Get on board the new federation train, Harvey

Expelled Secretary General of COSATU, Zwelinzima Vavi, addresses a crowd of NUMSA members and supporters during a May Day rally in Tembisa. (John Wessels, AFP)

Expelled Secretary General of COSATU, Zwelinzima Vavi, addresses a crowd of NUMSA members and supporters during a May Day rally in Tembisa. (John Wessels, AFP)

Given that Ebrahim Harvey was once a trade union activist many years ago, we expected a more accurate account of the Workers Summit and the May Day Rally that followed it. Instead, what he wrote (“Numsa’s new federation still a pipe dream, May 6 – 12) was muddled, inaccurate and, frankly, very shoddy journalism. Comrade Ebrahim is capable of producing much better copy than this, and he must take stock.
He might start by actually talking to those who planned and attended the Workers Summit. 

Because it was an opinion piece, he is entitled to his view, but to base that view on glaring factual errors is not acceptable. The first and most prominent is represented by the headline of the article and the caption to the accompanying photograph, that repeats the wholly inaccurate view projected in the article, that the new federation belongs to the National Union of Metalworkers South Africa (Numsa). This is simply untrue. 

In the build-up to the Workers Summit, no less than 33 unions participated in the detailed preparations. Mature and sometimes robust discussions took place on the desired character of a new federation and its political orientation. But what marked these discussions was a high degree of respect. There was no imposition of a political line, so reminiscent of the practices of the past, and certainly no attempt whatsoever by the larger unions, like Numsa to impose their will. If Ebrahim had bothered to attend the numerous press briefings, or even read the press releases, and attended the Workers Summit itself, he would have heard this with his own ears. To imply that more than 50 unions represented at the Workers Summit allowed themselves to be dominated by a single union is an insult to their treasured autonomy, and to their own democratic mandates.

There have been concerted efforts to portray the new federation as a personal vanity project of comrade Irvin Jim, the general secretary of Numsa, and myself. The purpose of this negative spin is to belittle the efforts of a significant section of the organised working class to reject the compromises associated with the alliance and the paralysis that is only too evident in the actions of alliance partners. 

Vain attempts to defend the disastrous policies of a government that is doing little more than rubber-stamping the requirements of capital and set on implementing a discredited neo-liberal economic policy has signally failed to win mass support. This is self-evident. Attempts by alliance partners, including Cosatu, to defend a president associated with corruption — and his coterie who have failed the test of defending the Constitution and who have sullied their oaths of office — has further alienated a growing number of our people. This is hardly surprising given that millions of workers are faced with worsening terms and conditions and thousands of poor communities are confronted daily by shocking backlogs of even the most basic elements of service delivery. 

South Africa is now hosting poverty levels and unemployment figures of catastrophic proportions, especially among our young people, and also carries the dubious title of being the most unequal country on the planet. This is what is driving the new federation into existence, not the implied manipulations of a single union, or the wishes of a few individuals.

On the question of the United Front (UF), Ebrahim is just plain muddled. How he can assert that the UF was to somehow morph into a new union federation beggars belief. The UF is a very broad and increasing effective coalition of unions and community-based organisations fighting against austerity. It was never envisaged as a precursor to a new trade union federation. This is common knowledge and is stated in various public position papers. A Google search would have provided Ebrahim with links to the UF’s website and Facebook and Twitter accounts, where its purpose and positions are published. 

Ebrahim does describe Numsa’s decision to break from the Alliance as a courageous move, and indeed it was. But he muddles up three distinct decisions taken at its historic 2013 Congress, where Numsa resolved to explore the possibilities of establishing a political party, to build the UF, and to support initiatives towards the formation of a new federation. After being unconstitutionally expelled from the federation it helped to build, what other options could it take? Numsa was not prepared to sit by and wait for its policies to implement themselves. This is an example of democratic unionism in practice that should be applauded not denigrated.  Ebrahim fails to point out that the exploration of establishing a political party was not on the agenda of the Workers Summit. 

Ebrahim goes on to claim that of the 50-plus unions that were supposed to attend the Workers Summit, only a handful were named. This is not true. A roll call of 51 unions registered at the summit was read out at the event, represented by 1 500 delegates. In addition, 21 civil society organisations were in attendance and no less than 20 academics and political commentators. A pity then that Ebrahim was not among them. We can send him the signed attendance sheets if he requires hard evidence. 

As to his claim that the National Transport Movement and the new Finance Union of Workers (Fuwo) are little-known, he should be reminded that the NTM was at the centre of exposing the corruption in the Passenger Rail Agency of South Africa (Prasa), and if he had taken a deeper interest in the Workers Summit he would know that Fuwo has emerged as a democratic alternative to a South African Society of Bank Officials (Sasbo). 

His reference to the Food and Allied Workers Union (Fawu) being circumspect about the new federation is not borne out by the fact that Fawu’s delegation to the Summit was 170 delegates strong.  

If he had attended he would have heard more than 50 contributions made by activists from an array of unions. While the unions that these enthusiastic and articulate shop stewards and officials represented are historically located in different traditions, the speakers from the floor were united on the need to create a new home for workers that is first and foremost there to defend the interests of their members, and workers in general. They were also united in the conviction that a new federation should be independent in word and in deed, of any political party, but not be apolitical. Speakers drawn from the unemployed and from poor communities received a warm response, indicating how the time has come for organised workers, the unemployed and the poor to work together for radical transformation. 

As Ebrahim himself said, there are all manner of obstacles to be overcome in building a new federation. There are many different traditions and ways of organising to be acknowledged, to best ensure the effective representation of workers. He must also know that active unions, (as opposed to those who have become paralysed by corruption, political expediency and have been rendered unrepresentative), make decisions in a democratic manner, and that there are no executive short-cuts. While the Workers Summit agreed on a broad set of principles (which Ebrahim did not make reference to in his piece, despite the declaration having been released to the media on Monday, May 2), all of those unions who participated in the Workers Summit will be taking part in a process of securing mandates from workers on the finer details. This is not a weakness, but a profound strength, and it is breathing life into the new federation. 

Rather than focus on the negative, Ebrahim missed a golden opportunity to record something that might prove to be of far reaching significance for our country. The successful bringing together of a diverse section of the labour movement, representing more than one million workers, to embark on a path towards establishing a new democratic, independent and militant federation should be celebrated. 

Workers are crying out for representation. More than seven million of them in the formal sector are still outside of the trade union movement. Millions are eking out a living in precarious jobs or in the informal sector. Millions are in danger of sinking further into hopelessness through long-term structural unemployment and poverty. Surely the emergence of a new home and voice for all workers should be welcomed by commentators like Ebrahim who still claim a radical tradition? We expect negative sentiment from those who feel threatened by the emergence of a new federation, but there is no stopping this train. It is moving forward and we expect many more passengers to jump on board and join us in reshaping not just the world of work, but society as a whole.  That’s why we say, don’t mourn or moan, organise!

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