South Africa

2013: Cosatu’s year of the shop steward

By Greg Nicolson 29 November 2012

E-tolls, mining unrest, farm strikes and Mangaung – Cosatu addressed the newsworthy issues in its briefing on Monday’s meeting of the union federation’s central executive committee, but Zwelinzima Vavi wanted to focus on the ground-level organisational issues that have contributed to a year of unrest. “It can’t be business as usual,” said the general secretary, in so many ways. By GREG NICOLSON.

“We need new leaders. We need a new shop steward. We need a new organiser. But more importantly we need a new member,” Vavi told journalists at a press briefing on the central executive committee’s meeting at Cosatu House in Johannesburg on Wednesday. “It can’t be business as usual. That’s the bottom line… Workers are speaking very loudly about the challenges that we are facing at this particular moment and Cosatu must listen.”

In a year that has witnessed some of the most widespread labour unrest in decades, Vavi asked, “Do the Cosatu structures as currently existing allow the federation to make the type of interventions it should make early enough to get the problems and have the cohesion to make the necessary intervention?” Marikana, the subsequent mining strikes and the farmworkers strikes suggest not. 

Vavi said there are serious problems with union leadership at a company level. A National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) report has shown that younger, more educated workers articulate in English are being favoured for leadership positions but they don’t always represent their peers. At least one-third of Cosatu members are functionally illiterate. 

“They are not in the leadership. So what do you expect? Their issues will not be taken up vigorously, including the whole issue about the rock driller operatives. They find themselves sidelined in the union. They are not in the leadership then they express their frustration in any way, including though unprotected strikes. So we are asking ourselves what do we do about education?”

The challenges facing workers, many of whom expect things to be better after 18 years of democracy, will not go away. If Cosatu is to survive, it needs shop stewards who can represent all of the workers with strong understanding of the relevant legislation and members who know they have the power to remove their leadership, said Vavi, who was flanked by Cosatu president Sidumo Dlamini, as he reflected on 2012.

Touching on the ANC leadership race, Vavi warned that if Kgalema Motlanthe is left out of the ANC top six, which is looking more and more likely if ANC president Zuma retains his post, it will have “long-term implications beyond the Mangaung conference”.

Vavi said he has been nominated for an ANC national executive committee position along with Dlamini, and second deputy president of Cosatu, Zingiswa Losi. During the Cosatu national conference a decision was made to swell the ranks of the ANC without exception, suggesting the leaders would accept nomination. But Vavi said Cosatu is debating whether having three of its six key leaders on the ANC NEC could be a distraction. They will soon announce whether they accept the nomination.

Before announcing later in the day that Cosatu supports DA leader Helen Zille’s call for the army to be deployed in the Western Cape to protect farm workers, Vavi announced the federation of unions’ position on the farm strikes. It urgently wants employers to agree to an increased wage deal, particularly R150 a day, before the deadline for a negotiated settlement on 4 December. On Tuesday, the labour minister scuttled hopes the minimum wage could be raised before 2013, but Cosatu wants employers to agree to a wage increase outside of the Employment Conditions Commission’s remit.

Regarding the mining industry, Cosatu accused employers of “working with thugs” to promote the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU). It alleges that mining companies are offering employees who want to leave the NUM letters allowing them to both rescind their NUM membership and join Amcu with a single signature. “The union is taking legal steps to enforce its right to see all stop orders before they are processed,” said the central executive committee’s statement.

As 2012 comes to a close, Cosatu will have another dig at e-tolling as it marches in Johannesburg on Friday. Vavi also warned that “on 6 December we’ll give the government a dose of what they must expect in March if they pass that law and try to force implementation of e-tolls. We will go to the highways. We have said we will embark on civil disobedience, which will include occupying the highways and claiming them as ours. These are our highways. They are not new highways built by the R20-billion. They have always been there. They have just been improved now and there must be a way of paying for the improvement… R70-billion, we don’t have that money.” 

“We have an equal determination, as strong as the government or more, to stop this from working. So this action on Friday is just the beginning.”

As one of the scheduled meetings of Cosatu’s leadership for the year, the central executive committee’s report was immersed in the issues arising from what could turn out to have been a pivotal year for South Africa. It acknowledged an undeniable shift in worker sentiment and the exasperated view of citizens towards government spending. With such challenges to continue into 2013, one wonders whether Cosatu will find the enough energy and willpower for its own members to truly make 2013 the year of the shop steward. DM

Photo:  Cosatu’s Zwelinzima Vavi and  Sidumo Dlamini (Greg Nicolson)



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