The expulsion of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa from union federation Cosatu on Saturday saw the 29-year-old organisation split between working-class and professional unions.
After the plug was pulled on Numsa, seven Cosatu affiliates, most of whom are industrial unions, said they would immediately suspend their participation in Cosatu’s central executive committee in solidarity with Numsa’s fight against expulsion.
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The head of Numsa’s United Front and the Movement for Socialism, Dinga Sikwebu, and the general secretary of the Communication Workers’ Union, Aubrey Tshabalala, said the composition of Cosatu had changed since its inception, when it was predominantly a blue-collar federation, to what it is now – primarily “a public sector of unions”.
Sikwebu said that, although public sector members enjoyed the fruits of the new South Africa, Numsa and other industrial sector members lived in the untransformed reality of the South African economy. He said the metal and engineering sectors were among the few that had no black economic empowerment charter.
Sikwebu highlighted this point by citing the fact that, since 1996, the public sector had had no major retrenchments but workers in the industrial sectors faced retrenchments daily.
He said industrial union workers were angry about the racial make-up of the management and owners, who were still predominantly white.
Sikwebu said the challenges industrial unions faced within Cosatu included public sector union leaders’ limited understanding of the issues faced by the industrial working class. This had caused divisions in the federation because industrial union leaders were demanding radical economic transformation and policy changes.
“When our members go to a Cosatu conference and say, ‘listen guys, the policy of trade liberalisation and the lowering of tariffs are hurting us’, that’s Greek to a teacher,” he said.
“If someone works in a smelter manufacturing ferrochrome and says, ‘chrome and ore aren’t here but are being sent to China and therefore we need export taxes’, that’s all Greek to a Nehawu [National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union] member who works in a hospital.”
This is what Andries Bezuiden-hout, associate professor in sociology at the University of Pretoria, calls Cosatu’s move towards professionalisation. He has, since 1994, produced a survey called Taking Democracy Seriously, which shows this trend – and that the federation lacks the ability to organise casual and subcontracted workers.
“This is where many of the lower-skilled workers are, but it is more complex than just a battle for control over Cosatu between a nationalist middle class and a socialist working class,” Bezuidenhout said.
The survey shows that, since 1994, educational, professional and skilled labour levels have increased and the number of members who qualify as unskilled has declined.
In 1994, only 3% of Cosatu members had technical diplomas and nobody surveyed had university degrees. By 2014, 20% of members have technical diplomas and 17% have university degrees. The survey shows that, in 1994, 30% of Cosatu members were unskilled labourers, in contrast to 8% in 2014, and the number of members with skills increased from 21% to 37%.
But this trend does not seem to matter to Tshabalala, who said his union and the other six unions who suspended their participation from Cosatu would fight for the soul of the federation.
The unions are the South African Commercial, Clothing and Allied Workers’ Union, the South African State and Allied Workers’ Union, the Public and Allied Workers’ Union of South Africa, the Food and Allied Workers’ Union, the South African Football Players’ Union and the Democratic Nurses Organisation of South Africa.
“We founded Cosatu. Numsa and the other industrial unions founded Cosatu. These people [public service unions] applied to Cosatu, bo mafikizolo [they are newcomers]. These police and teachers unions joined Cosatu. They aren’t the founding members. We will fight this,” Tshabalala said.
The most vocal voices calling for the suspension of Numsa were the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), Nehawu, the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union and the South African Transport and Allied Workers’ Union (Satawu).
Before Numsa’s expulsion, the union was accused by its antagonists in Cosatu and the ANC of trying to “destabilise” the country politically and economically.
Satawu accused Numsa of recruiting its members at the harbours. At the time, Satawu released a statement claiming Numsa was trying to bring arms into the country in an attempt to overthrow the government.
Numsa general secretary Irvin Jim’s response was that it was propaganda spread by the ANC, the South African Communist Party and some Cosatu affiliates.
He was quoted as saying: “Look, when propaganda of this nature is being deployed, people want to justify that, when something is done to me or to anybody who is a leader of Numsa, they can do it. We are being set up to be sorted out.”
NUM general secretary Frans Baleni and the deputy secretary general of the ANC, Jessie Duarte, called Numsa “anti-revolutionary” and even compared the union with the terror group Boko Haram and the far-right Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging.
Duarte also said the Economic Freedom Fighters and the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union were working with Numsa to destabilise the country and the ANC government.
It seems the stage was being set for Numsa’s expulsion from Cosatu, weakening the industrial union’s hold on the federation and strengthening the hold of public sector unions.
For the moment, this seems good for the ANC, as the public sector unions have not taken a radical stance against the National Development Plan.
Nehawu’s spokesperson, Sizwe Pamla, said they had not gone on strike because they understood that the country was going through a difficult time since the global financial crisis.
He said the agreements signed with the government in 2011 were very accommodating although, he added: “It will be difficult to give workers more excuses if our new demands are not met.”
List of demands
In September, the public sector unions tabled a list of demands, including a 15% salary increase across the board, a R3 000 housing allowance, the abolishment of the lowest-paid levels one and two, and the introduction of six months’ maternity leave and two weeks’ paternity leave.
Pamla said they had not received a response from the government and were surprised to hear in Finance Minister Nhlanhla Nene’s budget statement that he would be freezing vacancies in the public sector and that salary increases would not be more than 1% above the 6.6% inflation rate.
Pamla said Nehawu and other public sector unions would meet on Thursday to discuss the way forward.
“We are not keen on strikes but we are being provoked,” he said. “How can the ANC decide to freeze vacancies without consulting stakeholders?
“They [the ANC] went to the IMF [International Monetary Fund] to talk about the excessive wage bill but they never talked to us.”
Pamla said the ANC could not afford to be deadlocked in wage negotiations before the local government elections in 2016.
“It is up to them whether they want to satisfy the IMF or the people who have been behind the ANC. The ball is in their court,” he said.