Unions must use collective power

Oct 08 2017 06:02
Terry Bell

The march of the digital revolution with its consequent loss of jobs should be a wake-up call to trade unions the world over to marshal their collective power.

Organised workers at the point of production could have sufficient leverage to ensure that the growth of technology is used to the benefit of all and not for the profit of the few.

Workers in South Africa are no exception and, over recent weeks, have been given an additional reminder, not only of their numerical power, but also of the potential economic leverage they possess.

The latest reminder came with the R3bn bailout for SAA, which saved the airline from a potentially catastrophic debt default.

This state handout comes from the government’s revenue account, much of which is provided by workers – employed and unemployed – who contribute by direct and indirect tax to the fiscus.

So it is cash, coming disproportionately from the pockets of the sellers of labour, that has again been used to rescue the mismanaged and scandal-ridden national carrier.

The bailout adds to the R16.4bn in government guaranteed funds the airline has already swallowed.

It is an ongoing saga – two years ago, a R6.5bn bailout was agreed to, on condition that SAA would provide a “90-day rescue plan within a month”.

With no signs yet of a turnaround or rescue, it is little wonder that public sector unions are becoming increasingly nervous about their pension funds.

But, as I pointed out last week, these monies cannot legally be touched without the complicity of the trade union trustees who serve on pension fund boards.

To permit a raid on such funds would also mean trustees forgoing their fiduciary duties.

However, what the state pension fund issue has highlighted is the fact that a massive amount of workers’ money is invested via trade unions.

And most such funds, it can be argued, are being used to prop up the very system the unions claim to oppose – a system that has seen joblessness grow, and the wage and welfare gap widen grotesquely.

This is the antithesis of the Reconstruction and Development Programme, launched with such hope and fanfare in 1994 and, to all intents and purposes, effectively dismantled from 1996 onwards.

The ANC government’s alliance partners, the SA Communist Party and the Congress of SA Trade Unions, condemned this economic trajectory as the “1996 class project”.

However, while they bewailed what was happening, they remained within the alliance and part of government.

The major reason for this is the poisonous belief that unity of the organisation must be maintained at all costs; that change can only come from within; and that corruption and abuses of various kinds have to be tolerated as if, in acting against them, unity might be imperiled.

From the early years of exile, this cancer became embedded in the ANC. Corrupt elements, usually with real or perceived factional support, were able to thrive. They continue to do so, although the centre can no longer keep everything in check.

Yet many now marginalised members calling for a principled ANC still adhere to this belief in unity at all costs, treating the organisation with the reverence of religious acolytes.

However, there is a growing realisation among workers that, while change is necessary, it must come from society’s rank and file: from the sellers of labour, united democratically, and on the basis of principle.

Here is a clear and leading role for the unions, provided they return fully to their democratic roots, and are able to unite on the basis of principle.

But is this, perhaps, too much to hope for?

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