Trade unions the world over are embattled and apparently finding difficulty adapting to the changed circumstances of this century. To varying degrees they react to challenges in the manner of decades past, without apparently realising the potential they have to influence the way forward in what is a changed world.
Not that trade unions have changed. They have always been voluntary associations of the sellers of labour who have come together to protect and advance their wages and conditions of work. As such, they are creations of the present economic system, brought into being by the exploitative nature of the system.
Their strength lies in their essentially democratic character: unions are association of equals where, in essence, authority lies with the membership majority. As such, trade unions, operating in the fully democratic manner of their founding principles, provide excellent examples of the way in which a democratic society could operate.
This does not mean that a new political dispensation could necessarily arise from the ranks of organised labour. But, in a global village in which instant mass communication is possible, trade unions, as the largest, potentially democratic organisations anywhere, could provide perhaps the best examples of an organisational future and become the core of a wider, democratic structure within society.
For this to happen would require the unions and their supporters to break out of the ideological straitjackets many have donned for years and sometimes decades. And it would require the unions to return to their democratic roots, to dispense with the bureaucracies that have come to dominate, distort and manipulate them. In many cases, the bureaucracies have themselves been manipulated by outside forces ranging from big business to governments and political parties.
In South Africa, more than in many other countries, political dogma has come to dominate within the major union movement. And any organisation that does not constantly and critically evaluate reality, but relies instead on illusions fostered by dogma, is destined to act, plan, and develop policies that are often woefully inadequate or even destructive.
Denial also often becomes a prime reaction when illusions based on dogma are threatened or challenged. Although denial is not, of course, always based on the blind belief in some or other dogma: it is, especially in the case of prominent persons such as politicians, a merely knee-jerk act of self preservation.
Much more insidious — and confusing to many observers — are the denials that have their roots in illusions fostered by ideological dogma. And there is much of this about at the moment within the Cosatu federation and among several of its affiliates.
It is linked to a tendency manifest by some commentators, politicians and not a few leading trade unionists. While much of the world has changed, their views, attitudes and analysis remain trapped in the past.
On the trade union front, most recent prime culprits have been the National Union of Metalworkers and the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union. These clashes among federation affiliates echo the ongoing sniping between what can only be seen as supporters and opponents of suspended Cosatu general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi.
It all amounts to quantities of verbal vitriol flung at one group of unions by another. Yet, at the same time, there is the constant insistence from Cosatu and its feuding affiliates that unity persists; that divisions and the existence of factions are creations largely of a mischievous media.
All the warring factions also remain — at least for the time being — not only affiliates of Cosatu, but professedly loyal members the governing, ANC-led alliance. And all remain publicly committed to the concept of the ANC being the only vehicle to advance the cause toward some ill-defined socialist future.
This is part of the acceptance, at a leadership level, of the political dogma of the SA Communist Party (SACP), a party that has shown, over decades, that it seldom allows reality to interfere with its beliefs. And almost the entire Cosatu leadership are — or until very recently were— members of the SACP.
As a result, Cosatu is committed to the belief that an ANC-led National Democratic Revolution is an essential first stage toward a “Democratic Socialist South Africa” that would apparently take the form of an SACP-led national political nirvana. For such a belief to remain potent, it is essential to insist, even in the face of much evidence to the contrary, that, but for some internal wrangling, all is basically well with the plan and the vehicles to carry it through.
So even when problems are admitted to exist, these are played down, with assurances that trade unionism is in robust good health, ever on the up and up. Whether this is a case of genuine delusion, desperation or dishonesty by those promoting this vision remains an open question.
At a public meeting in Cape Town last week, for example, Cosatu’s Western Cape provincial secretary, Tony Ehrenreich, admitted that problems existed within Cosatu and the movement as a whole. However, he then repeated the claim frequently voiced by the federation’s national leadership: Cosatu is 2 million strong and continuing strongly to grow.
Such an attitude pushes the need to confront serious problems into the background, to be largely ignored. Yet, given the industrial climate of recent years — even excluding the effects of Marikana — it is unlikely that Cosatu’s membership has continued growing.
What evidence does exist reveals that Cosatu’s combined membership is probably still at an impressive level of about 1.6 million. The federation’s own website records a total of slightly less than 1.7 million, but some of the figures have not been updated for years and some are not listed.
However, numbers are not the important factor; crucial is the role trade unions could or should play in the technological, social and political circumstances of the 21st Century. Going back to first principles of egalitarianism, democratic control, accountability and transparency might be a good start. In such a case the only dogma should be that there is no dogma.