Cosatu faces a test of relevance

Cosatu is at the crossroads. It can grow in relevance as the core of a new, realigned and independent labour movement that embraces the dream of its historic founding mission of “one country, one federation”, or it can face an uncertain future of declining relevance and political infighting that will consign it to the history books.

Never before in its proud 29 years of representing the aspirations of workers in South Africa has the choice been so stark.

In the late 1980s, with many of Cosatu’s allied organisations in the United Democratic Front disrupted and thousands of activists in detention, Cosatu became the backbone of internal resistance. But where is Cosatu now? In 2014, it faces a watershed, a test of its relevance to the working class.

The Marikana massacre was a seminal moment in our democracy, and Cosatu’s response was a singular failure. The platinum sector and the protracted strike now taking place demonstrates the loss of trust in the union and its obliviousness to the needs of its members.

Though violence from any quarter is inexcusable, deadly force from a democratic state is a cardinal sin. It strikes at the heart of our constitutional democracy. Violence and counter-violence become the norm, the only language communities believe their leaders will understand. If we do not act decisively on the grievances that drive this hostility, we will fail as a state.

I see none of these issues being discussed in Cosatu. The real issues affecting workers have disappeared in a cloud of pre-election denialism.

Yet the problems that led to the formation of Cosatu remain. The migrant labour system is as entrenched as ever; subcontracted labour and casualisation marginalise workers’ families. Inequality is still with us. The number of dependants supported by a single breadwinner has grown; and microloan sharks lurk around our factories and mines, increasing wage pressures.

The mere consideration of the expulsion of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa – or any union in Cosatu – for voicing a different political view has no precedent in the history of the federation. It is suicidal for any self-respecting, independent labour movement to act in such a way. Members join a union because, first and foremost, they want to be protected from their employers. Workers almost never join a union based on political ideology.

I was part of the leadership that led Cosatu into an alliance with the ANC and South African Communist Party. It was an alliance of independent organisations agreeing to work together on a defined programme with clear objectives. We were making a commitment to a profound transformation of the cheap labour system and its attendant diseases of joblessness, poverty, gender violence and inequality. It was never an alliance based on some warped idea of political loyalty or an alliance designed to undermine the labour movement’s unity.

In all my discussions with comrades such as Oliver Tambo, John Nkadimeng, Chris Hani, Nelson Mandela and Joe Slovo, there was an explicit commitment to the political independence of Cosatu. In the minds of these leaders, a strong ANC required, as a prerequisite, a strong and independent Cosatu.

Cosatu, from its very beginning, has always answered only to its members. This is deeply imprinted in its DNA.

The world has changed in 28 years, and South Africa along with it. The era of large-scale production is over. As wage pressure grows in China, sweatshop industries mass-producing consumer goods are looking for lower-cost and union-bashing countries. This can never be the future of economic development in South Africa. But what is our alternative?

The nature of work organisation has changed in the formal economy. Many of the single-employer factories have multiple outsourced employers for different functions such as cleaning and security.

Nine out of 10 jobs in sub-Saharan Africa are in the informal economy. What value does union organising bring to these workers? Informal traders face tremendous challenges and exploitation from authorities, police and their suppliers of goods.

Our education system is designed to train people to look for jobs rather than create their own livelihoods. There are no really effective mechanisms that support black entrepreneurship, and thus thousands of black university graduates end up walking the streets.

Add to this our fragmented industrial policy, in which the bulk of our raw material is exported, which in itself contributes to the loss of millions of jobs.

Should our industrial policy not embrace the backlog of social infrastructure from schools to housing, roads and sanitation? Why is the basic need of our people not the central plank of union policy?

Only an independent and united labour movement, articulating a coherent vision based on our founding principles of one federation, one country, is capable of leading workers of all stripes into this cold new age. We built a tripartite alliance in 1990 to create a mass popular movement for fundamental social transformation. It is clear that the alliance had an important stabilising impact on our fragile transition and inspired millions of workers and the broad strata of poor in our country. Yet Cosatu membership ended up as a simple bulk-vote bank, traded by union leaders for fringe benefits in the political class.

With half our population living in poverty and millions unemployed, the wage pressure on existing workers rises as the number of dependants increases. Workers are now asking: What is the value proposition we are negotiating in return for our support?

The burning question Cosatu needs to ask is: What is the role of the alliance today? Is there still a need for the alliance?

The central task of worker leaders has to be to implement our 1985 resolution of one federation, one country. Cosatu, the National Council of Trade Unions and the Federation of Unions of South Africa need to commit urgently to a process of delivering this strategic objective.

In an environment of declining union membership, the merger of unions in super-sectors needs to be turbocharged. It has been years since the last merger took place, while united action was last debated seriously at the workers’ summit in 1987.

Simultaneously, in the face of increasing casualisation and the informalisation of the economy, organisations representing informal traders need to be brought into the fold. So do the millions of farm workers, domestic workers and the unemployed. We must ask whether Cosatu offers them a home, and hope that one day we can deliver the “better life for all” we promised, as an alliance, under the leadership of former president Nelson Mandela.

This must be done if Cosatu is to return to its glory days of movement-building, at the core of which were vibrant local shop-steward councils run by committed men and women. These leaders were not just factory-floor leaders, but leaders in their communities, bringing their experience and negotiation skills to the ­creation of one of the more important workers’ movements in history.

Last year, there were more than 13?000 service delivery protests, all of them in poor communities where workers and their families live. It is to these nonperforming or nonexistent schools and clinics that the working class send their children. It is their future, surely, that we hold as our most important interest and goal.

Is this not the time for a new approach? Should Cosatu not return to the basics of organising that won us our freedom? To a commitment to hard work and unity, a belief in the fact that rights are only rights if they belong to us all? That work should come with dignity and the right to housing, quality health and education, safety and basic services?

Workers and their unions should, today, take one step back, regroup and consolidate the vision we had of one federation, one country. Only then will we have the clarity and power to take two steps forward. This is the politics of unity that will restore the organised workers’ movement to its powerful role in the past.

Perhaps, one day, South Africa will be able to celebrate May Day once more. But we must go back to basics and understand why we were there in the first place.

Jay Naidoo is a former Cosatu leader. A longer version of this article appears on the Daily Maverick website.

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