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Cosatu battles declines

Sep 16 2018 06:30
Dewald Van Rensburg and Jan De Lange

Labour federation Cosatu has continued to bleed members and cannot get a handle on major affiliated unions that have become embarrassingly dysfunctional.

A number of the federation’s affiliates are simply too small to sustain themselves, and major affiliates have been paralysed by fights to control investment companies.

On the political front, its leadership is starting to imagine a future where its alliance partner, the ANC, fails to win 50% of the vote in the upcoming national election.

Cosatu’s incumbent president, S’dumo Dlamini, said that everything points to a very tight election in 2019.

Dlamini is also a member of the ANC’s national executive committee and the SACP’s central committee.

“These days, I often close my eyes and try to imagine what it would be like if the country was governed by the DA. Many people argue in favour of coalitions these days, but I don’t think South Africa is ready for it,” he said in an interview.

“Cosatu would still be in an alliance with the ANC, and we would have to ask questions about whatever coalition ends up being formed if that point is reached.”

The DA would almost certainly never support the Cosatu framework of a “national democratic revolution”, he said, adding that the Economic Freedom Fighters were pushing a “fascist programme”.

Like the ANC, Cosatu is losing ground.

A frank organisational report, tabled for the federation’s national congress taking place next week, shows that membership of Cosatu unions has fallen to 1.6 million this year – down from 2.2 million in 2013.

In just the past year, membership fell 6%, says the report.

Even these figures are likely to be overstated as at least one major affiliate – the Chemical, Energy, Paper, Printing, Wood and Allied Workers’ Union (Ceppwawu) – has provided highly questionable figures.

The numbers Ceppwawu gave to Cosatu show that it neither gained nor lost a single member since 2015, and is exactly 84 279 members strong.

That is far more than the last audited figures Ceppwawu provided to the department of labour in 2013: 66 681.

The tone of the report is a far cry from the federation’s ambitious plans a few years ago to push membership to 4 million.

The lost members are largely from industrial unions, further transforming Cosatu into a predominantly public sector federation.

If the latest numbers are believed, Cosatu is now 58% comprised of civil servants. It first crossed the 50% threshold when the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa), the largest private sector union in the country, was expelled in 2015.

The Food and Allied Workers’ Union (Fawu) left the federation to join Numsa in the newly formed SA Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu), while the SA Transport and Allied Workers’ Union (Satawu) lost half its members to a breakaway group called the National Transport Movement (NTM).

Bad Apples

Cosatu general secretary Bheki Ntshalintshali told City Press this week that the federation could still turn the corner and recover.

But to do so, its leaders need more power to intervene in the affairs of affiliated unions. One of the resolutions before the congress is to amend the Cosatu constitution’s clause on the autonomy of affiliates.

The resolution proposed by teachers’ union Sadtu reads that the constitutional clause “must be restructured such that it must be made clear that upon its acceptance into the federation, an affiliate automatically agrees that it will provide space for the federation to intervene and abide by its decisions should the need arise”.

“You need a mechanism for self-correction,” said Ntshalintshali. “You cannot wait for the department of labour to get involved. We must have the power to intervene when people come to us.”

He cited members of Cosatu unions who come knocking at the federation’s headquarters when their unions fail them.

“People see intervention as interference. We need more power at the central executive committee.”

Three unions are identified as problems in the organisational report: Ceppwawu, Satawu and municipal workers’ union Samwu.

“All these unions have common challenges, which include fighting for access to resources in the investment companies, financial mismanagement, unconstitutional suspensions and dismissals of comrades,” reads the report.

All three have seen splinter unions break away. In Satawu’s case, more than 100 000 members left and at Samwu it is about 30 000.

“The fight in Ceppwawu is about who controls the resources,” said Ntshalintshali.

He admits that the Ceppwawu membership numbers reflected in the congress report are probably overstated.

“It is very difficult to actually know what their membership is. We know there are companies where they lost members. There have been three splinter unions coming out of Ceppwawu.”

Samwu is currently the only Cosatu union not in good standing because of unpaid affiliation fees.

Other unions have, however, become creative with their money management in a way that undermines Cosatu as a whole, said Ntshalintshali.

There is a tendency to withhold fees for as long as possible to earn interest, causing a cash-flow problem at headquarters, he said.

Too small to survive

While major unions are torn apart by internal battles, there is an increasing proliferation of small unions that have no real hope of survival.

“You dismiss one organiser, and they go and start a separate union,” said Ntshalintshali.

Four of Cosatu’s current 15 affiliates are unsustainably small, by the federation’s own reasoning.

Anything under 20 000 members is not a viable union, reads the congress report.

Ntshalintshali repeats this rule of thumb and points out the problem that most new unions requesting to become affiliates are smaller than this threshold.

One ironic case is the Union Power Movement (UPM), which wants to join Cosatu.

The UPM is a breakaway from the NTM, which is a breakaway from Satawu. However, the UPM does not want to be part of Satawu again, challenging Cosatu’s “one-sector, one-union” rule.

Ntshalintshali suggests that small unions have to be prodded to merge.

“If you took all these small unions and combined them, you would have a huge union. We are looking at that. We say: ‘Can everyone accept that we are a family? You don’t need your own identity to serve your members. What you need are resources.’”

Successful unionism requires cross-subsidisation, he added. “The real reason there are so many unorganised workers is that there has been a focus on the well-paid jobs. What do you do when farmworkers want Cosatu’s help?” he asked.

Since Fawu left Cosatu, these infamously vulnerable and hard-to-organise groups have had no home in Cosatu.

“Where do you allocate them? You can’t say: ‘Start a new union.’ You need capital to organise.”

The answer should be to expand well-resourced unions up and down the value chains of the sectors they currently organise, Ntshalintshali said.

Small unions need to learn from history, he said. .

Years ago, two nursing unions joined Cosatu at the same time. One was Denosa with 60 000 or so members, which is still going strong, and the other was Sadnu with 9 000 members, which withered away.

“We tried for years to merge them,” said Ntshalintshali. “Current small unions know that history.”

Public sector

The ongoing drift towards the public sector has an impact on the power of Cosatu as a whole, said Ntshalintshali.

Notably, it substantially reduces the power of the federation to exert serious economic pressure through strikes. “If you strike on a mine, you see the effect of that same day. Money is lost. If you strike in the public sector, the impact is long term … the kind of pressure you exert is different … We need to revive the industrial unions.”

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cosatu  |  da  |  anc  |  sdumo dlamini  |  wage talks  |  unions  |  public sector
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