The role of unions — and threats they face

Posted on July 10, 2011


The labour movement has always professed — and has the potential — to be the bulwark against authoritarianism, a standard bearer of such concepts as liberty and social justice.  These concepts, of course, require a democratic base that ensures the free flow of information and appropriate actions flowing from this.

Unfortunately, there are many instances where these goals have been subverted, where governments,  political parties and organised crime, sometimes as overlapping entities, have dominated, corrupting or badly weakening organised labour.  Around the world over the past century there have been numerous incidents where unions have, often with the best of intentions, been led astray by forces hostile to their democratic traditions.

Today there exists a greater awareness of this history, even if it is still only among a minority of union members.  But it is a growing minority that draws lessons from what happened to the Teamsters union in the United States or to the trade unions in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, in Peronist Argentina and or in various fascist states.

So questions are now more readily asked when union leaders adopt one or other stance about politics or economics or link the union wagon to some party programme or star.  This is the case even as strikes and the living wage campaign take centre stage.

These questions were what underlay the differences that surfaced between Cosatu and the South African Communist Party (SACP) at the recent central committee meeting of the federation.  A leaked secretariat report delivered to the Midrand meeting was reported as a “scathing attack” on the SACP.

It was, but it also revealed the largely unreported fact that the Cosatu leadership, most of whom are SACP members, remains wedded to the SACP as the vehicle to achieve a more just and equitable transformation of the country;  that the seizure of state power is the goal.  Much of the report could have been delivered at an SACP meeting debating the way forward for the party.

But the arguments about nationalisation and the government’s New Growth Path revealed that there are serious concerns about the direction in which the government — and the SACP — is taking the country.  Most telling was the trenchant criticism of the fact that many senior SACP members have been “deployed” into often highly paid and powerful jobs with local, provincial and national government.

This, it was pointed out, had resulted in the SACP not being able to “focus on key strategic issues”.  Although it was not mentioned in the report, Cosatu leaders were aware that the ANC Youth League had taken to referring to higher education minister Blade Nzimande as “the part-general secretary of the SACP”.

The fact that Nzimande holds two, supposedly full-time, posts is a prime source of annoyance within the SACP and among its members and supporters in Cosatu where no more than 7 per cent of union members are members of the party.  It is seen as setting an example that has allowed for the deployment many more SACP leaders to political or managerial post in government, so weakening the ability of the party to function on the ground.

However, according to SACP spokesperson, Malesela Maleka, there is method is this apparent madness.  He pointed out that the secretariat report was written before a “bilateral” between the leaderships of the two organisations.

At this meeting, it was explained that, unlike unlike some other individuals linked to the ANC-led alliance, SACP members were not “deployed” to government posts for financial gain.  Their postings to often highly paid and powerful positions were integral to the political programme of the SACP.

This explanation may have satisfied some of the Cosatu leaders, but others are not convinced.  They, and an increasing number of rank and file members, question the whole basis of the SACP programme to gain control of the country, along with the tactics employed to do so.

The strategy and tactics are spelled out in the medium term vision (MTV) document of the SACP where the means to the end is to dominate all “key sites of power”.  These key sites are listed as “the state (including but not limited to parliament), community, workplace, economy”.  All in the cause of ensuring “working class hegemony”.

In other words, as the SACP sees it, when the party becomes the government, the working class is in power.  This “top-down” equation of the party with the class does not sit easy with many union members, but it is still the dominant view within the leaderships of the SACP and Cosatu.

It is a view that was underlined in the 93-page Cosatu central committee discussion paper released on Wednesday afternoon.  The document incorporates the SACP’s 2009 electoral options paper that notes that the majority of Cosatu members who entered parliament in 1994 “quickly [abandoned] any connection with the federation and, indeed, parliament”.

In contrast, “SACP members who are MPs and MPLs remain, in principle, SACP members”.  This implies that they are ultimately answerable to the SACP rather than the ANC, something that has consistently been shown to fail in practice.

This much is acknowledged in the discussion paper.  It notes:  “Hopefully we will never again have the ugly spectacle of senior SACP leaders in an ANC cabinet leading government’s privatisation programme, or the downsizing of the public sector.”

The other hope listed is that “the potential contradiction between being both an ANC elected rep (sic) in cabinet or parliament and an SACP member will be minimised”.  In other words, although practical experience indicates that these tactics of the SACP, supported by Cosatu, have failed, the theory remains valid.

Why? is the obvious question — and it is being increasingly asked.  Especially given the material benefits that have accrued to most Cosatu and SACP members in government posts or in business.

This has weakened the union movement at a time when it is arguably more necessary than ever — and when the pay of parliamentarians is more than 20 times that of a general metalworker.