Building strong trade unions to defend workers against the onslaught of labour attrition: Reflections on the 13th COSATU Congress

By Sithembiso Bhengu

In September 2018 COSATU hosted its 13th National Congress under the theme Deepen the Back to Basics Campaign, Consolidate the Struggle for the NDR & Advance the Struggle for Socialism. The conference started on an optimistic note, with delegates seeking to garner consensus and mutual agreement to rebuild the Federation. One can somehow argue that the conference was a watershed moment for the Federation, with the unanimous election of a woman at the helm, for the first time in its history. For the first time, the leadership constitutes a 50/50 gender parity in the Top Six. While some have criticised this development as superficial, it is in essence, a significant development in the struggle for redressing the disparities, caused by the history of patriarchy, first in the labour movement, and ultimately in society at large.
It is equally significant that the conference took place at the time when workers are increasingly on the retreat, grappling with what seems like the insurmountable assault by capital, with sustained jobs bloodbath, characterised by the externalisation of work through labour brokering, casualisation of labour, increased job insecurity, and the threat of job replacement by the ‘‘4th industrial revolution.’’ The industrial sector is undergoing massive job shedding, with the mining sector alone, threatening to lay off in excess of 20 000 workers. State-owned Enterprises (SOEs) are also taking the real cost of the ‘‘state capture’’ on workers, with SABC, Eskom, Telkom, Transnet and others likely to shed jobs, for economic recovery from massive financial waste by ‘‘captured executives’’.

Pressing challenges facing the federation and its affiliates
The Congress also took place against the background of internal rupturing, characterised mostly by divisions and fracturing among a number of affiliates. Most of these problems emanate from contestations for the control of the trade union investment purse. The recent NALEDI research report on worker education suggests that there is a growing number of organised workers who approach community advise centres (CAO) for assistance with workplace-related issues, as their trade unions are failing to help them. According to Cde S’dumo Dlamini (former President), the COSATU Head Office is inundated with visits and requests (including complaints) by workers, who do not receive service from their trade unions.

Unity is a fundamental pillar of trade unions without which they have no power. Since workers neither have the capacity, nor resources to compete with capital in the economic sphere, their power lies in the sphere of politics, through collective struggles and campaigns.
The recent demands from workers forced Eskom to enter into an agreement regarding salary increment. The Eskom executive had initially, begun with a 0% increment, but the workers’ demands gained momentum when workers across trade unions united over a common cause, bringing NUM, NUMSA (even Solidarity) on this common programme. Trade unions united in solidarity with the workers against Eskom executives. COSATU and its affiliates should unite their organisations as a matter of urgency, to ensure that their leaders desist from factional and sectional interests – adopt a principle of the unity of all workers, and pursue this principle by identifying programmatic areas of convergence with other trade unions in similar sectors.

Second, the federation should coalesce its efforts to rebuild trade unions. This has been highlighted in Congress documents, as well as inputs made during the opening day of Congress. The organisational report notes organisational challenges in many of the COSATU departments and affiliates – for example the education department’s report notes with concern that less education programmes are being implemented in trade unions. Some of the affiliates do not have dedicated education portfolios anymore. The NALEDI research report has also noted organisational lapses in many of the trade unions, with no properly constituted reports and databases. Some organisers even administer their functions from ‘‘the boots of their cars.’’
The third priority, linked to the second, relates to an aspect of the theme of this congress, namely the “back to basics” campaign. The essence of the renewal of the ‘’back to basics’’ campaign is attempting to revisit the history of the federation, and the principles that made COSATU the life-force of workers in South Africa. At the centre of the “back to basics’’ campaign, is the democratic worker control of trade unions. Worker control is both political and organisational – thus, the Federation and its affiliates should inculcate a culture of democratic decision-making. Trade unions should revive organisational and political practices to build the culture of shop floor activism, workers’ meetings and the reporting back of shop stewards to members. This also means that worker education should not be limited to shop stewards, but that education and training should emanate from shop floor. This also means that at regional and national levels (including bargaining structures), trade unions should give space for proper mandate taking and reporting back. Trade union leaders should also move away from assumptions that high-level engagements in bargaining councils or at NEDLAC, etcetera, are too complex to be engaged and mandated by workers.

The fourth priority area must be to engage constructively with the massive attrition in organised workers. Recent statistics estimate trade union density at only 27%, meaning that about 73% of employed workers in South Africa are not unionised. This is a major indictment on organised labour, suggesting that the debate on the contestations between leading federations is actually a distraction, further suggesting that these federations are tearing each other apart. The real challenge for these federations is mobilising unorganised workers into the fold of organised labour, and the employment security it provides, trade union rights and collective action. These trade unions were able to build and organise workers in the belly of the beast of apartheid oppression and capitalist super exploitation. Why then, under conditions of freedom today, do trade unions fail to mobilise the unorganised workers? Furthermore, with an estimated 28% unemployment rate, it is clear that worker struggles cannot be limited to the productive sphere, but should articulate with the reproductive sphere as well. Going forward, COSATU’s political programmes should revisit linkages between workplace struggles and community struggles, through programmatic alliances with community formations and civic struggles for water, electricity and other service delivery concerns; and against the commodification of the state, characterised by the conversion of citizen into costed customers.

Lastly, the pro-state vis-à-vis anti-state polemic, largely peddled in the media and academia, distracts workers and conflate pontification with real challenges that workers and organised labour are faced with today. The central challenge facing trade unions is the onslaught by global neoliberal capitalism, and the accumulation without work that is constantly redefining work and the conditions thereof; and erode historical gains that workers achieved through the struggle. Many of these polemics, instead of uniting workers against the onslaught of job losses and precarity, pit worker formations against each other; either to the state or Congress Alliance. Labour formations should instead, seek to unite or defend workers on the shop floor against retrenchments, continued push for apartheid wages, continued vulnerability and insecurity of women in the workplace, and continued erosion of the work safety across all sectors of the economy and the state.

Unless organised labour prioritises providing service to its members, mobilising the vast majority of precarious unorganised workers, and building functional alliances with communities in the reproductive sphere, trade unions will become irrelevant.

Chris Hani institution 2018 Frontier Theme