Disorganised labour: Stumbling Cosatu a shadow of what it used to be

JOHANNESBURG — South Africa’s labour movement has waned in influence as the Zuma years have dragged on. The reality is that Cosatu doesn’t strike fear into the heart of employers like it used to. And even Cosatu’s recent shunning of Zuma has seemingly had little effect in placing pressure on the leader of the ANC and South Africa. But South Africa’s labour movement is also undergoing some massive changes as Gideon du Plessis outlines below. New structures and formations are on their way; time will tell if they can pick up where Cosatu left off… – Gareth van Zyl

By Gideon du Plessis*

An upshot of Marikana is that Cosatu’s influence declined dramatically in South Africa as a result of the fact that its one trade union anchor, the NUM, suffered significant member losses, and the other anchor union Numsa, together with former Cosatu General Secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, was kicked out of the federation. Not only did these events put Cosatu in a downward spiral but other trade unions and federations in South Africa were also harmed by it.

Gideon Du Plessis, General Secretary, Solidarity

Until about two years ago, Cosatu enjoyed major influence within the tripartite alliance and the ruling party had to consult with Cosatu when making high level decisions. As government wanted to send out an impression of inclusivity, other mainstream trade union federations and independent trade unions have been invited to participate in the same strategic talks on an ongoing basis. Coupled with this, major employers showed great deference for prominent Cosatu trade unions in the workplace as the Cosatu and ANC leadership was quick to support their trade union partner, especially when it came to wage demands and retrenchments. Just like government and for the very same reason as government, employers gave other recognised trade unions a place at the negotiating table. As such, Cosatu saw to it that the profile of other federations and trade unions were raised and came under the spotlight of government and that of employers.

With Cosatu being only a shadow of what it used to be, government takes very little notice of the federation’s ranting about government decisions nowadays. Due to the fact that there is less pressure to consult widely, employers are following the example set by government, and as a consequence, together with Cosatu, other federations and trade unions are now enjoying much less “airtime”.

However, Nedlac remains the official consultative forum between government, business and organised labour – where the latter is represented by the federations Cosatu, Nactu and Fedusa. Unfortunately, Nedlac has lost its shine and is now characterised by low-level representation of all role players, except when decisions have to be taken about issues that count for credit rating agencies. Due to the under-representation of organised labour, Nedlac’s credibility is in jeopardy.

Currently there are 192 registered trade unions in South Africa, representing less than 25% of the South African labour force. The 3 federations within Nedlac represent 61 trade unions, which is representative of less than 20% of the South African labour force.

File Photo: President Jacob Zuma at the May Day celebration rally at Moretele Park in Mamelodi on 1 May 2016.

To Nedlac’s advantage, Zwelinzima Vavi’s newly founded federation Saftu, believed to be representing 700 000 employees, has applied for Nedlac recognition. However, the three recognised federations within Nedlac will want to hang on to their seat allocation, giving as reason that as founder members it should not be expected of them to make space for Saftu. Vavi should lose no time in taking legal action as Numsa, which is now the trade union anchor within Saftu, is facing major challenges as far as a leadership struggle, faction fighting and financial mismanagement are concerned, which could all have a bearing on their numbers.

Hopefully, representation at Nedlac could be resolved in clinical fashion by means of an independent audit aimed at determining the actual membership figures of the Nedlac federations and of Saftu. In this way, Nactu’s claim that Amcu is their anchor trade union, would be exposed as it is common cause that Amcu has not paid a cent’s membership fees to Nactu ever, but the tiny Nactu sits at Nedlac.

The federation landscape is clearly wanting, and in reality “organised labour” has become “disorganised labour”. The main instability lies to the left of the ideological spectrum with Cosatu and Saftu being archenemies while sharing the exact same socialist framework of thinking and with both taking the same views as far as government is concerned. While a battle of egos continues among their leadership, one of them is possibly set to take over Nactu for strategic reasons, which too, shares their socialist framework of ideas.

While Fedusa’s ideological foundation is more often than not obscure, they appear to be positioned possibly just left from the centre. The Cosatu-Saftu turbulence has increased the status of a more stable Fedusa as a partner for government when it comes to placating credit rating agencies. Fedusa recently also pulled off a major coup scoring

Congress of South African Trade Unions

230 000 members when the Public Services Association (PSA) returned to Fedusa as an anchor trade union.

With 107 trade unions not belonging to a federation there is room for a federation that positions itself ideologically around the centre. Such a federation should also get those impediments out of the way that are putting off trade unions to become or remain part of a federation. In particular, a new federation will have to address expensive membership fees that are being used to fund the gravy train lifestyle of the federation leadership and that at the cost of workers’ interests.

There are moves afoot to revive Consawu, a true multi-racial federation that subscribes to a Christian Democratic ideology, and with Solidarity being its anchor trade union. Such a move would add an interesting new dynamic to the federation landscape. Compared to Fedusa’s monthly membership fee of R1,86 per union member and Cosatu’s fee of R2.92 per union member, Consawu’s monthly membership fees of only 30c per trade union member would offer trade unions the cheapest federation membership fee option by far, and in exchange, members would be empowered by having inter alia strategic research as well as labour relations information and training at their disposal and would have access to a world-class financial and member administration system.    

  • Gideon du Plessis is Solidarity’s General Secretary.