said. “But they will continue to struggle.”

The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) has been particularly hard hit. Numsa president Cedric Gina said the union had lost more than 60 000 members since the start of the global slump, shedding 30 000 in the first quarter of this year alone, mainly in the auto sector.

Gina said this meant a monthly loss of R1,2-million in membership fees, adding that the union’s financial woes would be discussed at a central committee meeting in December. “If there’s a need to talk to Cosatu about reviewing our contributions, we will raise that with the federation,” he said.

The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) lost 48 000 members between December 2008 and June 2009, translating into a monthly loss of R2-million in subscription fees, said NUM general secretary Frans Baleni. The union was forced to review its budget and cut costs.

Cosatu’s clothing and textile affiliate (Sactwu) has lost 25 000 members as the clothing industry continues to divest itself of workers.

Randall Howard, general secretary of transport union Satawu, said most retrenchments in his union were from motor-ferrying and the private security sectors. But Satawu’s finances are not yet at the point where it can tell Cosatu that it faces a crisis.

A study of Cosatu affiliates by its research arm, Naledi, found that poor recruitment drives and high general levels of unemployment underpin the membership slide.

As part of the study Cosatu affiliates rated the federation on the areas where it offers support. The worst score was for recruitment, with only 24% believing it was doing well in this area.

Cosatu scored significantly better on organisational support (59%), international support (56%), labour legislation (59%) and campaigns (65%).

The Naledi study found that recruitment figures declined significantly in 2008 compared with 2007. Although Satawu recruited more than 30 000 members in 2007, it managed just more than 12 500 in the past year.

NUM recruited only 3 100 members in 2008, compared with 19 300 the previous year, while health union Nehawu registered 4 700 new members, down from 9 100 in 2007.

Cosatu claims that its membership has grown to just less than two million, but the Naledi study underscored the inadequate membership records of individual unions.

The federation also failed to attract young workers. The Naledi study found that most union members were older than 30 and that younger workers regarded unions as “insignificant to their employment relations, old-fashioned and designed for factory workers”.

“It’s a painful truth, because the labour market has attracted quite a sizeable number of young workers from universities and technikons,” Dlamini said.

The matter was so worrying that the federation was considering establishing a youth desk.

“A desk would compel us to have a discussion on how we’re going to get the youth to find relevance within the trade unions.”

Naledi proposed that special programmes be created to attract young workers to the labour movement.



Matuma Letsoalo is a senior politics reporter at the Mail & Guardian. He joined the newspaper in 2003, focussing on politics and labour, and collaborated with the M&G's centre for investigations, amaBhungane, from time to time.In 2011, Matuma won the South African Journalist of the Year Award and was also the winner in the investigative journalism category in the same year.In 2004, he won the CNN African Journalist of the Year prize – the MKO Abiola Print Journalism Award. Matuma was also a joint category winner of the Mondi Shanduka SA Story of the year Award in 2008. In 2013, he was a finalist for Wits University's Taco Kuiper Award.
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