The planned launch of a new labour federation, announced on April 30 by the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) and former Cosatu leader Zwelinzima Vavi, has been a long time coming – and it has a long way to go.
At its congress in December 2013, Numsa, then affiliated to the trade union federation Cosatu, took a historic decision to break ranks and abandon their alliance with the ruling ANC and the South African Communist Party. Following their expulsion from Cosatu in 2014, they resolved to form a new federation, the United Front (UF) – an umbrella structure for a range of organisations to carry out a programme of action – and, stemming from that, a new workers’ party.
It was a courageous move: it was the first time a major trade union has broken away from the long-standing tripartite alliance. It was also the first time a Cosatu affiliate and then its general secretary, Vavi, were expelled.
It seemed that a new, powerful voice outside the ANC alliance would challenge it at the polls, but that won’t happen in the local elections on August 3, Numsa said recently .
This is not a good sign; since 2014, Numsa and its supporters had talked confidently of taking on the ANC in these polls. Also, Numsa promised to launch the UF officially in early 2016, but it hasn’t taken place. The same applies to the workers’ party they have been talking up since 2013. Are they really ready to launch a new labour federation? The launch was to follow the workers’ summit on April??30 to coincide with May Day.
It is evident that Numsa has failed to strategise properly. The union also seems to have taken on far more than it can handle. First and foremost, as a trade union, Numsa appears to be struggling to serve its own members and for it also to form the UF and workers’ party is a very tall order. It is clear that Numsa does not have the organisational resources or financial capacity to drive them all.
Now it is questionable whether the new federation will materialise on the grand scale originally envisaged.
Inevitably, there will be a turf war with Cosatu, itself embattled in the wake of the expulsion of Numsa and Vavi, and because of the lingering disaffection of several important affiliates that had earlier openly sided with Numsa and Vavi, but who have since retreated somewhat.
The Food and Allied Workers Union, the Commercial, Catering and Allied Workers Union and the Communication Workers Union have become more circumspect about linking to the new federation.
This is Vavi’s biggest disappointment, and he expressed his frustration: “We will not waste time with unions in Cosatu who fail to stand up to the internal infighting within Cosatu.”
But he made a misstep when he said the new federation was not “in competition with Cosatu because there is nothing to compete with”.
There is a lot still left in Cosatu, and to disparage its remaining affiliates (and by implication, workers generally) in this way is unwise and counterproductive.
The media were told that 50 unions would attend the workers’ summit on April 30, but only a few were named – Numsa, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu), the National Council of Trade Unions (Nactu), a region of the Democratic Nursing Organisation of South Africa, Solidarity, the National Union of Public Service and Allied Workers, plus the little-known National Transport Movement and the Financial Union of Workers.
It was reported that, by 11am on the day, 20 of the 50 unions were present. It seemed a far cry from the claim that they would “represent the majority of the working class”.
When asked about the participation of the Federation of Unions of South Africa (Fedusa) in the new federation, its leader, Dennis George, was terse: “They have been sending us invitations, but we don’t know who they are – we just know Vavi.”
And he had further concerns: “We are organising in all the major sectors and our affiliates tell us that Numsa is deploying recruiters trying to turn workers against Fedusa.”
This suggests the main reason Vavi does not want to rush into forming a federation is precisely because it will be a difficult, complex and long-term process. Given this poor start, Vavi is compelled to try to make the federation’s appeal as broad as possible.
“We need most of the 173 registered trade unions, including Cosatu, to form part of the process to work with the steering committee. This invitation is open.”
It is also why he said that the focus will be on unorganised workers.
But it is going to be very tough to organise these workers. Workers’ interest in unions has declined, largely because of stories about corruption in their ranks. The economic crisis might also make organising workers into new unions more difficult. Besides, with unions as ideologically and politically diverse as Solidarity, Amcu, Nactu and Numsa, creating a new labour movement is bound to be arduous.
There are serious concerns, too, about its long-term viability. Seeking to form a new federation “that is not compromised by any political party” is bound to pose other problems, especially in terms of its own plans to form a workers’ party. For a workers’ party to be allied to a new federation, as an exception to the stricture Vavi expressed, will create serious internal tensions, which will in turn be fuelled by the different ideological and political strands in its composition.
On the electoral front, there are also bound to be problems because of little unanimity on political and strategic questions. This is evident in Vavi’s statement: “We are confident that a new trade union federation can be born that is not chronically compromised by its allegiance to a discredited presidency or an anti-working- class, bourgeois Parliament”.
The implication of that is a new workers’ party or a new union federation will shun Parliament and elections. This is not realistic in our constitutional democracy. Besides, look at what the Economic Freedom Fighters have achieved in Parliament. Would Vavi and Numsa not want to have a similar effect?
Ebrahim Harvey is a political writer, analyst, author and former Cosatu unionist