Do we need a new trade union federation?
Its all systems go for the launch of a new workers union federation in South Africa. All key issues such as constitution, logo and colors have been agreed on and between now and this year the official launch will confirm everything.
Currently there are more than 50 unions that have shown interest in joining the new federation. While the makeup of these unions are from both the public and private sector, the majority are from the private.
National union of metal workers (NUMSA) which was expelled from COSATU with more than 300 000 membership is the main player in this formation. Vavi, (former general secretary of COSATU) and other individuals such as Patrick Craven who was expelled due to political fallout with current COSATU leadership.
This fallout includes among other things, the refusal by NUMSA to support ANC in the 2014 national elections and support to the Marikana mine workers against the massacre by government forces. In essence the motivation for the formation of the federation had a lot to do with the current political and economic status of the working class both at local and global scale.
Both the economic and political condition in the country are pushing the working class to organize independently from the historical formations such as ANC, SANCO & COSATU. The conclusion that has been drawn by some radical sections of the working class is that Cosatu, ANC, SACP can no longer be trusted with addressing the interest of the working class and need to be replaced by an independent militant & democratic formation.
With ever growing economic challenges faced by the working such as continuous job losses, a growing inequality gap, declining wages and rising inflation many are looking to a more militant leadership to take up the reigns of struggle.
Current stats put casual workers at 76% of workforce while 47% earn less than the humiliating R3, 500 minimum wage set by government in 2016. This is the biggest challenge to the new federation face as they seek to organise the unorganised
Growth will also be difficult in an environment where full time jobs have been shed in place of a growing trend of casualisation with less worker rights and benefits?. The failure to combat such practices has led a declining interest among sections of the employed to join unions as a result of dissatisfaction against some of the present formations to serve their membership adequately.
It is clear that the South African political landscape has shifted and that trade unions need to stay in step with these changes. The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) have grown dramatically, attracting a youthful audience by their strident militant attitude against the ANC regime. The new Federation will have to match this with a militancy in the workplace and in the political arena if it wishes to succeed in pulling more workers into its ranks and making an impact on the South African political scene.
The proposed federation has made some key principles its main focus, these include worker control, political independence and financial self sufficiency. Such principles are commendable and need to be given full support, they speak volumes about the seriousness of the new union Federation.
Only the first step
As much as we welcome the emphasis on worker controlled and political independence of the new federation, this is to ensure workers enjoy their fruits of labour. An understanding of what made COSATU fail to deliver cannot be just a question of independence. If that is the case then federations such as FEDUSA or NACTU should be on the struggle frontline more so than COSATU which is in a political alliance with ANC.
The big question that we should be asking as we welcome the new federation, is the question around the role of trade unions in a capitalist society. Our key most principle as Socialists as a point of principal defend the existence of unions and support their role in improving workers conditions in the workplace and in their wellbeing in society at large
But we understand that union organisation should be more than just a means to win a wage increases or defend working conditions. They are training grounds that give workers confidence in their own collective power of resistance.
We also understand the limitations faced by trade unions, these include organizing workers by particular industry, separation of economic and political struggle and the bureaucratization of unions. This leads trade unions to become what Marx called the lieutenants of capital
Union officials often into a contradictory position
Such challenges put union officials often into a contradictory position, caught between the interests of members and those of the employers. Whilst officials can support conflict with the bosses, they also have to sell compromises to the workers out of the negotiations that they enter into to bring a conflict to an end.
The material conditions that most union officials find themselves in due to higher salaries and their status quo in society opens up a gap between them and ordinary member. This can lead to officials running affairs and not the members. This is very evident in the realms of the COSATU federation and should be carefully monitored to ensure that the same mistake is not made again.
The new federation will need to take into account such challenges as it seeks to gain trust and build a better alternative for organised and unorganised workers. As socialists we are all geared up and welcome the launch of an independent worker controlled federation that will seek to unite the working class beyond their particular industry and conditions, whether employed or not and build their power to smash capitalism once and for all.
We say Solidarity forever!!