A chance to argue for real union principles

Posted on February 3, 2012


Do some Cosatu-affiliated unions want labour organisation to develop along the lines of trade unions in the former Soviet bloc? Or the way they are organised and controlled in countries such as China and North Korea? Or will South African trade unionists and politicians use their influence to promote greater union democracy throughout the world as a step toward a single labour international?

These questions should come to the fore next week when four Cosatu-affiliated unions host a presidential council meeting in Johannesburg of the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU) to which they are also affiliated. The National Union of Metalworkers, National Education Health and Allied Workers’ Union, Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union and the Chemical Energy Paper Printing Wood and Allied Workers Union are hosting the five-day conference that starts on Wednesday.

If nothing else, it should throw into sharp relief the long-standing debate about the nature of trade unions. This is likely to feature prominently at the Cosatu policy conference in May.

Scheduled to speak at next week’s meeting, along with WFTU general secretary George Mavrikos of Greece, are President Jacob Zuma, Communist Party (SACP) general secretary Blade Nzimande and Cosatu president, S’dumo Dlamini. What they say will be listened to closely both within the labour movement and beyond.

Will the stress be on freedom of association and the right to bargain collectively or on closer links between governments and unions? These questions are highly pertinent, not only because of the history of the WFTU, but also because trade union leaders from the state approved unions of North Korea and China will be in Johannesburg as integral parts of the WFTU.

Neither China nor North Korea, along with the unions that act as effective conveyor belts for the ruling parties of those countries has — to put it very mildly — a good record on the labour relations front. But China, with the largest WFTU membership, is the current mainstay of an organisation that was, in earlier years, backed by the former Soviet Union.

Cosatu, like the other South Africa labour federations, is aligned to the International Trade Union Confederation (Ituc) that was established in 2006 when the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) and the World Labour Confederation (WCL) joined forces. Ituc has, in the past, referred to the WFTU as “Stalinist”.

Founded in London in 1945 and headquartered in Prague for much of its existence, the WFTU became, to a large extent, the agent of Soviet foreign policy throughout the Cold War period. The ICFTU, founded in 1949, was the largely United States-inspired response.

This ideological fragmentation was an example of how important political parties, governments and business considered the potential power of unions. It revealed clearly that to wield influence over, and preferably control, trade unions was — and remains — the goal of any group wishing to gain or retain economic and political power.

These ideological alignments after World War II amounted to the greatest rupture in the international labour movement. From either side, it was portrayed as capitalist democracy versus socialist democracy or simply Capitalism versus Communism; a far cry from labour’s shared call for workers of all countries to unite.

Because of the high degree of integration of state and capital within the proclaimed “socialist” bloc, unions became adjuncts of the ruling parties and states. The rationale was that these countries were “worker states”, governed by “workers’ parties”; that the unions, comprising workers, therefore owed allegiance to both party and state. As such, the WFTU became a quite centrally directed instrument of the foreign policy of the Soviet bloc.

Western governments and, especially, the US Central Intelligence Agency, also manipulated, sometimes controlled and otherwise used, ICFTU trade unions as part of the international struggle for power and influence. In several developing countries, trade unionists, wary of perceived “imperialism” of both East and West, opted to affiliate to both the WFTU and the ICFTU.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of what are now increasingly being seen as former state capitalist regimes in eastern Europe, the WFTU declined rapidly in terms of membership and influence. Even a decade ago, it seemed to be destined for obscurity.

But the global economic crisis, which has given a fillip to a number of former communist parties, appears to have revived the fortunes of the WFTU. It moved its headquarters from Prague to Athens in 2006 where many of the Greek trade unions align themselves with the Communist Party (KKE), founded in 1918, that has 21 seats in the 300-seat parliament.

Like the SACP, the KKE still looks to what existed in the former Soviet bloc as “socialist” or, as the late SACP chair, Joe Slovo maintained, “socialism where the element of democracy was missing”. North Korea and China in particular, are also still held up as examples of “socialism” by many WFTU members.

But neither country allows freedom of association or collective bargaining although China is a member of the International Labour Organisation. However, following a wave of strikes and migrant worker protests over the past two years, All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) officials appear to be paying some heed to shopfloor demands. Last year they negotiated a 30 per cent-plus pay rise for Honda car workers in southern China. Yet these were the same officials who, in 2010, had sided with management and beaten up workers who were striking for higher pay.

So there may be some slight signs of a move toward shopfloor democracy in China, but there is none in North Korea. Party and state control every aspect of life. As one United Nations report notes: “There are many instances of human rights violations which are both harrowing and horrific.”

Given these facts, it might be appropriate for WFTU guest speakers to point out next week that trade unions should unite workers as workers, irrespectively gender, ethnicity, religion or political orientation; that they should resist exploitation by employers, whether in the private or state sectors.