It was International Women’s Day (IWD) on Friday. And it seemed an appropriate time for a reminder about the labour movement origins of the day and of its noble aims and egalitarian promise. This because several recent studies reveal that the female half of humanity is once again bearing the brunt of the global economic crisis.
After all, when it began in 1910, IWD was rich with the promise of equality. Speakers at the Copenhagen conference that launched the day were disparaging about feminists and their demand for equal rights with their “husbands, fathers and brothers” within established society.
“It is a matter of indifference who is the ‘master’, a man or a woman”, the Russian revolutionary, Alexandra Kollontai, told the gathering. The aim was equal pay for equal work but only in a truly egalitarian society.
These demands were taken up by the labour movement as a whole. Yet, even on the unequal pay front, little has been achieved: women, on average, work longer, harder and for less than male counterparts — if they are fortunate enough to have jobs.
This applies internationally and at all levels. And, at times of economic crisis, it is women who shoulder the major burden.
This was brought home sharply on Wednesday before IWD, when South Africa became subject to another — and substantial — increase in fuel prices. The unions were quick to point out that this would have a knock-on effect throughout the economy; it would put additional strain, particularly on working class families in a society trying to come to terms with horrific levels of unemployment, of rape and abuse.
Such comments are in line with the policies of modern trade unions that continue to see themselves as a vanguard in the fight for equal rights, wages and opportunities, ideas that were at the core of the original IWD. But, for the annual IWD celebration, largely divorced from the labour movement, these ideas have gradually become watered down and distorted, retaining only some of the original rhetoric.
As the Wikipedia website makes plain, the modern IWD is but a pale shadow of its former self and can be seen today as something of a cross between “Mother’s Day and St Valentine’s Day”. The once militant calls for a new, egalitarian society have been replaced by complaints from middle class feminists about patriarchy and glass ceilings.
In other words, the official IWD celebrations now amount to an acceptance of the status quo. In labour parlance this means the demand to give women an equal right with men to exploit their fellows.
But a standard bearer of the original IWD ideals remains — at least in principle — in much of the the labour movement. In South Africa, this applies particularly to Cosatu, a federation committed to an ill-defined future socialist order that is supposed to give substance to IWD ideals.
However, a glance at the composition of South African trade union leadership, from shop stewards to bureaucracies, reveals a contradiction: even in unions with large or dominant female memberships, men tend overwhelmingly to dominate.
Apologists place responsibility for this state of affairs at the door of society, with trade unions being seen as mere reflections of the existing social order. However, the leadership of Cosatu, dominated by members of the South African Communist Party has an ideological commitment to bring about radical social change. And, with something akin to religious conviction, the vehicle chosen to carry the country via a national democratic revolution to a socialist future, is the ANC.
The object is ultimately to gain control of, and steer, this vehicle in what is deemed the correct direction. Since this is seen as the only true path, unity of the movement and loyalty to the leadership are prerequisites; dissidence cannot be tolerated and is usually seen as “counter revolutionary”.
It is this that probably lies behind the recent attacks on Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi. It probably also accounts for the various leaked items of what that new arrival on the political scene Mamphela Ramphele has dubbed “disinformation”.
In Vavi’s case, allegations of financial impropriety regarding the sale of the former Cosatu headquarters were leaked to the media. Yet, according to official Cosatu treasury minutes, the decision about the sale and the price fetched for the building was not taken by an individual.
However, the long knives are certainly out, but who, exactly, is wielding them remains a matter for conjecture, although rumours abound. There is also considerable speculation within the labour movement about the targets and the extent of what appears to be a concerted campaign to undermine certain individuals and organisations.
“It’s not just within Cosatu that this thing is happening. It is political and it is about one faction in the ANC wanting to get [hold of] and control power,” says a Cosatu executive member.
This infighting comes at a time when the trade union movement as a whole is under concerted attack from the free market fringe of the business community, headed by the Free Market Foundation. In what can be seen as blatant sophistry, these proponents of illusory equality in an unequal society pose as champions of the poor and unemployed.
Their argument is simple — and simplistic, summed up by Vavi as amounting to the idea that “a quarter of a loaf is better than none” when a loaf is required merely to get by. Vavi has also been critical of elements within the governing elite whose ideology seems to have been reduced to the need to gain or retain power and to increase the opportunities for self-enrichment.
So the infighting continues, along with considerable fragmentation and a decline in union membership. In such circumstances, the ideals of IWD form only a faint backdrop to a confusing struggle for power and position.
Perhaps, as a starting point to return to the principles enunciated 113 years ago, trade unionists should heed a comment by Albert Einstein: “A foolish faith in authority is the worst enemy of truth.”