Lessons SA unions should look to

Posted on November 24, 2014


Learning from the mistakes of others, and being aware of the basis of those mistakes, helps us not to repeat the same errors. This is something to which those individuals, groups and unions now agitating to move South Africa onto a new political trajectory via a trade union supported political party would do well to pay heed.

And there is no need to travel to Brazil or Bolivia for enlightenment. There are basic facts to consider and several lessons much closer to home.

In the first place, workers and their unions are not, as much as business sees them, adversaries to be tamed. Nor are they the malleable masses of rightwing myth or the proletariat whose “false consciousness” needs only to be replaced by the dogma of one or other leftwing sect.

Trade unions comprise the reserve army of the sellers of labour, the defence against common threats of material and social exploitation. As this column has noted before, they are products of the system, not alternatives to it.

However, all workers, unionised or not, are essential in order to maintain those three functions necessary in any economy: production, distribution and exchange. It is they who sow and reap, provide services, produce and maintain machinery, mine and process minerals, make everything from teacups to telephones and staff the points of sale while ensuring the distribution of products by land sea and air.

And where this labour force is organised into unions, it is potentially very powerful. United, it can win victories against incredible odds. These, for the most part, are victories involving better wages and conditions, but, in certain instances, can result in the fall of governments.

It is this power that attracts politicians and political parties that wish to use and manipulate it to their own ends. However, unions bring together workers as workers, irrespective of colour, creed or gender; what unites them is their perceived common interest at any one time. This can sometimes be manipulated, but only for a period.

The nuclear and fragmented extended families that our economic system has created mean that most workers are primarily concerned about where their next meal is coming from or how to pay the school fees to perhaps give a better chance to their offspring. However, they remain workers and part of the reserve army that, if it is used, abused and otherwise perceived to be ill treated, will lapse into apathy or turn to the shallow promises of populist demagogues, both political and religious.

In this there are good lessons to be learned from the two countries to the north of us: Zimbabwe and Zambia. Both had union movements that initially supported pro-independence and liberation movements and both initiated political parties that challenged the post-liberation status quo.

In Zimbabwe, courtesy of an electoral farce, colluded in by the South African government, the Movement for Multi-party Democracy (MMD), headed by former trade union federation general secretary, Morgan Tsvangirai, was defeated. This led to demoralisation and factionalism, encouraged by the thuggish behaviour of the state.

In Zambia, the MMD, headed by the diminutive and sartorially immaculate general secretary of that country’s trade union federation, Frederick Chiluba, swept into power in 1991 and, within months was mired in controversy. The trade union movement was among the first to become disillusioned as Chilubu followed International Monetary Fund precepts.

As a result largely of the policies adopted by the Zambian MMD, the labour movement was weakened and ceased to be the force it was. The same applied in Zimbabwe where a rump of the union federation even began to agitate for renewing the link with the governing Zanu-PF.

In both cases, the cause of labour as a protective shield against exploitation was all but obliterated. Divisions, encouraged and promoted by politicians, parties, business and government made matters worse. These are the lessons worth noting.