The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) is heading to court in an attempt to return to Cosatu before the federation’s special national congress in July.
But the Liberated Metalworkers Union of South Africa (Limusa) is now a member of the federation and, with the two unions citing irreconcilable differences, they could be heading for a clash.
Limusa, which claims to have 11 064 members nationally, with its largest membership – 4 650 – in KwaZulu-Natal, says it would be open to discussions about a merger with Numsa if Numsa returned to Cosatu. But Numsa, with more than 350 000 members, is not biting.
Mbuso Ngubane, the regional secretary of Numsa in KwaZulu-Natal, said this week that it considered Limusa as a “shelf union”, with no recognised agreements with any employers.
“We don’t think we can have talks with them,” he said. “What grounds would these talks be based on? Limusa doesn’t even have its own policies yet. But we see them as a union that wants to defend the ANC and the government. We want to challenge the status quo,” he said.
Limusa said this week it was not primarily trying to take workers away from Numsa; it was organising workers who were not unionised and workers from smaller unions, particularly in the manufacturing sector.
“Our main objective is to organise workers who are currently not organised under Cosatu’s banner,” said Limusa’s spokesperson, Mawonga Madolo.
In other sectors, breakaway unions have increased their militancy as competition between them and the old unions grows. Not so with Limusa, said an observer with keen insight into the shopfloor where Limusa has been most active, Toyota.
Thapelo Molapo, the chairperson of the Automobile Manufacturers Employers’ Organisation and a former vice-president of human relations and training at Toyota, said Limusa had not shown much radicalism or militancy. “In all fairness, it would be an exaggeration to say that Limusa is trying to out-militant Numsa. Limusa’s tactics so far have been fairly moderate.”
Limusa claims to have 15% representation at Toyota, but the figures are still being verified, Molapo said.
Limusa is in a dispute with Toyota over the granting of organisational rights to the union, which is taking the matter to the Labour Court.
“The biggest, most complicated issue when dealing with a new union is the verification of numbers and threshold agreements. These are very complex issues,” Molapo said.
“Limusa has members in Toyota but the number of members is subject to ongoing verification. All sorts of numbers are being bandied about at this stage. But I can confirm that Numsa remains the majority union,” he said.
Limusa’s registration certificate states that it was registered with the department of labour on November??28 last year, 20 days after Numsa was expelled from Cosatu.
But, Madolo said, the decision to start another metalworkers’ union was taken in July last year. Led by former Numsa members, including its former president, Cedric Gina, the union was accepted into Cosatu late last year.
Politicisation of the union
Madolo said disgruntled Numsa members met in May last year to discuss what they described as the politicisation of the union.
One of the major complaints was that Numsa was “turning into a political party” and that it was becoming a general union, recruiting in other sectors.
When they realised these issues could not be resolved internally, a decision was taken to start a new metalworkers’ union that would only organise in the sector, and that would only organise under Cosatu’s banner.
But, with Cosatu’s policy of one sector, one union, what are the implications for Limusa if the court orders Numsa’s return?
Acting Cosatu spokesperson Norman Mampane said the federation did not know.
“We have not yet gone into discussion of a hypothesis. Numsa is no longer a recognised union within Cosatu. Limusa is the recognised metalworkers’ union,” he said.
But Madolo said Limusa would be open to negotiations about a possible merger with Numsa if it was allowed back, although with conditions. He said Numsa would have to agree to the principle of one union, one sector.
“If Numsa changes its ways and its political agenda, and if it stops organising in other sectors, we are open to engaging in a process, led by the federation,” Mampane said.