According to an old English rhyme, the famous Duke of York marched ten thousand men to the top of a hill — and marched them down again. This has come the represent an exercise in futility, the amassing of collective strength to attain a goal to no ultimate purpose.
What it has all too often amounted to within the labour movement internationally is the dissipation of justified collective anger by calls to futile protest. This is probably best described as the safety valve syndrome.
The current “rolling mass action”, called by Cosatu and which started in the Western Cape and KZN this week, has been labeled within sections of the labour movement in precisely such terms. Critics maintain that it is a tactical blunder, because no clear and detailed policy alternatives were first put forward.
But despite the arguments about tactics, there is unanimity about the need for alternative policies to be implemented as a matter or urgency. The detail is open to debate, but all seem agreed that a crisis exists that has resulted in mounting anger in working class communities across the country.
Anger is understandable since fuel, food and power price hikes have meant rapidly eroded buying power at a time when wage increases are failing to match the rise in the overall cost of living and already massive unemployment is growing.
Criticism of the current mass action is summed up by Federation of Unions (Fedusa) general secretary Dennis George: “It’s not good enough just to protest. Before we threaten to bring the country to a standstill, we should first put forward clear, alternative policies and insist government listens to us.”
George points out that, like Cosatu, Fedusa also lodged a “Section 77”, the notice under the Labour Relations Act of potential protest action that would be protected. But it gave no date for such action, calling first for an urgent meeting of the National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac) to be convened to address what all the unions agree is a crisis.
Among the demands listed for such a meeting, which would bring together representatives from labour, government and business is “urgent short-term intervention…..to provide income and food support” such as “social relief and distress grants” to vulnerable households.
However, Cosatu’s Western Cape regional secretary Tony Ehrenreich maintains that sufficient demands have been made in Nedlac and other forums and that government has turned a deaf ear to them. He lists in particular the demand that the financing of Eskom infrastructure be from the government budget and not through increased tariffs to users.
The issue of the nationalisation of Sasol and of the coal mines had also been raised “although Cosatu could have made more of a noise about that”.
Eskom and Sasol also feature in the Fedusa notice, with that federation echoing Ehrenreich’s demand that import parity pricing be investigated and that there should be “increased investment by the government” in Eskom.
Other areas where the federations are in agreement are on the issues of price fixing and lack of competition, along with the level of corporate concentration in the food industry. Unions across the board are also united in their rejection of inflation targeting and the “crude mechanism” of raising interest rates.
In this they have the support of former World Bank chief economist Joseph Stiglitz who has noted: “One hopes that most countries will have the good sense not to implement inflation targeting; my sympathies go to the unfortunate citizens of those that do.”
So far as the unions are concerned — despite their tactical differences — we are among the most unfortunate of citizens and the time has come to do something about improving matters.