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Cosatu crisis threatens a major split

Aug 18 2013 17:02 Dewald van Rensburg
Suspended Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi

Suspended Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi. (Sapa)

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Johannesburg - Cosatu has suffered a number of splits in the past decade, but not the wholesale withdrawal of a major union, which seems to be on the cards, reported City Press on Sunday.

If Numsa pulls out, the federation’s composition will be skewed heavily in favour of government jobs.

If the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) does eventually make good on threats to leave labour federation Cosatu, the federation will finally find itself transformed into one with a predominantly public sector base.

According to Cosatu’s membership statistics from last year, a Numsa pull-out will tip the scales by accelerating the long-term movement of labour’s centre of gravity to the state.

Numsa claims a membership of 320?000 and represents by far the largest Cosatu presence in the private sector as the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) has lost a significant part of its base in the platinum industry since last year.

The NUM had well over 300?000 members itself, but officially maintains that the rise of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) on the mines has only cost it 40?000 members or so.

That contradicts claims from Amcu that it has won close to 100?000 new members.

Cosatu as a whole has roughly 2?million members, of which 854?496 were in the public sector as of last year, according to Cosatu’s 2012 Secretariat Report.

That seems to exclude members working for parastatals like Transnet and Eskom.

If Numsa pulls out, these civil servants will make up just over 50% of what will remain of Cosatu.

Much of the labour federation’s growth since the end of apartheid has been fuelled by attracting civil servants, teachers, doctors, nurses and police officers.

In 1991, only 7% of Cosatu’s 1.2?million members were in the state. By last year that proportion had swelled to 39%.

Aside from Numsa, the other Cosatu unions that have laid their pro-Zwelinzima Vavi chips on the table are the Food and Allied Workers’ Union and the SA Municipal Workers’ Union.

These two more or less match one another in the private and public sectors.

Fawu’s general secretary, Katishi Masemola, on Friday echoed his Numsa counterpart Irvin Jim’s call for a special congress to iron out the crisis in Cosatu.

Numsa is an outlier within Cosatu in many ways. According to a members’ survey conducted for Cosatu last year, the union differs sharply from the other Cosatu affiliates in the private sector in a few key respects:
  • Numsa has a better-paid membership than all other private sector Cosatu unions except the NUM, with close to half of surveyed members saying they earn more than R5?000;
  • It has the most skilled membership among the private sector unions, with fewer than half of members identified as “labourers” as opposed to “skilled production workers; and
  • ?Numsa has been the most aggressive Cosatu union with regards to recruitment and is also the union where the least workers claim to have witnessed corruption.
Amcu

Amcu was formed a decade ago by its president Joseph Mathunjwa as a breakaway from the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) at BHP Billiton’s Douglas colliery.

The split followed a fallout between Mathunjwa, then an NUM official; and Gwede Mantashe, then the NUM’s general secretary.

Since then, Amcu has held its own in the coal industry, gaining a membership at other mines, but never truly challenging the NUM.

It started making inroads into platinum mines in 2011, capitalising on NUM’s unpopularity, which has been in evidence since 2006.

Then, when the moment was right, the modest coal mining union from Witbank ballooned from 30?000 members to more than 100?000 in a very short period.

Now it dominates two of the three major platinum producers and stands a real chance of turning the old centre of the mining industry’s labour system, the Chamber of Mines, on its head with its divisive tactics at this year’s wage talks.

Other unions that have split from Cosatu affiliates have not fared so well, but Amcu’s example may yet give them hope.

SA postal workers' union

The union broke away from Cosatu’s Communication Workers’ Union in 2009 and only managed to get formally recognised by the SA Post Office this year.

Despite claiming roughly one-third of postal workers as members, the union is still operating with its initial interim leadership with no congress or elections since it started out.

Now there is an internal battle between leaders in the union’s regional offices against its national leadership.

Internal correspondence shows that most branches are malfunctioning, while there are rumours of misappropriated funds.

Nation Transport Movement

The Nation Transport Movement broke away from Cosatu’s transport union, Satawu, last year and is led by former national leaders of Satawu.

The union has fought an uphill battle to get recognised at Satawu’s parastatal strongholds, the Passenger Rail Association of SA as well as SA Airways and Transnet.

Its president, Ephraim Mphahlele, left the same position at Satawu under a cloud of allegations and counter-allegations between him and the union’s general secretary.

The fight closely resembles that between Zwelinzima Vavi and Cosatu president Sidumo Dlamini.

Mphahlele was a speaker at the launch of the Workers & Socialist Party earlier this year.

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