In the name of union game

The founding congress of the South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu) will go ahead on Friday April 21 despite legal threats of a rival over the new federation’s choice of name.

On Tuesday, Dennis George, the general secretary of the Federation of Unions of South Africa, said Fedusa had sent a letter of demand to Saftu’s interim steering committee that its name be changed to “protect the Fedusa brand”.

“They made their name by just turning our name around. I must look after my brand. Fedusa has a very good brand [that] we have built up over 20 years,” George said.

“They must call themselves a circle or assembly. If they don’t change it, we’ll go to the Labour Court and we will interdict them,” he added.

Saftu’s affiliate representatives will vote on a permanent name at the congress, but the federation’s interim spokesperson, Patrick Craven, said Fedusa’s threat will not inform this decision. “The congress itself will need to decide on the name and it definitely won’t be influenced by Fedusa,” he said.

“Federations are known primarily by their acronyms and they all sound completely different. How can you avoid the words trade union in the name of federation? There’s no reasoning behind this objection,” Craven added.

Fedusa’s threats were dismissed by Zwelinzima Vavi, the convener of Saftu’s steering committee. “They are crazy,” he said.

Vavi led the negotiations and planning of the federation with metalworkers’ union Numsa and other smaller unions after their expulsion in 2015 from the ANC-aligned worker federation, Cosatu. It is expected he will be elected general secretary and will take charge of the new body.

Numsa president Andrew Chirwa has emerged as a frontrunner for the presidency on condition that he retains his position in the metalworkers’ union.

“The president will be Chirwa if he can keep his title in Numsa. He is the strongest candidate that’s emerged for the presidency,” said the leader of one of the unions that will be affiliated to Saftu.

Commenting anonymously, he said there was overwhelming support for the deputy general secretary of the Food and Allied Workers’ Union (Fawu) Moleko Phakedi to be Vavi’s deputy.

The most contested positions would be the deputy presidency and treasurer general, “which would most likely be given to the medium-sized unions such as the Sapu [South African Policing Union] and NTM [National Transport Movement]”, the union leader said.

Saftu’s launch, two years in the making, will mark the most significant threat to Cosatu’s hegemony over the labour market. Cosatu represents the majority of South Africa’s unionised workers.

Fawu general secretary Katishi Masemola said, although his union was one of only two Cosatu affiliates to jump ship to join Saftu, he expected more Cosatu unions, or members, to follow. “Over a passage of time, we think that the Cosatu unions will walk away as that federation becomes irrelevant. They will join us. If Cosatu doesn’t lose entire unions, their unions will lose members.”

Vavi said one of the federation’s most daunting tasks would be the recruitment of nonunionised employees, which make up more than 70% of South Africa’s workforce.

Numsa general secretary Irvin Jim said the primary task of the new federation would be to “do what Cosatu has failed to do, which is to be both the shield and a spear for workers, [and] militant and revolutionary in its outlook”.

Numsa plans to propose campaigns to scrap the government’s tender system and it hopes the founding congress will decide on changes for appointments to the boards of state-owned companies.

“They must employ workers directly and build the capacity of the state. The boards of state-owned enterprises must be reconstituted so that labour, government and business are represented in government companies,” Jim said.

Politically, Numsa would be tolerant of the newcomers to Saftu, but would strive for political consciousness, Jim said. “It’s a new federation, so obviously we must be very tolerant.

“Once within the federation, we should sharpen consciousness to build unions with revolutionary character that are anticapitalism.”

Besides threatening Cosatu’s membership, Saftu also poses a serious threat to federations such as Fedusa and the National Council of Trade Unions (Nactu), which are already independent.

“The controversy around our name — it’s about them [Fedusa] defending their territorial space in their independence arena. We think we will find resonance with members of Fedusa and Nactu,” Masemola said.

Craven said the new federation would be independent but not apolitical. “We will take a stand on political matters but we will not be aligning with any political party.”

Saftu’s congress is scheduled to run until Sunday, at which point the federation is expected to emerge with an affiliate membership of 21 unions representing more than 700 000 workers.

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Govan Whittles

Govan Whittles is a general news and political multimedia journalist at the Mail & Guardian. Born in King William's Town in the Eastern Cape, he cut his teeth as a radio journalist at Primedia Broadcasting. He produced two documentaries and one short film for the Walter Sisulu University, and enjoys writing about grassroots issues, national politics, identity, heritage and hip-hop culture.

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