South Africa

Cosatu lays down the gauntlet: Federation brands ANC and Free Market Foundation enemies of the working class

By Sipho Hlongwane 12 March 2013

If you champion the National Development Plan, Cosatu is going to come after you. The same is true if you are Herman Mashaba of the Free Market Foundation. Or, indeed, anyone espousing ideas deemed anti-working class. The federation unveiled its new, no-nonsense face on Tuesday at a strategising conference and almost no one was excluded from its list of targets. Not even the African National Congress. By SIPHO HLONGWANE.

“We have no choice but to push for a fundamental overhaul of our economy. We need a radical transformation that puts people at the centre. For the sake of our children, and our children’s children, we cannot allow the status quo of high levels of poverty, unemployment and inequality to bedevil our existence.”

Congress of South African Trade Unions general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi was in a combative mood on Tuesday. It was the beginning of the federation’s collective bargaining, organising and campaigns conference, which is meant to chart the way forward for an organisation that believes it is under attack.

The response it is proposing is typical of what we’ve seen in the past: Cosatu is going to hunker down to defend its corner with all its might – the cornerstone of the counterattack being mass actions and events like rallies and a planned national strike.

The perceived enemies come from outside and within the tripartite alliance. From outside, the federation is going after organisations like the Free Market Foundation (FMF) that is suing to relax certain provisions in the Labour Relations Act. And from within, the African National Congress was harshly criticised for adopting the National Development Plan as its main policy document, ahead of the Freedom Charter.

Vavi said: “This stance is not oppositionist. It is true to the Freedom Charter and to the founding principles of both the ANC and our own federation. We dare not fail in our duty to pressurise our political leaders to take bold steps to engineer our own Lula moment!”

Ahead of the ANC’s elective conference in Mangaung, Cosatu said that it wanted the party to adopt economic policies more in line with the Freedom Charter and the Reconstruction and Development Plan. What the party did instead was adopt the National Development Plan (NDP), a document detested by the alliance left for being too liberal and not red enough. Since December, Vavi and other senior leaders have warned that the federation would respond in a big way. The four-day conference in Boksburg is to plan that action.

Last week, the Free Market Foundation announced that it was bringing a constitutional challenge against Section 32 of the Labour Relations Act, to prevent it giving private parties the right to extend agreements to non-parties, as has happened in collective bargaining councils across the economy. The provision essentially allowed companies and unions to come together and set wages that could be applied to all workplaces within that industry, even without everyone being present at the negotiating table.

The FMF contends that this provision is unconstitutional as it infringes on the non-parties’ freedom of association.

However, Cosatu says that this court challenge is merely a part of capital’s assault on worker rights. According to Vavi, this particular fight is pivotal for the federation’s future.

He said: “This conference is taking place at a time when the labour movement is facing some very serious challenges – both internal and external. Some are self-inflicted, and some are being pursued by our class enemies, to fatally weaken us. This calls for cool heads and clear strategies. We are convinced that we can rise to the occasion. But how we deal with these challenges could determine the future of the labour movement for the next 20 years.

“This conference is therefore charged with the very weighty responsibility of charting a clear course for the organised working class – boldly confronting our weaknesses, building on our strengths, and using our decades of experience of working class struggle to successfully navigate these stormy waters.”

Like the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa), Cosatu has now decided to take down the NDP. The federation has lashed out at the ANC for allowing the plan to overtake the Freedom Charter as its economic document. It especially does not like the suggestion that the labour market ought to be more relaxed. It argues that any transformation of the labour market must fundamentally alter the power relations between the workers and the employers – in favour of the workers.

“Labour market policy in the second phase of the NDR [National Democratic Revolution] cannot weaken the power of the working class on the shop floor and should be aimed at ensuring that labour as a primary productive force, is developed and enhanced regularly and systematically in tandem with the development of other productive forces,” Vavi said.

The NDP has also offended Cosatu for proposing limitations on collective wage-bargaining to exclude certain categories of worker, minimum wage-differentiation by age, youth wage subsidies, extension of probationary requirements for the newly employed, and wage and price moderation.

Vavi warned: “These proposals were inspired by the South Africa Economic Survey Report released in 2010, by the OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development]. Since then the IMF and the National Planning Commission, have latched on to them.  Capital is in crisis, and it will do everything to smash us from all sides, in order to restore profitability. We thus have to be cool-headed and know the class enemy, even if the enemy wears our colours and is within our midst.” 

Cosatu’s own 20 affiliate unions were not spared the rod. Vavi said that the union movement could not continue to act as if corruption was a government problem. It was a societal problem, meaning that some unionists were inevitably tainted. According to a survey conducted of National Union of Mineworkers members, up to 43% suspect its leadership of some kind of corruption.

A survey of workers showed that the most important reason for joining a Cosatu-affiliated union was for protection against dismissal and unfair discipline (38% of the surveyed members), followed by improving wages, benefits and working conditions (33%) – the remaining 29% said that they joined the union to change society (9%), or because of peer pressure or a closed shop (5%) or because of union benefits (3%), according to Vavi.

“This tells us that we have to put our efforts first and foremost into successfully defending workers in disciplinary cases and into wage bargaining. And yet the statistics we have from the CCMA [The Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration] show us that only 46% of cases referred by Cosatu affiliates to arbitration were won in favour of workers.

“This really is something we have to reflect on, and do something about. Are we losing cases because our shop stewards, organisers and paralegals, where they exist, are overloaded? Or are they poorly trained? Are they no longer preparing for cases? Are we taking up hopeless cases that are not winnable?” Vavi said.

There is a gap emerging between union leaders and members, Vavi warned. He called on leaders to work on winning the love of workers back through hard work. A leadership that fails to work for the most marginalised within the working class was creating an elite class within a class, which merely replicated the two-tier labour system that Cosatu wants to eradicate.

“The arguments lined up against us [the FMF has accused Cosatu of protecting workers to the disadvantage of the unemployed] will sound true to the taxi driver and domestic worker if we do not serve our workers,” he said.

Vavi also said that the factional battles that have been erupting in the media between unionists were not political, but motivated by “material issues” and leaders seeking to maximise personal gain.

The ANC was challenged to abandon its taste for so-called neoliberal economic policy and fully embrace Cosatu’s position.

“The ANC must come to the party,” Vavi said. “It calls itself the pro-poor and pro-working class party. We do not want neutrality anymore. We want a developmental state that stands on our side as workers.” DM

Photo: Zwelinzima Vavi (Greg Nicolson)


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