Critical engagement need on the state of trade unions

I write as a former active trade unionist convinced of the merits of worker unity. With this in mind I have resisted the temptation to criticise the actions of individuals in favour of more systemic approach to the challenges which currently confront the labour movement.

Karl Marx and Friederich Engels ended the Communist Manifesto with the clarion call: “Workers of the World Unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains. You have a world to gain.” More than a century-and-a-half later we are still engaged in the task of trying to unite workers.

For those fortunate enough to have been present at the launch of the mighty COSATU in Durban in 1985, the divisions which culminated in the expulsion of NUMSA (National Union of Metal Workers of South Africa) thirty years later came as a huge set-back to the worker unity. Let no one under-estimate the magnitude of what has occurred. NUMSA was the largest COSATU affiliate; it occupies a critically strategic space within the heart of the manufacturing sector; and it carries with it a strong plant-based organising tradition which has sustained it against the onslaught of private capital.

COSATU, meanwhile, remains by far the predominant organisation and force in the public sector – witness the successful conclusion of wage talks in the sector. In all other formal sectors – mining, manufacture, agriculture, retail, domestic – COSATU affiliates are under pressure – amongst others, from casualization, labour brokers, out-sourcing and retrenchments, and divide and rule tactics – eg through employer support for breakaway unions. Add to this the growing numbers of workers who fall outside formal employment relations due to new technology and fragmentation of labour processes.

These challenges are compounded by the divisions within organised labour. It is therefore appropriate that we debate the fundamentals of our trade unionism – reaffirming some, reviewing others if needs be. We need a debate which provides a historical perspective and tries to get past the noise of personal egos and attacks. Let me consider two issues which have surfaced from the divisions in COSATU: ‘politics and trade unionism’ and the typology of trade union organisation.

Politics and trade unionism

Our starting point surely is that as trade unionists we seek to unite and organise all workers – as workers – irrespective of political or other affiliation. To join a trade union you don’t have to sign up for s particular political party or philosophy. I can remember that this issue arose within SADTU (South African Democratic Teachers Union) at the time of the formation of COPE (Congress of the People) – which was also trying to establish rival unions. As we now know the threat of alternative unions came to nothing, but at the time there was a strong move from over-zealous site stewards and branch officials to simply expel any COPE supporters from the union. The NEC position prevailed that we organise all workers in the sector regardless of personal beliefs.

Let me not be misunderstood. I am not saying that unions must be non-political – far from it, given our history of struggle. Indeed, the SADTU NEC went on to say that whilst we do not expel members who support Cope, neither would we tolerate a situation where a Cope member who might also be a leader within SADTU disobeyed a mandated decision of the union – which could well be political in nature.

I would argue that a common commitment to progressive political struggle has united the different tendencies within COSATU over the last three decades. Indeed, it might be argued that the shift within FOSATU (Federation of South African Trade Unions) away from narrow ‘workerism’ to engagement with community struggles – signified by the 1984 Transvaal Stay-away – provided a political basis for a wider trade union unity culminating in the launch of COSATU in December 1985.

‘Workerists’ and ‘charterists’ (in the language of the time) maintained this unity for three decades around a common political programme of fighting for basic worker rights and national liberation (pre-1994), and then struggling to extend and entrench those rights thereafter – as well as to push for more fundamental socio-economic transformation. These objectives were pursued – with varying degrees of success – through mass mobilisation and struggle on the one hand, and by engaging with the ANC-led government through the Alliance on the other.

Indeed when the so-called “class project of ‘96” emerged within our movement, COSATU was united both against its neo-liberal economic policies and to defend the historic pro-working class bias of the Alliance and the ANC.

That shared strategic understanding – particularly of the role of the Alliance – is now questioned. An important question to ask about the roots of the split between NUMSA and COSATU is: how much of this is due to a fundamental disagreement over political strategy, and to what extent are we discussing differences over tactics?

One of the charges levelled by NUMSA is that COSATU has become simply a conveyor belt for the ANC-led government. But a toothless COSATU is no use to the ANC-led government. It will simply be bypassed and outflanked by the pseudo-militants – such as AMCU.

Programmatic differences emerged over the National Development Plan (NDP). We must not treat the NDP as a monument carved in stone. It is not perfect. It is contested terrain – much as this multi-class Alliance is contested terrain. As the Left we have to critique what is weak, and argue for what is progressive in the NDP.

The SACP agreed with COSATU’s critique of the NDP, for instance, of much of the economics chapter: on jobs and worker rights. We must certainly contest these issues, but we must also defend the progressive proposals in the NDP such as support for National Health Insurance, strong recommendations on dealing with corruption, important proposals on overcoming apartheid spatial patterns in our towns and cities and, above all, the recognition that transformation is critically dependent on a strategic, disciplined, developmental state.

An abstentionist position which simply rejects the NDP plays into the hands of the right wing and the DA. So let’s engage. We need to build and entrench national long-term planning capacity in the state – and with a massive electoral mandate, let’s be more decisive about grounding our long-range planning in our Freedom Charter vision. This is the message I take from the ANC’s January 8th Statement.

We need this kind of national planning in order to concretise the call from Mangaung for a second more radical phase of the National Democratic Revolution – through re-industrialisation and a major state-led infrastructure build programme.

It is right that we debate the record of the ANC in government. In fact that is the only way we can improve things – by criticising and holding comrades to account. What does concern me, however, is the blanket and unsubstantiated assertion – which deserves to be called ‘Ultra-Leftist’ – that there is no change under the present government – the charge that it is following the same neo-liberal economic policies as the DA. This is lazy thinking. We need a careful analysis of the balance of forces and the trends in government actions.

I would argue that in key areas of economic policy we have seen significant shifts to the left, which are in line with the long-held approach of COSATU, in particular: the New Economic Growth Path, the development of a clear industrial policy (IPAP) and the National Infrastructure Plan. I would argue that this raft of policies and concrete plans amounts to a strategy for sustainable and inclusive economic growth with massively positive implications for job creation and poverty reduction.

The position that sees little difference between the ANC and the DA is also dangerous talk. In a situation where labour is divided – and weakened – the ANC -led Alliance is a major impediment to the relentless pressure from capital for a so-called ‘flexible labour market.’ There is only one beneficiary of a divided labour movement.

One final word on politics and trade unionism: in the Leninist tradition very specific and separate roles are assigned to unions and political parties. The trade union has the essentially reformist – but crucial – task of uniting workers to defend and fight for improved working conditions within the capitalist system. The revolutionary party calls into question the existing social relations and seeks to fundamentally change those relations. Again, this distinction does not mean that trade unions are expected to be non-political – far from it.

“One industry, one union”

Comrades will remember that the organisational basis for the unity of COSATU in 1985 was the concept of industrial unionism: ‘one industry, one union’ and the rejection of the alternative model of ‘general unionism’.

[A historical note: this ‘one big union’ approach was perceived to be one of the weaknesses leading to the collapse of the ICU (Industrial and Commercial Workers of Africa) in the 1920s. The fall of ICU was as a result of imperialist conditions that ICU should distance itself from the Communists. The rebirth of trade unionism from the late 1920s onwards – led by the SACP – tended to be along industrial union lines. It is also worth noting that it was the FOSATU unions – including the forebears of NUMSA – who pushed hardest to enshrine industrial unionism in the constitution of COSATU in 1985.]

With varying degrees of success, COSATU has encouraged unions to reorganise and amalgamate along industrial lines – both to focus bargaining strength and to prevent ‘poaching’. But this has never been a simple matter. Leaving aside the human factor – and the reticence of individuals to hand over power – the first challenge is to define what precisely defines an industry?

Let me give an example. As General Secretary of SADTU – secure in the belief that we were an industrial union, representing all teachers – I was challenged by a prominent trade unionist who pointed out that the ‘education industry’ was not confined to teachers (what about cleaners, administrators etc?) – and that SADTU was therefore more akin to an old fashioned ‘craft union”. We had this debate within the union, and duly opened membership and structures to the wider education industry.

Another example: there was a time when NEHAWU put forward the view that the relevant industry in its case was the public service taken as a whole. In which case, all the public service unions (teachers, nurses etc) would be required to amalgamate into one public service union. This later gave rise to the concept of a ‘super union’ uniting all public workers – but organised into sub-sectors – focusing on education, health etc.

The point I am making is that ‘one industry, one union’ is not as straight forward as it appears to be. Another case in point: there was a debate between NUM and the old Chemical Workers Union regarding the correct union destination for the Sasol coal miners. For NUM, these workers were miners – case closed. The Chemical Workers Union took the view that these workers were employed by Sasol producing the raw material that was then converted into petrol and other by-products – and therefore were an integral part of the chemical sector.

All the above examples have context and need discussion, debate and persuation through powerful reason not revolutionary sounding phrases, labels, threats and impositions. What qualified all these unions to be members of Cosatu is that they conformed to the Cosatu principles of worker control , one union one industry and one country one federation.

This last argument takes us towards an understanding of where Numsa is coming from when it talks of ‘organising workers along the value chain’. If Numsa wanted to take forward their resolutions it should have first been subjected to a Cosatu Congress for debate. Unfortunately we never had that debate – which was drowned out by all the other issues in contention. I think it is important to interrogate the value chain concept of organisation to see whether it holds merit, but with two caveats: first, that it undermines worker unity when you seek to impose your organisational model on others by poaching members; and secondly we need to approach this debate with an open mind as to the appropriate organisational form needed to secure cooperation and joint action along the  value chain. Internationally, and locally, there are a number of models, including: the super unions referred to, joint shop stewards councils, joint bargaining committees, as well as amalgamations.

‘Business unionism’

If comrades believe that some of my comments have been too general or abstract, let me conclude on a more concrete note by identifying what I believe to be one of the greatest threats to progressive trade unionism in this country – irrespective of political affiliation. Simply put, the corrupting tentacles of capital now reach inside the labour movement promoting what we have called business unionism – providing a constant source of material for investigative journalists.

All too often we see unity, which we have always valued above all else, being undermined – not by ideological or political differences – but by business interests and corruption. Let me stress this: business interests and corruption are killing us. It divides comrades against each other, it demoralised honest comrades, and it leaves promising leaders prey to temptation. It has to be rooted out: from our unions and political organisations; from government departments; from the private sector (eg collusion in the construction sector), and from society in general.

Speaking as Minister of Public Works, I can report that we have made significant strides in the struggle against fraud and corruption within the Department. Senior officials – found guilty – have been dismissed. Criminal and civil cases are pending. More important, we are putting in place systems and structures to prevent corruption. This includes a dedicated Branch for Governance, Risk and Compliance with powers to police tenders and procurement processes.

I am going to suggest that unions and the federation need to start thinking along these lines: to put in place the necessary controls and systems and to erect a wall between legitimate union investments and elected worker leaders.


Workers as union members and the owners owners of a union, and shopstewards should ask these fundamental questions if their unions are run according to the following basic principles :

  • Participation by ordinary membership in decision making
  • Consultation with all or at least their representatives by to be affected decision
  • Mandate and accountability of leadership with constant report backs
  • Respect of all differing views
  • Discipline, open debate , constructive criticism and introspection

it is important that we analyse and debate the challenges facing organised labour. But it is equally important that COSATU reaffirms its roots as a mass-based campaigning organisation. Addressing a May Day rally in the Eastern Cape this year, I delivered a message from the SACP calling for the following:

  • A powerful, militant, independent and progressive COSATU – rooted in shop-floor worker control and service to members;
  • I said: We must never give up the constant struggle to unite all workers – and we must never lose sight of the primary contradiction and our primary enemy: monopoly capital. As trade unionists objective circumstances mean that we are regularly forced to compromise with the employer. Perhaps we need to explore a more pragmatic – but principled – approach to workers and organisations who do not share the same politics as us – in pursuit of our common class interests?
  • Remember also: we were at our strongest when we combined work-place and community-based struggles. We call for an active campaigning Alliance which takes up the broader issues of working class communities – housing, transport, land, corruption, the mashonisa and credit bureaux, security, crime and drugs, education and health care.

Cde Thulas Nxesi is the Deputy Chairperson of the SACP, Member of the ANC NEC, Minister of Public Works and a former General Secretary of SADTU

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