THE much-awaited new trade union federation will be launched at a founding congress on April 21-23 2017 in Boksburg, attended by 1 800 delegates from 21 unions representing 684 865 members.
It comes at a time when workers face the most serious challenges since the end of apartheid. More than ever, they need a strong, independent and militant organisation to represent them.
An army of vulnerable and powerless workers is growing apace, and all this threatens to get worse as many employers want to destroy collective bargaining and drive down wages to the lowest level desperate workers are prepared to accept, on the justification that ‘any job is better than none’, however low-paid.
The biggest challenge of all is that more than three quarters of workers are not organised in any union and are thus defenceless against these attacks.
The trade union movement is fragmented and existing federations which ought to be its champion have caved in to the employers and government, with their acceptance of a minimum wage which is below the poverty line and their willingness to agree to legal measures to sabotage workers' hard-fought-for and constitutional right to strike.
Cosatu, launched in 1985, was one of the world’s more democratic and militant workers' organisations. Many of its affiliated unions had been built from the bottom up by members in the factories, mines and shops. It played a pivotal role in the eventual defeat of apartheid.
The tragedy is that this very victory saw the start of a gradual, but accelerating flight from its own founding principles, culminating in the split which saw the expulsion of its biggest affiliate, the National Union of Metal Workers of South Africa, and the dismissal of its general secretary.
The underlying cause of this degeneration was the leadership’s descent into becoming an adjunct of the ruling party and the government. Despite occasional rhetorical statements and resolutions, it defended the anti-worker, neoliberal capitalist policies and condemned those who resisted this as “anti-majoritarian”.
The unions who will be launching the new federation held a Workers’ Summit in 2016, at which they committed themselves to reviving the great traditions of the South African trade union movement, to organise the unorganised and adopted a radical programme to confront the new challenges I have outlined.
Two of the most important principles are firstly, to ensure that the new body is independent of both employers and government. That does not mean being apolitical, and indeed the Workers’ Summit principles include a commitment to “socialist orientation”; secondly, that it is democratically controlled by, and accountable to, the workers. This means power in the hands of branches which give mandates to, and receive reports back by, the leaders, who can be recalled if they break those mandates.
Jan Theron, former general secretary of the Food and Canning Workers Union, in his recent book Solidarity Road vividly describes the hard struggle to rebuild the union factory-by-factory, to eliminate corruption and build a worker-controlled leadership which expected no financial reward for their work.
And this happened under the apartheid regime’s draconian and divisive anti-union laws, which banned multiracial unions and the persecution of trade unionists by the Special Branch.
The new federation will have to revive that tradition and put the workers back in control of their organisations. In the early 1980s, when Cosatu was yet to emerge, Theron prophetically warned that “a new federation would be a paper tiger unless the unions that formed it had properly organised workers”. The same applies today.
The new federation’ leaders will have to reject the temptation to depend mainly on funds from overseas donors and union investment companies and not elect leaders who use the trade unions as stepping stones to well-paid careers on business or government. They will have to fight uncompromisingly to eliminate corruption, which has seen several unions' leaders hauled before the court on charges of embezzling their members’ money.
These are the challenges which the new leadership will have to confront urgently, because time is not on their side. If workers cannot turn the tide and fight back against their appalling conditions of life, we shall slide into a new age of barbarism.
* Patrick Craven is a former national spokesperson of Cosatu and
Numsa and a supporter of the Movement for Socialism, which aims to build
a new revolutionary socialist workers’ party. Opinions expressed are