Cosatu provincial secretary Tony Ehrenreich showed this week he still has political muscle – his call brought an end to the often violent Western Cape farmworker's strike. Following his announcement on Tuesday that the strike was over, Ehrenreich told the Mail & Guardian that the trade union federation had not been at odds with the burgeoning Black Agricultural Workers' Union of South Africa (Bawusa), which had earlier failed to heed his call for a week-long suspension of the strike.
Diverging paths were visible when, while the strike was suspended, the general secretary of the new union, Nosey Pieterse, denied the strike was over and led farmworker marches and rallies in Avian Park (near Worcester), Touws River and De Doorns. However, Ehrenreich said Pieterse had since agreed in discussions with him to end the strike.
Bawusa, which is not affiliated to Cosatu, claims to have doubled its membership to about 6 000 members during the volatile strike that first flared up in November last year.
Ehrenreich said Cosatu was simply more experienced in labour matters than Bawusa.
"Bawusa also did not feel it wanted workers to return to work [while the strike was suspended] because they still felt they could bring the farm bosses to a point where they would pay more," he said.
"But we could see the writing on the wall last week. There were workers coming in from outside the area and doing the work. If a strike can't stop production then it is not a strike. We know that; we organise across many sectors. They didn't know that last week; they know that now. And that is why they too are going back to work.
"It is just a bit of inexperience. But it is right. It is a democratic country and if you have a union and if your members feel they can hold out a little longer then you must do that."
Most of the farmworkers did not belong to unions, which presented problems.
However, Ehrenreich said, there were no parallels between the farmworkers' strike and the Marikana mineworkers' strike. During the latter, the non-Cosatu affiliated trade union the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) had played a key role, which is now being examined by the Farlam commission.
"It is Marikana only in the sense that workers are not organised. In Marikana, the union was not speaking to the workers. It was speaking to side committees. The same was happening here. It wasn't the workers who were organising unions, where they would listen to them. They were taking their own actions," Ehrenreich said.
"When workers take their own action without direction and guidance, that is when the danger comes about. They don't understand the parameters of the law and all the other stuff. The police get trigger-happy and things get crazy."
Unions had to be united around their objectives and values and what the ambitions of workers were, said Ehrenreich, and they should be democratic.
"We work together well with all the organisations. There is always going to be competition because, in this process, people want to sign up members. So everybody wants to emerge from this process as the hero and the champion. That is an inevitable part of organising workers when you want to grow your organisation. And that is fine. That is the role that everybody plays."
But Bawusa is standing its ground. This week, the M&G established that the union has merely suspended the strike. Pieterse said minimum conditions were attached to the suspension – the farmers had to accept the returning workers without taking disciplinary procedures against them or dismissing them.
Engaging with the workers
Bawusa also wants access to the farms to "engage" with the workers and would like the farmers to agree to a better wage deal. Pieterse said the farmers' response to their call, especially the demand not to dismiss workers, would determine the union's way forward.
Like Cosatu, Pieterse claimed that there were no differences between Bawusa and the trade union federation and that they were working towards a common goal. He acknowledged that, when Ehrenreich called for the suspension of the strike on January 16, differences emerged. "They came to a different conclusion and we had our own conclusion."
However, differences over the strike were more evident between the provincial ANC and its alliance partner Cosatu. The ANC provincial chairperson Marius Fransman raised eyebrows two weeks ago when he issued a press statement on the strikes, calling on Ehrenreich to "provide leadership in the stand-off".
"The ANC knows there are low levels of representation for these workers, but some leaders like him called on or supported workers to resume the strike and it is incumbent on them to guide the workers through the process," said Fransman. "Now is the time for them to show what they are made of and ensure effective mediation."
Fransman called on Ehrenreich and the farmworkers to suspend the strike and to enter into talks with farmers over wages and working conditions.
Fransman said this week he was concerned about "certain individuals" wanting to take over the strikes. "I'm talking about criminal elements and unruly behaviour, which were delegitimising the plight of these poor people," he said.
A senior Cosatu member in the province, who asked not to be named, said they didn't understand why the ANC itself did nothing to intervene in the strike. Instead, said the source, it had instructed Cosatu to suspend a strike that was not called by it in the first place.
Pat Maran, the ANC Boland chairperson, who is recovering after being injured in the face during the strikes in De Doorns, said the labour movement had participated in public participation processes and it was expected that the government would announce the revised wage determination for farmworkers early in February, and then take it to the Cabinet.
Maran worked closely with strike leaders in De Doorns, including Pieterse.
"Bawusa is not a union that is affiliated to Cosatu," said Maran. "I don't have a problem with Bawusa but it is not accountable to anyone."
Ehrenreich remains confident that union strife is not flaring up in the farming sector, and that people are striving toward the same goals.
"There is no doubt that Cosatu leads the initiative. It is an initiative that has unions with different levels of experience, different levels of expertise and, because it is a democratic partnership, we must manage those tensions.
Ongoing wage negotiations
"But it is not antagonistic contradictions. We are on the same side and we just manage different views. But ultimately we know that the issue that unites us is decent wages and proper conditions for farmworkers."
Cosatu was going to throw its weight behind ongoing wage negotiations with the farmers, and would do this by going from farm to farm, said Ehrenreich. Talks would be about the wage demand of R150 a day and a profit-sharing scheme for workers.
The agricultural association Agri SA has said it is beyond most farmers' ability to meet the wage demand, which could drive many farmers out of business, but Cosatu has insisted it will not let up.
If the situation on farms did not improve for workers, the union federation would eventually call for a national strike. Ehrenreich said Cosatu did not want to damage the whole industry, but it could not allow the "bad farmers" to continue exploiting workers.
"So we are going to differentiate between the good and the bad farmers. We are going to deal with the bad and we are going to help promote the good. But we want to maintain the country's market share. We believe this is a strategic industry for our country."