The South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu) led thousands of workers and activists in a nationwide one-day strike on Wednesday but their action threatens future worker unity, the federation’s rivals have charged.
The strikers demanded that the national minimum wage of R20 an hour be scrapped, amendments to the Labour Relations Act be reconsidered and that the federation be allowed to join the National Economic Development and Labour Council.
But the marches took place without the support of Cosatu, the country’s biggest trade union federation, the National Council of Trade Unions (Nactu), which has about 400 000 members, and the Federation of Unions of South Africa (Fedusa), which represents more than 500 000 workers.
Cosatu’s general secretary, Bheki Ntshalintshali, said: “They didn’t send their leadership to invite us; they sent one union. We said, ‘Write to us as Cosatu, then let’s talk and see.’ They never did.”
But Saftu’s general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, this week said Saftu had officially invited all trade union federations but the three had declined to participate.
Fedusa general secretary Dennis George called the strike “a total waste of time”.
“I think the Saftu leaders have misled the people. They said they are going to make this country ungovernable but they don’t have the impact. They must change their attitude and work with other people the way Nactu and Fedusa do,” he said.
Nactu described Saftu’s decision to strike without the support of other worker movements as a miscalculation. “This is an embarrassing strike action. It’s a strike without clear demands,” said Nactu general secretary Narius Moloto.
But Saftu president Mac Chavalala said that Cosatu, Fedusa and Nactu were sowing division by refusing to participate. “As you can see here today, workers across all sectors are here. Cosatu have sold out workers together with government. The workers … are out here in numbers and they’re rejecting that deal which Cosatu, Fedusa and Nactu have reached with government.”
Cosatu, Nactu and Fedusa, which took part in negotiations for a national minimum wage, questioned why Saftu was campaigning against it despite having made representations during public hearings.
Cosatu dismissed Saftu’s claim that the amendments to the Labour Relations Act would introduce a strike ballot and would water down the right to strike.
“There’s a lot of misinformation about the amendment. There’s no ballot to strike; the law protecting the right to strike remains,” Ntshalintshali said.
Saftu has a membership of about 700 000 and is home to major private sector unions such as the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) and the Food and Allied Workers’ Union. Saftu’s smaller affiliates have attempted to recruit more members to make the federation larger than Cosatu, which has 1.2-million members.
But the federations were competing for a “shrinking cake”, Ntshalintshali said.
According to the department of labour, more than 70% of the country’s workforce were not unionised, and the number of people opting out of union membership had increased by 2% since last year.
This had left unions affiliated to the same federation fighting among each other for members, he said. “When Fedusa and Nactu said, ‘Let’s talk about one federation’, they [Saftu] put conditions that we must not be in alliance with the ANC.”
Saftu’s North West convenor, Puseletso Molise, said that, despite the fractious relationship with other worker bodies, Saftu’s marches were a show of force that exposed the other federations. “We invited all of them to attend but instead they played politics. Now they have been exposed by the massive number of people attending.”
Saftu managed to swell its ranks by inviting community-based organisations and other political parties to join in. The only major party to endorse the strike was the Economic Freedom Fighters, whose members joined Saftu on the streets of Cape Town.
In Johannesburg, about 6 000 people marched through the city. The march was attended mostly by Numsa and allied members.
Shaun Arendse, of the Workers’ and Socialist Party, said the party considered Saftu as the only progressive workers federation in South Africa. “I’ll put it this way: we wouldn’t have a set-up like this at a Cosatu rally.”
Community groups included the Simunye Workers Forum, the Casual Workers Advice Office, Right2Know and the Informal Sector Association.
As the Jo’burg march geared up and representatives from different organisations addressed the crowd, a Numsa cohort walked through Mary Fitzgerald Square singing “Wanya Ramaphosa”, and nurses from the Young Nurses Indaba chanted “Wanya Motsoaledi” in response.
The crowd cheered when Vavi took the podium.
“We are teaching those sell-outs the lesson of their lives,” he declared. “Today we are too big to march, so instead we’ll occupy Johannesburg.”