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Unity must drive the ethic of trade unions

Feb 11 2018 06:27
Terry Bell

What is a trade union? Or, more precisely, what should a trade union be? These questions seem particularly pertinent with the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) not only declaring itself Marxist-Leninist, but resolving to build workers’ party structures and hailing the Bolivarian Revolution led by Hugo Chávez, the late president of Venezuela.

This adds to and changes the union’s earlier position that it would be a catalyst in the formation of a workers’ party. Numsa had accepted that trade unions are not political parties, therefore it would remain independent, but would support policies and parties that agreed with the demands of union members.

In other words, political organisations and parties may motivate and argue within the independent union structures for workers’ support.

Such a position underlines the essence of trade unionism – that a trade union is a voluntary association of workers who come together irrespective of gender, ethnicity, religion or political persuasion to democratically protect their interests.

The cardinal principle of these organised segments of the vast army of the sellers of labour is unity. Anything that fractures this unity weakens workers in relation to their employers.

Because organised workers are so potentially powerful, they are always targets of both governments that wish to weaken or control them and parliamentary democracies – for political parties that try to win their votes.

There is a long history of employers setting up “sweetheart” unions in individual industries. Meanwhile, political parties work to gain the allegiance or affiliation of unions and their federations or to persuade unions to be non-political.

In Europe, for example, this resulted in union federations allied to Labour parties, Communist parties and Christian parties claiming to be democratic and adhering to trade union principles, yet divided on ideological and religious lines.

In so-called socialist states, the unions were the bottom tier of a conveyor belt that led through party structures to the top bureaucracy or even to a single leader said to represent the people.

Which is precisely where the adulation for Chávez comes in. He was an army officer who seems to have wanted to end the gross inequalities that persist in Venezuela and around the world.

Chávez led a failed coup, went to jail and was seen by many among workers and the poor as a martyr to the cause of democracy and equality. He was viewed to be doing for the oppressed and exploited what they had not done for themselves.

Yet the very activist philosopher in whose name Numsa and Chávez claim to operate, Karl Marx, maintained that only self-emancipation of the working class can result in true democratic control of society.

Control by the majority of all facets of their lives, from the bottom up, is what writers such as Marx called socialism.

Chávez may have been well intentioned and years of record oil revenue, Venezuela has one of the world’s greatest oil reserves, meant he could provide free healthcare, education and cheap imported food.

When the oil revenue fell, much of local agriculture had been destroyed by imports and grandiose schemes went uncompleted or faltered and failed.

The populism of the Comandante, as Chávez was known, was opposed by vested interests, but much of the economic damage done was self-inflicted.

These are the lessons Numsa and others looking to Venezuela should learn – that good intentions are not enough and no individual or small group should be entrusted with near absolute power; that the essence of a society of equals is democracy.

Also that trade unions, by their nature, should be prime examples of democratic unity in diversity.

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