Austerity, democracy & wishful thinking

Posted on June 12, 2018


There is considerable turmoil on the South African labour front. And much damage has been done to many trade unions, a great deal of it self inflicted.

As a result the labour movement is today in crisis and weaker than it has been for many years. Not only has the membership of many unions fallen, often as a result of disillusionment with the squabbles and splits that have occurred, but also because of a lack of transparency, allegations of corruption and a lack of democracy.

This comes at a time when, globally, there is mounting pressure on union organisation by employers and governments trying to enforce austerity measures in the face of economic crisis. According to the annual International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) global rights index, published last Thursday (May 7) “Shrinking democratic space for working people and unchecked corporate greed are on the rise.”

What the ITUC report does not say is that the traditionally democratic space claimed by union organisation, with elected leaders wholly accountable to, and recallable by, their members and with complete transparency in financial matters, has also shrunk. This has hastened membership losses and even the demise of many unions.

Rather than being the epitome of democratic practice, many trade unions have become bureaucratic machines, with networks of patronage. In some cases, they are mere conveyor belts for the state.

In South Africa, we seem some way off that sort of situation. But bureaucracies are very much the norm as shopfloor democracy has waned, weakening union organisation. There is also something of a tradition of labour leaders moving seamlessly from worker organisation to parliament, to ministerial positions and into big business.

However, anger from below about this situation seems so far to have been contained within a bureaucratic framework. Rank and file disgruntlement has resulted in new unions and breakaways that mostly replicate the old: it is a change of form, not substance.

This has led to more inter union feuding at a time when workers are under threat as employers try to increase — at least maintain — levels of profitability. And the largest employer in the land, the government, is in an extremely difficult position: its members have, at the very least, acquiesced in a decade of pilferage and plunder of state resources. So the official cry from on high is now: asinamali, we have no money.

As Tahir Maepa, of perhaps the largest of the public sector unions, PSA, notes, the real question should be: “Where is the money?” To which may be added: Who watched over state machinery as power utility Eskom, SA Airways, the rail network and other state-owned enterprises were driven to — and sometimes beyond — the levels of normal bankruptcy?

Workers within a financially struggling and resource depleted media did a sterling job of highlighting much of the corruption and exposing networks of patronage. But, at the same time, a bloated state apparatus presided over by ministers, their deputies and a chorus of parliamentary backbenchers put party loyalty before the wellbeing of people and country.

When, inevitably, all did not turn out well and potential economic collapse now looms, together with increasing social unrest, reality has to be faced. It this that has prompted the cry that we — workers and bosses, good, bad or indifferent, capitalists, thieves and socialists — are “all in the same boat”. It is a call to patriotism which, as the English writer Samuel Johnson pointed out more than 230 years ago, is “the last refuge of the scoundrel”.

In this case it is a desperate attempt to get the working masses to accept austerity in order to bail out those responsible for the mess in the first place. This should be a warning to trade unions, especially those affiliated to Cosatu and, therefore, to the governing alliance, to return fully to their democratic roots.

A united, fully democratic trade union movement, supported by the mass of workers, may be the only way to bring about truly radical political, economic and social transformation. However, given entrenched interests and the present fractious relations within the labour movement, this could qualify as wishful thinking.