By Gideon du Plessis, Solidarity General Secretary
The intensity of rivalry and tension within the trade union world is mounting, and against the background of a possible political strike by public service and municipal workers it poses a threat to the fragile labour relations scene.
As a split in the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) is inevitable, a great deal of hard work is being done behind the scenes to start a new trade union federation where Zwelinzima Vavi, former General Secretary of Cosatu and Irvin Jim, general secretary of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) can call the shots.
Solidarity was recently approached to be part of the new federation, which is really Plan B as far as its initiators are concerned, for Plan A was to take over the Cosatu shell because of its strong brand, kick out the current Cosatu leadership and position the federation in opposition to the ANC. This scenario is now unlikely and attempts are being made to rather convince all other existing trade union federations, except that part of Cosatu that will remain after the split, as well as all other non-affiliated trade unions such as Solidarity, to become part of a super federation.
Having its origins in the Christian Democratic tradition of trade unionism, Solidarity is not interested in such a proposition because we would rather become part of a federation that is not ideologically driven and that promotes unity among all trade unions and worker organisations. Were we to become part of the new federation, it will strengthen our relationship with Numsa, but on the other hand harm our good relationship with the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), our trade union partner with whom we have signed a formal co-operation agreement and which is firmly entrenched within Cosatu.
A new federation with the populist Numsa as South Africa’s largest trade union and the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu), the radical and growing trade union in the mining industry at the forefront, will have a growing impact on labour relations, as Numsa is already dominating the metal, engineering and manufacturing sectors, and Eskom and the mining sector could well follow suit. This while Amcu is using the undemocratic majoritarian principle to its advantage and is now trying to aggressively oust any other trade union at gold and platinum employers where it (Amcu) is the majority trade union.
Also, Numsa and Amcu are jointly recruiting members in the coal sector and it is only a matter of time before the rest of the coal mining sector is also shaken by those two leftist trade unions. Numsa is also holding the Medupi project to ransom, while Amcu is getting a foot in the door at Medupi through the backdoor. As a result of their growth, those two unions may also soon become the centre of trade union activities at Eskom, while Numsa is already insisting on having a seat on the Eskom Board. Moreover, the Chemical Energy Paper Printing Wood and Allied Workers’ Union (CEPPAWU), currently the dominant trade union within the chemical and petroleum sectors which could be facing possible deregistration due to mismanagement, may be taken over by Numsa given the close ties that exist between their leaders. Should this materialise, the radical Numsa could also become the dominant trade union in the chemical and petroleum sectors.
The Chamber of Mines’ negotiations for 2015-’16, due to start shortly, will also enter a new phase with Numsa and Amcu that may for the first time ever participate in negotiations in the coal sector. Amcu has been part of negotiations in the gold sector participating for the first time during the 2013-’14 negotiations. They were, however, out of their depth and missed out on an opportunity to make a real contribution. This year, however, Amcu will want to set this straight in an emphatic manner, and a shaky gold sector will not deter them from a drawn-out strike. They will also try to overshadow Solidarity and NUM at the negotiating table, while NUM wouldn’t hesitate to go on strike to keep up their radical image. The danger, however, exists that the two of them might take to the streets to vent their anger on each other.
The shaky National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac) will also have to undergo a shake up as the new federation would challenge the key role Cosatu plays in that council, thereby constraining the dominance of government and Cosatu in this institution. Cosatu also serves on many international labour forums and the status they enjoy there as representing South Africa would be challenged by their new “trade union rivals”.
Meanwhile, Numsa is regularly sending out smoke signals about its united front (UF) which would participate in the 2016 municipal elections as a political movement. Rumours are mounting that this may well be where Zwelinzima Vavi is going to emerge as leader, using his charisma and popularity to rally the workers round him to ultimately get to parliament. If the UF and the EFF can find each other on the left of the political spectrum and Numsa and Amcu can find each other on the left of the labour spectrum, then a formidable, new radical movement could become the ANC’s and Cosatu’s worst nightmare.
However, the left is fraught with populist political and trade union leaders with inflated egos who want to be solely in charge, and an advance by such a movement might be short-lived due to territorial fighting and infighting. Moreover, these groupings aren’t known for their good administration, management systems and corporate governance, which may also be their undoing. The danger, however, is that this grouping functions very well in anarchistic and unruly conditions they create themselves and it is possible that they would not depart from this success recipe.