Trade unions and the need for transformation

Posted on November 8, 2012


It can be argued today that trade unions are more necessary than ever; that the organisations that played major roles in improving the political and economic lot of people around the world, have a huge task ahead of them. Yet much of the labour movement internationally is in a state of flux or stagnation and, in South Africa, there are signs of considerable disarray.

At the same time, gains of the past are being clawed back in some regions. Unions that helped to win the vote for the sellers of labour and so gain a modicum of democracy for the masses have sometimes seen even this gain eroded. But where strong unions exist or have existed, the wages and conditions of workers generally have improved, along with the overall standard of living.

This is certainly the case in South Africa where unionised workers earn markedly more than their non-unionised counterparts and where their improved wages have improved incomes overall and have provided a marginal, if unofficial, social welfare safety net for unemployed dependents. But, without apparent irony, the spin doctors of capital claim that unionised workers are an elite, pricing the unemployed out of work; that they are, effectively, self destructive.

This spurious argument is again reaching something of a crescendo following the wage gains in the wake of bloodletting at Marikana and the subsequent strike wave. It is the political barrow being pushed by the owners of capital and their managerial, advisory and political beneficiaries.

But this is not the only narrowly focussed and sometimes cynically manipulative barrow that has crashed onto the post Marikana scene. And like the other barrow pushers, the mine owners will certainly seize, opportunistically, any chance to advance their interests.

However, contrary to widespread belief within the labour movement, this is not to eliminate trade unions. The wish of most employers is to weaken strong union organisation and, if possible, to bring unions under a degree of control, either directly or through legislation.

Only the most bigoted and constitutionally blinkered business people tend to support the elimination of trade unions. A return to the almost underground unionism of 40 years ago is the last thing business wants: “How do you negotiate with a voice phoning from a call box?” was the reported reaction in 1973 of one strike-bound factory owner.

So the battle, from all sides, is about the type of union organisation that should exist and what role the unions should play. Along with business, the other barrow pushers range from the South African Communist Party (SACP) to various trade union and political leaders as well as groups professing different “socialist” orientations.

They are all now involved in the post Marikana turmoil that has threatened the power of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and so weakened the influence of both Cosatu and the SACP. This, in turn, created the opportunity for other union and political groups to try to gain or increase influence and support among miners and the broader labour movement.

However, this could also be an opportunity to reassess the nature and role of trade unions and their relationship to political parties and so perhaps help to revitalise the defensive ranks of the sellers of labour. But what now seems more likely is that current developments will be seized on opportunistically in the hope of furthering individual agendas.

Until Marikana, Cosatu, through NUM, held unchallenged domination throughout most of the mining sector. And, because of its dominance at a bureaucratic level in Cosatu and NUM, the SACP was the only serious political influence.

But there has been evident disgruntlement with NUM in recent years and Marikana should have been a major wake-up call to the union, the federation and the SACP. As Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi noted at a rally in Rustenburg on October 27: “We must be honest about our own weaknesses, and build on our strengths to address them.”

Sound rhetoric, but so far, there is little evidence of any serious attempt to address weaknesses or to seize the opportunity to reassess the nature and role of trade unions and their relationship to political parties. Instead, the SACP has led a divisive attack on all who dare challenge its view that only it, NUM and Cosatu provide the true, revolutionary way forward. Any who do not support this view are “counter-revolutionary”, enemies of the working class.

Yet the official Cosatu position is apparently for maximum unity in diversity. Vavi spelled this out in Rustenburg: “We need a united working class response…..We know that a piece-meal approach…..will be incapable of changing the system and its poverty wages and insecurity.” He went on to call for a “strong, united federation”.

In principle, almost every union in the country and all four federations agree with Vavi’s call. They would also agree that it is necessary to “mobilise for the fundamental transformation of the mining industry at all levels”.

However, only a few voices have been heard calling for a fundamental transformation of the trade union movement at all levels. Yet this is the source of much of the disgruntlement expressed by many NUM members in Maikana and elsewhere on the platinum belt. It also lies behind the “plague on all your houses” approach of many striking miners who turned their backs on existing unions and formed their own democratic forums and committees.

A critical stage has now been reached as workers, including those at Amplats still on strike, contemplate the future. They want job security with decent work for decent pay for all while the owners and managers of mines, farms and factories demand both stability and profitability. Yet both are impossible in a world where technological innovation has made millions of workers redundant.

This is the fundamental problem, acknowledged by a labour movement that demands the transformation of the mines and the system as a whole. But since the unions are part of the system, perhaps that is where transformation should start.