Seeking union relevance in a world in turmoil

Posted on June 30, 2011


The global economy is in turmoil, with even those usually optimistic flag wavers of the present system, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, issuing warnings. What has been referred to in some quarters as the “Greek disease” is, at last, being recognised as a financial cancer afflicting the global body politic.

Yet most mainstream economists, commentators and governments still tend, like fish stranded by a fast retreating tide, to be flapping around frantically and aimlessly. The more cautious among them hoping for a slow return of the tide; most merely hoping against hope that somehow, sometime, all will return to what it was.

It has not — and the crisis, along with the search for solutions, continues. South Africa, as part of the global village, is not immune and this should have become even clearer over the past week, with the announcement of new jobless figures: the timebomb of unemployment is now ticking even faster.

As such, trade unions, as organisers of the army of the employed who are also supporters of the vast and growing army of the unemployed, have become perhaps more important now than ever before. Together, they have considerable power, both nationally and in many other regions across the globe, to affect the course of history.

As a result, unions, federations and international labour groupings are trying, sometimes desperately, to adapt to the changed and changing economic and political realities of today; to a world of surpluses where the productive environment, particularly the seas, is being destroyed and where more people are starving and unemployed than at any other time in human history.

These circumstances are forcing trade unions to adapt in order to remain relevant and to retain their ability to use what economic and political power they posses. And they continue constantly to have to deal with bribes, blandishments and bullying from governments, political parties and business.

Against this background, it was logical that the domestic media focus over the past week was on the Cosatu central committee meeting at Gallagher Estate. Cosatu, as the numerically largest constituent in the governing ANC, is, potentially, the real kingmaker since it remains tied to the ruling party while, at the same time, giving precedence to the SA Communist Party.

The deliberations, declarations and decisions at the Midrand meeting reflected the changed situation in which Cosatu and its affiliates find themselves; they signalled a serious searching for a means to be more relevant in the months and years ahead. The same is true of the other unions and federations.

Over recent months there has been considerable soul searching within the broader labour movement. Some of this has resulted in another attempt by the smaller federations to unite, and perhaps to bring aboard one of the country’s “Big Five” unions, the independent, 210 000-member, Public Servants Association (PSA).

Yesterday two of the independent federations — the Federation of Unions (Fedusa), the National Council of Trade Unions (Nactu) met to try to resuscitate the stillborn South African Confederation of Trade Unions (Sacotu). The PSA is closely following the discussions and informal talks are continuing with the Confederation of South African Workers’ Unions (Consawu) in which the Solidarity union is the major player.

But unity, in and of itself, is not seen as a solution; relevance is the key. This was a debate that surfaced in Pretoria on Friday last week at the congress of the SA Onderwysers Unie (SAOU) that, like all unions in the country, has its name registered in English. At a bureaucratic level, therefore, the SAOU is the SA Teachers’ Union.

A Fedusa affiliate, the SAOU came into the new dispensation bearing the segregationist legacy of the past: white, Afrikaans speaking and Christian. But it was — and remains — a highly efficient and effective trade union that has grown by nearly 2 000 members in the past year to a record 30 109.

This is the union that received a recent accolade from ANC secretary-general, Gwede Mantashe when he castigated members of the major, Cosatu-affiliated SA Democratic Teachers’ Union. Mantashe maintained that Sadtu was “less committed than the SAOU”.

He was referring to the fact that schools where SAOU members were prominent tended not to be dysfunctional. And he was also aware that the SAOU had provided training and upgrading workshops for thousands of educators who were not members of the union.

So far, this year, for example, the SAOU has provided one-day courses on aspects of the curriculum for 9 860 teachers as well as courses on school management for 3 000 principals in Limpopo. These are, for the most part, held in school halls, so reducing costs.

One of the reasons for the fact that many — often most — of the teachers attending are not SAOU members is a reflection of the changed circumstances in which this union now finds itself: the overwhelming majority of SAOU members now teach an overwhelming majority of the children of the previously disenfranchised majority. And 54 per cent of SAOU members work in schools where Afrikaans is not the medium of instruction.

The racial barriers have gone, but the linguistic and religious remain. As such, the SAOU is still, to a large extent, a union catering for Christians whose mother tongue is Afrikaans.

But, as union president Dr Jopie Breed warned the congress: “We cannot function as an island.” The primary identity of SAOU members, he added, was as trade unionists. He implied inclusivity: the union as a home for all.

This is the fundamental principle of trade unionism: that unions are the primary organisations of workers as workers, irrespective of gender, ethnicity, language, religious or political belief. As most of the independents are concerned, this applies as equally to Cosatu and its affiliation to the SACP and ANC as it does to the SAOU.

Unity in diversity is the accepted principle. The argument is that it should be fully put into practice. A question perhaps of adapt, fragment or fade away into irrelevance.