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I’m proud of our unions today

A few weeks ago, in my editorial on the Skills Portal newsletter, I complained about union calls for an additional public holiday. Leaders of union federations were writing letters to Thabo Mbeki and holding interviews with the media, all for one extra day’s holiday.

With all the social challenges we face in our country, was it really the best use of union leaders’ time to go to so much trouble for one extra day’s holiday, I asked? I can’t remember the last time I heard any union leader on national radio calling for more money to be spent on training workers!

The truth is that I’m sympathetic to unions and their objectives. When the argument is between retail workers getting R400 per month and retail-chain CEOs earning more than R23-million, it isn’t hard to support the person struggling to get to work on public transport ahead of the one speeding in his Porsche. (Figures from Cosatu’s memorandum to Pick n Pay.)

Post-Polokwane (this year’s big political cliché) the union movement seems to be flexing its muscles — particularly Cosatu and its affiliates. The issue of the ship full of Chinese weapons headed for Zimbabwe has given them more opportunity to take a stand.

I don’t know if anyone has any respect for Aziz Pahad any more, so there probably weren’t many who were surprised by his comments on the Chinese arms ship. Something along the line of: “They are a sovereign country so we can’t interfere!” What rubbish!

South Africa under the National Party was a sovereign country. So was it OK to send weapons to PW Botha’s army so that they could be used in the townships against South African citizens?

As Morgan Tsvangirai told CNN, Zimbabwe is not at war, so what are the arms needed for except for use against civilians?

Just when it looked like the weapons were on their way to Mugabe’s army, the transport workers’ unions struck a blow for good sense, human rights and simply doing the right thing.

Randall Howard, general secretary of the South African Transport and Allied Workers’ Union (Satawu), said his members would refuse to unload the arms from the vessel

Cosatu supported the move. “South Africa cannot be seen to be facilitating the flow of weapons into Zimbabwe at a time where there is a political dispute and a volatile situation between Zanu-PF and the MDC,” it said in a statement. Viva to that!

The International Transport Federation and the police union also supported the stance taken by Satawu.

Management and business owners spend a lot of time complaining about the actions of unions at workplace level, but we should all be grateful for the powerful role that unions play in our society. They are a powerful counterforce to a government with a strong majority.

I’m not the emotional type, but I’m damn proud of Randall Howard and the Satawu members. They struck a real blow for people’s power and the solidarity of workers, and it seems very likely that they have saved lives in Zimbabwe.

The parallels are interesting. CNN commentators were already reporting on the sensitivities of the situation with Zanu-PF — a liberation movement — seeming to be losing power to the MDC, which has a former unionist at its head.

In our own country we have seen how the former-exile ANC leader lost out in the party elections to the candidate with the strong union support.

It is interesting also to note that Mugabe’s rule from liberation until today lasted 28 years — double the period that the ANC has been in power in South Africa. Is it possible that in only another 14 years a strong, union-supported party could oust the ANC?