It is not yet clear whether the Congress of the South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) protest on Wednesday will focus more on labour broking or the plans for national toll roads, but whichever of its two big bugbears the labour federation chooses to single out, it plans to do so with the greatest showing of protest action “for many years”.
Nevertheless, it continues to insist that it is not trying to flex union muscle within the tripartite alliance ahead of the ANC’s elective conference in Mangaung in December.
Cosatu is expecting a massive turnout for its national strike on Wednesday, and even hopes organisations outside of its network may spontaneously join in — but the union group has been wary of talking numbers, saying the dual nature of Wednesday’s action makes turnout even more unpredictable than is usual in such actions.
Based on discussions around labour broking within Nedlac, however, it said it believes unions not aligned with it may join in, as might taxpayer groups concerned about road tolls.
“It will certainly be the biggest protest of the year,” said the organisation’s spokesperson Patrick Craven on Friday. “I’d go further than that and say it will be the biggest for many years.”
Cape of union hopes
In Cape Town on Sunday, Cosatu’s general secretary in the Western Cape, Tony Ehrenreich, did seem willing to put a number to protests in the province, telling reporters that its march to Parliament on Wednesday would likely attract 30 000 people.
About 10 000 of these were expected from civil society organisations and unions not affiliated to Cosatu, he said.
Meanwhile, the march in Johannesburg, scheduled to begin in the city centre at 9am on Wednesday, is expected to be the largest gathering by a considerable margin. But Cosatu said it has confirmation that at least 30 other cities and towns would be joining in. Various business groups throughout the country have advised members to make provision for low staff turnout on the day.
Such widespread protests could serve Cosatu well in a battle that could determine its power within the ruling tripartite alliance in 2013 and beyond — a battle in which it is not doing particularly well, although the sidelining of ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema may yet give the labour federation a chance to boost its influence.
The issue of labour broking is considered an important test of Cosatu’s ability to influence policy within its core area of interest ahead of the ANC’s elective conference in Mangaung at the end of this year, even as it continues to insist Wednesday’s strike is not intended as a show of strength.
“People are preoccupied with Mangaung,” Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi told a regional congress of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) on Saturday. “When campaigns are launched they view that as [a] Mangaung agenda.” Instead, he says, the march is about issues that affect ordinary South Africans.
But the union can hardly have failed to notice that its campaign for an outright ban on labour broking is not making a great deal of leeway at policy level. While the ANC seems indecisive, the government is fairly consistently talking about reforming the practice rather than outlawing it.
“Government seeks to eliminate all forms of abusive practices inherent in labour broking, in order to strengthen the protection of vulnerable workers. We trust that common ground will be found this year on this matter,” said President Jacob Zuma in his State of the Nation address in February.
In the same speech Zuma announced a cash injection from national funds to reduce the tolls to be implemented on some Gauteng freeways, likewise ignoring calls for the idea to be abandoned entirely. — Additional reporting by Sapa
Follow the Mail & Guardian‘s coverage of Cosatu’s 2012 march