Du Plessis: Adios Cosatu. Here comes Vavi’s powerful new Labour Federation

In South Africa’s political economy, rains hit like heavy Highveld thunderstorms. They come at you hard, from all sides. The ruling ANC is feeling the full blast right now with a deeply flawed leader scrambling to avoid impeachment and even his loyalists no longer sure whether they can support President Jacob Zuma’s sinking ship. Now comes news from labour insider Gideon du Plessis that Zwelinzima Vavi is putting together a new Federation that will smash Cosatu, the ANC-ally he led for 16 years. In this insightful contribution, Solidarity’s General Secretary unpacks the dramatic changes that are changing the landscape of SA’s organized labour. He explains how this emphasizes Nedlac’s impotence and further undermines the once impregnable power base of the ruling ANC. – Alec Hogg

By Gideon du Plessis* 

In a year’s time, the existing organised labour scene may look quite different, and the transitional process is speeded up by the establishment of a new, socialistically founded trade union federation, headed by Zwelinzima Vavi, former general secretary of Cosatu, and Irvin Jim, general secretary of the National Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa). It seems the new federation already enjoys the support of at least nine Cosatu breakaway unions, with Amcu, another prominent union, also possibly finding a new home within the federation. The new militant federation will weaken Cosatu and other federations, and make Nedlac even more irrelevant.

Zwelinzima Vavi
Zwelinzima Vavi, former general secretary of Cosatu

Nedlac’s downward spiral

At the end of last year, ex-minister Trevor Manuel described Nedlac, a body composed of representatives from organised labour, business and government, as having become irrelevant. Manuel opined that Nedlac had become a negotiating forum; that it was no longer a forum for social dialogue among senior representatives (for which it was intended), and secondly, that too many prominent trade unions fell outside Nedlac structures. Organised labour is represented in Nedlac by the diminishing federations of Cosatu, Fedusa and Nactu. Consawu, the federation Solidarity is associated with, had applied for Nedlac participation in the past; however, the union federations opposed it vigorously and swiftly introduced a membership threshold of 300 000 for Nedlac admission so as to protect the seat allocation of existing federation members – a threshold that is believed that one of the existing Nedlac-federations don’t comply with.

Read also: Vavi on SA: ‘A kleptocracy led by thieves’ – corruption cost R700bn in 20yrs

Thanks merely to Numsa’s membership of 340 000, the new federation could effortlessly join Nedlac as a party and eclipse the existing federations, emulating in tactics the EFF in Parliament. Yet, if Numsa does not join Nedlac, the latter would undoubtedly cease to represent the mainstream worker organisations. Prominent unions, who would rather remain independent, and therefore being excluded from Nedlac – such as Solidarity (147 000 members), the Public Servants Association (PSA) (229 000 members), Imatu (73 000 members) and Sapu (58 000 members) – also endorse Manuel’s opinion that Nedlac is already under representative.

Merely fixing labour representation in Nedlac will not normalise the organisation, however, and Vic van Vuuren, head of the International Labour Organisation in Southern Africa, likened Nedlac to a lame duck in his address to Seifsa, the Steel and Engineering Industries Federation of Southern Africa, in November 2015. He also advocated the creation of an alternative forum to address collective bargaining issues – something which the new federation and independent unions such as Solidarity would have a healthy appetite for. Yet, the ideal situation would be for the above independent unions to follow the example of Vavi and Jim, establish their own federation and join Nedlac, together with the Numsa federation. Manual’s fears about representation would thus be allayed, along with the revival of social dialogue – a possibility not to be ignored.

The Numsa federation

Politically and economically, the long-awaited new federation, which will permanently change the trade union landscape, will undoubtedly be far leftist; moreover, if Cosatu wishes to retain popular support they would also have to shift further to the left, causing their alliance partner, the ANC, to squirm. Tension between Cosatu and the ANC is already tautening, however, because of the former’s disquiet about government’s new legislation on provident funds, its close ties with the Guptas – particularly in the mining sector – and the e‑toll system. Much to Cosatu’s surprise, the federation’s disagreements with the ANC might indeed motivate some of its present members to also cross the floor to join the new federation.

Read also: Gideon du Plessis: Trade union rivalry could set country on fire

Meanwhile, the new federation should first of all be established and demonstrate its relevance. The founders have already been flirting with Solidarity for quite a while to win the union’s support and cooperation. On account of ideological and other differences, Solidarity will not join the federation; yet, in areas where we could share interests such as campaigns against corruption, electricity crises and service delivery, the new federation may certainly count on our support.

Still, the start-up and upkeep of a federation from scratch is a costly undertaking, and Numsa’s plans to establish the federation and the long-awaited workers party were indeed delayed for financial reasons. Numsa experienced a setback in December 2013, when the Minister of Labour yielded to pressure by employers and nullified the agreement on collective bargaining fees in terms of which those unions organised within the bargaining council for the metal and engineering industry had received a monthly fee. Numsa was the hardest hit when its monthly fee (some R6 million a month) was stopped. Numsa is being hampered by reduced funds and, as with any other federation, its new federation would have to lean heavily on subscription fees; that may be the reason Solidarity and Amcu are courted so spiritedly to join the federation – Amcu is currently part of Nactu and the move could mean the end of Nactu.

The new trade union federation landscape which, during the transitional period, would be characterised by the disintegration of organised-labour structures, a decline in federative solidarity, the shrinking of existing federations, business and government beginning to restrict federations’ platforms, as well as the general fall-off in union membership because of layoffs and other financial reasons, means that existing federations who cannot reposition themselves and who lack the energy of the new federation, will die a swift death.

  • Gideon du Plessis is the General Secretary: Solidarity
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