The trade union movement brought us the weekend, the eight-hour working day, the lunch break and minimum wages, along with an end to child labour and a politics rooted in solidarity.
In the United Kingdom it was the unions that pushed for the National Health Service. All the research shows that in countries with greater union density, inequality and poverty are less than in countries with less union affiliation.
In South Africa we also owe the emergence of the popular democratic politics that flourished during the 1980s to the black trade union movement that emerged from the 1973 Durban strikes.
In today’s South Africa, we don’t just need strong and democratic unions, we also need unionisation to expand into areas of work where people are not unionised or not well unionised. The anti-union sentiments that are gaining ground among the liberal right need to be firmly resisted.
Domestic workers, Uber and delivery drivers, informal workers and many others urgently need to be unionised at scale.
However, unions can be captured and corrupted. Anyone who has seen the brilliant 1954 American film On the Waterfront, directed by Elia Kazan and starring Marlon Brando, will be well aware that they can be penetrated by gangsterism.
It has long been known that here at home the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (Sadtu) has been a gangster union, operating like a mafia. Jobs are sold and hits ordered. The Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) is arguably worse than Sadtu.
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The degeneration of Sadtu and the emergence of a union as socially toxic as Amcu mirrors the collapse of the integrity of the ANC and the emergence of the EFF, which is every bit as bad as the worst elements of the ANC.
Elements in the middle-class left have long sought to capture the union movement for their own ends and amenable leaders have been celebrated – those that remain independent are vilified.
The ease with which the media can be played by sectarian middle-class actors has meant that all this contestation has muddied the waters to the point that an average person would struggle to have a factually accurate understanding of the state of play in the unions.
But the reports on the thuggery that the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu) is perpetrating at our hospitals are absolutely true. Indeed, off-the-record conversations with frightened employees at our public hospitals show that the disgusting behaviour by Nehawu members exceeds the reported incidents.
This is not just a question of a few rogue elements in the union. Its president, Michael Shingange, has openly justified conduct that puts the lives of patients at risk.
It is hardly necessary to observe that that is utterly disgraceful.
Any decent union anywhere in the world is not only concerned with wages. Decent unions are also concerned with building a better society, and in particular the public institutions that serve the working class.
It should go without saying that Nehawu is correct to demand a living wage for its members. But disrupting the day-to-day activities at hospitals, putting patients’ health and lives at risk, and terrifying people working on the frontlines of our crisis-ridden public healthcare system is not only utterly disgusting, it is also a betrayal of everything that the union movement has stood for in South Africa and around the world.
It is imperative that Zingiswa Losi, the president of Cosatu, intervenes to condemn this thuggery by members of a Cosatu-affiliated union, and to make it quite clear that any attempts to disrupt the functioning of any hospital are completely unacceptable.
The SACP is closely linked to Cosatu and Solly Mapaila must immediately do the same. If Cosatu is not willing to take a principled position in this crisis, steps must be taken to expel it from international union structures and networks.
Many on the left had hoped that the union movement would be a brake on the collapse of the ANC’s moral centre and its degeneration into a political mafia. There are unions that are independent of the ANC, and there are unions that continue to represent the interests of workers with vigour. There are also new shoots of unionisation in some previously under-organised areas of work.
But unions like Nehawu and Amcu are every bit as rotten as the ANC.
Just as we need to recover a moral centre in electoral politics, we need to do the same where the rot has set in in some unions, and among corrupt public sector workers more generally.
The rot that started in the ANC is now widespread and needs be rooted out everywhere.
The disgraceful conduct of Nehawu, and the truly frightening levels of thuggery in Amcu, should be a wake-up call to those who think that removing the ANC from power in 2024, or the following election, will solve our problems.
The same rot that is present in the ANC is present in the EFF, in Amcu, in Sadtu, in Nehawu and among some of the people working in our hospitals and universities, as well as, of course, Eskom and the police.
We are not going to be able to change course without a fundamental moral awakening.
Sadly, there are no leaders at the national level who can provide direction. The entire range of political parties is without any vision. Electoral politics is petty, small-minded and entirely unable to meet our challenges.
We will only find a way through this crisis if ordinary decent people, who are the vast majority, step up and insist on a decent politics and the decent governance of our institutions.
If we remain spectators to the politics of our country, we will watch it spin into terrible times. Now is the time for every decent South Africa to stand up for a decent future for us all. DM