Fragmented trade union movement delays realisation of political and economic liberty for the oppressed

As the ANC statement said, the expulsion of NUMSA from COSATU is tragic. This view is motivated by our belief in, first, the importance of COSATU as a component of the alliance, which is the agent of transformation in the South African milieu. Second, it is based on our commitment to the unity of the working class, as an organised formation and also as an integral part of the oppressed people.

The ANC, unlike others, has a vested interest in COSATU from both a historical perspective and also on its understanding of the importance of organised labour in society generally. Historically, some of the formations that preceded and came into the ANC at its formation, among them, the Native Educational Association (NEA) (1879), African and American Working Men’s Association (1890s), South African Native Congress (1898), Natal Native Congress (1900), Cape Native Congress (1902), had a strong working class bias. In the 1920s the Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union of Africa (ICU),a later development of these, further inspired the liberation movement. Throughout, up to the time of the South African Congress of Trade Unions (1955) – COSATU’s predecessor – the ANC continued to have a bias in favour of the working class and to be inspired by it. Fundamentally, this is part of its roots.

OR Tambo, as president of the ANC, could hail the formation of COSATU in 1985, recognising that “the struggle to form one democratic trade union centre has been hard and protracted. Many comrades have spent countless hours working to achieve the result that was consummated with the formation of Cosatu. We all acted in this manner convinced of the need for the unity of the working class of our country, of the imperative to defend and advance the interests of this class and of the necessity for the organised, united and conscious workers to remain in the front ranks, and as an integral part of the mass army of the revolution… The formation of Cosatu has therefore added enormously to the strength of the democratic movement as a whole and is a victory which this movement must defend at all costs.”

OR Tambo not only elaborates on how the ANC invested in the formation of COSATU, but further articulates the understanding that the liberation struggle as a whole must confront the three manifestations of oppression, namely, colonialism, capitalism and imperialism. This is a national and international political and economic paradigm that seeks to subjugate others, which we should liberate ourselves from. In our context, such oppression impacts on the African majority in particular and Blacks in general, both as a people and as workers. Therefore in such a context of struggle, as Professor Magubane demonstrates, “the task for national liberation, if it was to achieve genuine independence, would involve the application of the historical materialist method within a colonial context, rather than simply arguing mechanically the ‘economic case’ for socialism”. This is the reason why there is an integral relationship between the national liberation movement and labour. Or, as Professor Magubane puts it, “for Marxists in the colonial countries the cause of freedom for their people was coeval with that of labour”. This is the philosophical and theoretical framework that continues to inform the ANC, as a national liberation movement, and influences how it relates to COSATU in particular and the trade union movement broadly. The ANC is a broad church whose policies are largely influenced by socialists within its ranks. The humanist approach of the ANC is therefore never in favour of rampant market forces determining the agenda for the liberation movement, but a construct which unapologetically skews policies in favour of the working class and the poor.

Premised on such philosophical underpinnings, we would appreciate why the ANC regards the unity of workers and all oppressed people as an important ingredient to achieve change. It is a matter of fact that the ANC, through SACTU and later COSATU, has endeavoured for the unity of all labour federations in South Africa, transcending the ideological persuasions. This, unfortunately, is yet to be realised.

The principle of unity is the cornerstone on which COSATU was founded. It is the reason why the different and disparate unions and associations came together to form the federation and also, on their own, amalgamated to create the industrial unions, which are today affiliated to COSATU. Borne of the principle of one industry one union, the founders of COSATU appreciated that sector based unionisation would enhance their strength and bargaining power. Seeking to mitigate against the challenge of the expansion of scope by some unions, which is against this principle, the ANC task team recommended that the federation consider creating an arbitration commission that would make determination on these kinds of issues, given the complex environment of labour and the changing situation of trade unions themselves.

Perhaps the question we should, today, confront is whether or not NUMSA – notwithstanding COSATU’ constitutional principle of one industry one union – could remain in COSATU and pursue its outlook. We believe that it could, even if it continued to pursue its intended goal of a United Front. Like those unionists who are members of COSATU and are also members of other political parties, those in NUMSA who would choose to be in such an entity should do so freely. Since the inception of COSATU, individual affiliates – without falling foul of the constitutional prescripts of the federation, have throughout history expressed views or taken positions resonant to their members and constituencies. Instead of them being ousted, progressive unionists – which we believe COSATU is home to – sought to engage their views and point to a different understanding. Of fundamental importance in these engagements was that the unity of the working people would transcend narrow sectarian and myopic ideological rhetoric. Necessarily, a union should only walk out on or be expunged from the unity of all working people when everyone – including itself, were of the view that the total unity of the working class is antagonistically contradictory to unionism.

Critically, though, COSATU – as with any worker federation or trade union – should not be usurped by any political party in pursuance of its political agenda, even if the federation or some of its members were aligned to that party. This is borne of our understanding that trade unions are not political parties. Their primary purpose is to champion struggles of workers and improve their livelihoods, at the workplace and in society. In this regard, the federation should remain independent of any political party so that it pursues such objectives. By aligning itself, as COSATU has chosen to do by being in the Congress Alliance, it does not lose independence but seeks to extend its scope of influence towards the attainment of its stated goals. This, in our view, negates the purported view that the ANC wants the federation to be its labour. Such a notion is as preposterous as would anyone in the ANC suggest that, when COSATU openly states that the working class must swell the ranks of the ANC it would be the federation turning the movement into its political arm.

The difficulty we are, however, confronted with is whether the federation appreciates these objectives and then confront the real challenges that seem to bedevil its internal workings. Among these are the challenges of personalities and factions, which have gradually preoccupied it. As it is the case with other alliance partners, herein is the matter of which personality or faction leads and ultimately controls the federation. Another challenge that the federation would need to confront sharply is how investment entities of individual unions, and control thereof, have begun to influence the leadership choices inside the trade unions. Individual unions and the federation as a whole should, therefore, rise above subterfuge and obfuscation.

However vexing the challenges facing the trade union movement, they must be overcome as it continues to be our progressive struggle experience. As the ANC’ task team report enunciates, “we are not walking away from COSATU” and commit to help it resolve these challenges. History teaches us, ours not an exception, that change brings it with new and complex challenges and complete political and economic freedom is not without contradictions. As was highlighted in the Morogoro political report, our challenge is articulating, “What forms of organisation can ensure maximum mobilisation of resources at our disposal? What are the motive forces of our struggle and their potential? What strategy and tactics are to be employed?”

In the end, in our view, a fragmented trade union movement results in the weak confrontation of the oppressive manifestations in our society and, thereby, delays the realisation of political and economic liberty for all the oppressed. When the trade union is fragmented and weak, as evidenced during the Thatcherite years, it is vulnerable to capital and conservative governments.

>> Jessie Duarte is the Deputy Secretary General of the African National Congress

Posted in Phambili
Join the ANC
Social Media Widget Powered by Acurax Web Development Company
Talk to Us Now
close slider

    I am not a robot 5 + 5 =

    Visit Us On FacebookVisit Us On TwitterVisit Us On YoutubeVisit Us On Instagram