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The numbers will tell the truth

Jul 22 2018 08:57
Terry Bell

By the end of today there may be a fairly clear indication of how much popular power Cosatu may have lost in recent years.

It will come with the assessment of attendance and the resolutions of a two-day working class summit called by the SA Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu) at the Soweto campus of the University of Johannesburg.

Calling for campaigners to join “a struggle for a truly free, corruption-free, democratic and equal South African society”, the campaign seems like a case of history repeating itself.

Some 24 years ago, Cosatu issued a similar invitation to a “socialist conference” at Johannesburg’s 17 Shaft Complex. That conference ended with a resolution not to take any decisions about how best to go forward, but instead to stage a series of conferences in every region to assess the wishes of “the people” as a whole.

Those regional conferences never took place, as Cosatu moved into the ANC-led government.

Even the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa), which had a year earlier tabled a motion that Cosatu should not be allied to the ANC in government – the country’s biggest employer – toed the majority line. But tensions remained, complicated over the years by the establishment of union investment companies that often provided handy sources of funds for some union leaders.

It was a combination of these and other factors that led to the expulsion of Numsa and the collapse of the Chemical, Energy, Paper, Printing, Wood and Allied Workers’ Union (Ceppwawu), which is still listed as a 62 000-strong affiliate on the Cosatu website. But the information on that website for most of the listed affiliate unions has not been updated since May 2012.

Numsa, with a membership of probably more than 330 000, is now the biggest union in the country and is the mainstay of Saftu together with another Cosatu breakaway, the Food and Allied Workers’ Union, which is also still listed as a Cosatu affiliate.

In recent times, the biggest gainer in the membership stakes has almost certainly been the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu), which dominates the platinum sector and recently left the almost moribund National Council of Trade Unions. Amcu’s surge in membership came at a cost to the Cosatu-affiliated National Union of Mineworkers, which was once the biggest union in South Africa.

However, several of the public sector unions affiliated to Cosatu have also shed members, with the major beneficiary probably being the Federation of Unions (Fedusa)-affiliated Public Servants’ Association, which claims 230 000-plus members.

Overall union membership has declined, partly because sections of Cosatu-affiliated unions have broken away as independents or become affiliated to Saftu. Membership numbers, relying on union honesty and audited financial statements are supposed to be filed with the registrar of trade unions on an annual basis. However, financial reports are often years behind.

Such details were once readily available from officials and from the retired registrar, Johan Crouse.

He gave great leeway to unions, allowing, in the case of Ceppwawu, five years to go by before taking legal action in 2015 to have the union deregistered and taken under administration.

Crouse refused a directive from Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant to stop the legal action – and was sacked. Two years later he won his job back just before retirement. The Ceppwawu issue remains in limbo and enquiries to the registrar have drawn a blank.

So perhaps the best indicator we can have of the relative strengths of Cosatu and Saftu may emerge after this weekend.

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saftu  |  cosatu  |  amcu  |  num  |  numsa  |  terry bell  |  opinion  |  unions
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