Saftu: Working Class Summit to counter partisan trade unionism

The proposed national minimum wage is R20 an hour for the average worker, R18 an hour for farmworkers, R15 an hour for domestic workers and R11 an hour for expanded public works programme workers. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

The proposed national minimum wage is R20 an hour for the average worker, R18 an hour for farmworkers, R15 an hour for domestic workers and R11 an hour for expanded public works programme workers. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

The South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu) says it is confident of its capacity to unite the working class ahead of its summit, which is set to place this coming weekend.

In a press statement, Saftu said the Working Class Summit — which falls on the eve of the Brics summit — would endeavour to “overcome the fragmentation of struggles, which has characterised the movements of working class and poor in the democratic era”.

The summit will be held at the University of Johannesburg’s Soweto campus on July 21 and 22.

READ MORE: Are Brics civil society talkshops just ticking boxes and not making real ‘jam’?

“The purpose of this summit is to bring together, under one roof, different organisations who are pursuing different struggles in their own areas of society. Because we have realised that, though we are strong, we are not working as a unit — as an oppressed class,” Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) general secretary Anele Yawa told the Mail & Guardian.

TAC is one of the over 75 civil society organisations the trade union federation said it expects will attend the summit. Saftu also expects over 30 trade unions to attend.

The plan is to mobilise these stakeholders to start organising action that will take on all the struggles faced by the working class. These issues include unemployment, trade union rights, free education, free healthcare, housing and the 2019 elections.

Yawa said TAC’s trust in Saftu has to do with the federation not being aligned with any political party — unlike the ANC’s alliance partner, Cosatu. Saftu is not “captured”, he said.

Saftu, Yawa added, is the only federation that has reached out to civil society organisations. “It was not like Saftu imposed anything on us. What they did was give us space,” he said.

Julekha Latib, general secretary of the Gauteng Informal Development Alliance, agreed with this sentiment. “Saftu’s slogan is ‘Organise or starve.’ If we don’t follow that, we are doomed.”

Towards the end of April, Saftu led thousands of workers and activists in a nationwide one-day strike. The strike was in opposition to the proposed national minimum wage and other amendments to current labour legislation.

READ MORE: R20/hour a step closer for workers

A month later the National Minimum Wage Bill was submitted to the National Assembly at the end of May, where it was debated and approved, despite this show of resistance.

Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant also presented two other labour Bills — the Basic Conditions of Employment Amendment Bill and the Labour Relations Amendment Bill — that were passed and all three have now been sent to the National Council of Provinces to ratify.

The proposed national minimum wage is R20 an hour for the average worker, R18 an hour for farmworkers, R15 an hour for domestic workers and R11 an hour for expanded public works programme workers.

“It is unfortunate that the ANC pushed so hard for this labour legislation, despite massive rejection from the working class,” Saftu deputy general secretary Phakedi Moleko said.

Mentioning the success of the April shutdown, Moleko said the federation certainly has the capacity to be instrumental in uniting the working class.

But, he said, Saftu cannot be seen as the champion of the working-class struggle and the federation has realised the need to work with other organisations that are dealing with issues affecting the working class.

“We believe we can serve a bigger role than Cosatu. Cosatu is merely serving a particular role within its alliance,” Moleko said.

Moleko told the M&G that Saftu invited all unions aligned to Cosatu, National Council of Trade Unions (Nactu) and Federation of Unions of South Africa (Fedusa) to the summit, though the federation has not heard back from them. He maintains, however, that the summit is open to all unions.

Saftu’s April campaign went ahead without the backing of Cosatu, Nactu and Fedusa.

“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,” Fedusa general secretary Dennis George said at the time.

READ MORE: Saftu strike ‘threatens worker unity’

Though the summit is open to all trade unions and civil society organisations mobilising the working class, Moleko said a joint decision was made by those involved in the summit not to invite any political parties.

But, he said, Saftu cannot avoid the discussion about potential party alignment, as the federation has come to the understanding that the working class “cannot march and picket forever”.

“There is the issue of power and how power is being used. In this regard we believe the state power is being used by a capitalist class in the harshest form you can imagine,” Moleko said.

“Does that mean Saftu is going to push for the formation of a working-class party? It’s a debate that is ensuing,” he added.  

Sarah Smit

Sarah Smit

Sarah Smit both subs and writes for the Mail & Guardian. She joined the M&G after completing her master’s degree in English Literature from the University of Cape Town. She is interested in the literature of the contemporary black diaspora and its intersection with queer aesthetics of solidarity. Her recent work considers the connections between South African literary history and literature from the rest of the Continent. Read more from Sarah Smit

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