Labour Watch

Turmoil in organised labour returns with a vengeance

COSATU split on the agenda again
Cosatu split.jpg

The threat of a major split in the Congress of SA Trade Unions (COSATU) – and by extension in the ANC-led tripartite alliance – again surfaced strongly last week.

Reflecting to what extent labour relations in the country have become politicised, eight COSATU-affiliated unions released a statement announcing that they will be launching “rolling mass action”.

The statement with an almost party-political election manifesto tone to it, concludes with: “We are in the process of finalising a comprehensive programme of mass mobilisations, against load shedding, corruption, labour brokers, unemployment, water shortages and poverty pay. Over the next few days we will be releasing details of mobilisations that will be taking place all over the country. We are not prepared to remain paralysed.”

Group of 8

Aimed mainly against the ANC government’s economic policies the “Group of 8”, as they call themselves, also stated that they will boycott all COSATU meetings until the expelled National Union of Metalworkers of SA (NUMSA) is allowed back into the federation.

The group sided with NUMSA last year when it was expelled by the leaders of COSATU unions aligned with the ANC, SA Communist Party and President Jacob Zuma.

The eight unions are the Food and Allied Workers Union (FAWU), the Communication Workers Union (CWU), the SA Football Players Union (SAFPU), the South African Commercial, Catering and Allied Workers Union (SACCAWU), the National Unions of Metalworkers of SA (NUMSA), the Public and Allied Workers Union of South Africa (PAWUSA), the Democratic Nursing Organisation of South Africa (DENOSA), and the South African State and Allied Workers Union (SASAWU).

NUMSA was expelled when it supported COSATU general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, facing a disciplinary hearing and possible expulsion at the time.

NUMSA also withdrew its support from the ANC and called for a COSATU special national congress where new national leaders could be elected.

At that stage NUMSA was COSATU’s biggest affiliate union.

The eight unions have also called for a special national congress and the reinstatement of NUMSA as a COSATU affiliate.

New political force

After its expulsion, NUMSA was instrumental in launching the new socialist United Front (UF).

Ideologically NUMSA is left of the ANC and COSATU. It wants to launch a socialist worker-based political party.

After NUMSA’s expulsion and the launch of the UF last year the situation seemed to calm down somewhat. But last week the statement by the Group of 8 once again put the cat among the pigeons. 

Calling for COSATU to be militant and more independent, they rejected all attempts “to get COSATU becoming a conveyor belt and an apologist of neoliberal policies” of the government as contained in the National Development Plan (NDP).

The tone of and demand contained in the statement firmly positioned them left of the ANC and in competition with the Economic Freedom Fighters.

Their demands centre around::

  • The creation of a socialist, interventionist state;
  • The radical transformation of the economy;
  • The redistribution of “land ownership for all to benefit”;
  • The nationalisation of mines, banks and the Reserve Bank;
  • The rejection of the NDP; and
  • The implementation of the Freedom Charter.

This is the first time these eight COSATU unions have articulated a policy position totally in line with NUMSA and the UF – and with strong similarities to the EFF.

The Group of 8 also organised a march to COSATU headquarters to demand the reinstatement of NUMSA. Vavi, in a tweet, announced that he, too, would not be attending a COSATU Central Executive Council (CEC) meeting since half of the unions would be absent and it did not promote unity.

New political battle lines

In a clear indication of the new political battle lines developing in the country, several pro-ANC unions in COSATU hit back in very similarly worded statements of their own.

It called the actions and demands of the eight unions unconstitutional, their accusations faction driven, unfounded and divided COSATU.

One of NUMSA’s most vocal opponents in COSATU, the SA Democratic Teachers’ Union (SADTU), maybe foreshadowing things to come, also said the eight unions acted like “opposition parties and spoilt brats”.

The SA Municipal Workers Union (SAMWU), initially listed as the 9th member of the group of dissident unions, distanced itself from the march to COSATU House. The pro-ANC unions have also claimed that the leaders of the eight dissident unions represent only a fraction of the membership of their respective unions and called on ordinary members to oppose them.

Back in April last year we wrote: “Political activism in the sphere of organised labour is set to become one of the dominant political factors to watch in the post-2014 election South Africa,”

Early January this year we wrote: “South Africa is probably closer to a dramatic change in political power relations in the country than is generally appreciated.” 

This notion is strengthened by what is presently happening around the Group of 8.

by Stef Terblanche

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