Brent Meersman
Brent Meersman

The unions: For whom do they speak?

When it comes to the Tripartite Alliance, Oscar Wilde’s observation that the proper basis for a marriage is a mutual misunderstanding seems rather apt. ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe has himself used the matrimonial metaphor.

When Zuma invites the unions to join the national executive council (as he did this past week), he is extending a strategy that has worked well – co-option (witness the SACP in cabinet implementing privatised e-tolling). The ANC’s polygamous arrangement has been an unbeatable tactic for containing the left. (An unkind analysis would say they have betrayed the revolutionary potential of the working class and turned them into voting fodder for a neoliberal hegemony.)

Cosatu did not take Zuma up on the offer. Rather, Cosatu would like to see more working class cadres swell the ANC ranks and change the party at its base; a strategy mooted in 2006 which has not been successful.

Originally forged to unite the “progressive forces” in the country under ANC leadership against apartheid, post-1994 the alliance professes to be the engine of a continuing democratic revolution to defeat the forces of “reactionary power” (capitalists, imperialists, apartheid beneficiaries) and other “counter-revolutionaries” (by definition any political opposition whatsoever).

Cosatu and the SACP claim as domestic triumphs the enactment of protective labour legislation and the halt to the privatisation plans of GEAR. It is debatable however whether these came about as a result of the alliance.

On a broader reading of our democracy, they may be Pyrrhic victories. Cosatu and the SACP’s unholy alliance with a centre right nationalist party has created empty democratic symbolism, and worse – a vacuum now in danger of being filled by African National Socialists posing as the radical left.

Talk of splitting will never stop, but if anyone thought Cosatu could go it alone as a political party, Tony Ehrenreich’s blundering mayoral campaign for the ANC in the Western Cape may have put paid to that idea. A hugely respected and popular leader across a broad community, he suffered an embarrassing defeat; afterwards, with some humility, he appealed to opposition voters to tell him why they hadn’t supported him.

Cosatu’s main achievements most definitely came about from exerting external pressure on the ANC in government and at great strain to the alliance (as Zwelinzima Vavi put it: “We will not win at the negotiating table what we have not won in the streets.”) Working with civil society, Cosatu dealt the Mbeki cabinet a blood-nose over its irrational HIV/Aids policies. It is now working with the Rigth2Know campaign against the Secrecy Bill.

The unions have made steady gains for those lucky enough to be employed. Since Pravin Gordhan took over the treasury, public sector wage increases have far outstripped the private sector. Government’s wage bill has ballooned, more than doubling in the past five years from around R177-billion to a staggering R320+ billion. On top of this, last year it overshot budget by R8-billion.

Plans to cap further increases at 5% per annum are already being challenged with war talk from the unions who want double that, plus a large increase on housing subsidies. At 35.3% of total government expenditure, pay rises in the civil servant salary bill have a significant impact on the country’s balance sheet. Small wonder Cosatu doesn’t care much for inflation targeting or prudent deficits.

The biggest disappointment for Cosatu has been its marginalisation as far as input on economic policy is concerned. It couldn’t save the RDP or shift GEAR or ASGI and it was hardly consulted on Economic Development Minister Ebrahim Patel’s NGP (disparagingly dubbed the New Gear Plan). A former union man, Patel ironically penned Cosatu’s critiques of GEAR back in the day. What Cosatu has not managed through it alliance is the “working class bias” in policy it so desires.

Mbeki at first cut the civil service to its bones (to such a degree it was almost incapable of delivery), and for 15 years the ANC leadership spurned the unions, and rolled ahead with a neoliberal, capitalist-friendly policy agenda.

Everyone could rally against Mbeki; but Zuma ironically turns out to be more divisive. He has by and large continued with conservative monetary dogma, neoliberal economic policy, crony capitalism and on his watch allowed a good deal of corruption to grease government expenditure.

The unions are now divided on how to deal with him. Zuma’s re-election is apparently supported by Nehawu general secretary Fikile Majola, Cosatu president Sdumo Dlamini, and NUM general secretary Frans Baleni. Cosatu’s general secretary Vavi, a strident critic of Zuma, won’t be prematurely drawn. Numsa general secretary Irvin Jim belligerently wants Zuma out. Meanwhile Sadtu president Thobile Ntola is said to be against Zuma, while his general secretary Mugwena Maluleke is said to be pro-Zuma. Whatever the truth of these positions, the unions are in disunion.

Numsa in particular has taken up the uncompromising chants of the expelled ANC Youth League leadership. Now that Julius Malema has been thrown overboard, Numsa’s Jim has called for an end to the “1996 Class Project” of the ANC, “no alternative to popular nationalisation”, “revolutionary land redistribution”, and has persistently couched these demands in racialised rhetoric – to break the “dominance of the white community”.

(Or as Numsa President Cedric Gina expresses their goal – the total rejection of capitalism, “There is a big difference between economic freedom and socialism.”)

The unions have certainly turned more militant, because the workforce have become more restless. The passivity of the National Union of Mine Workers has seen illegal strikes break out and defections to newer more militant unions, most notably and tragically at Implats. Every strike season becomes more bruising; financial losses and days lost caused by labour action now exceed the worst days of apartheid.

The ANC in government is in a management position and it had better get on top of its relationship with the unions. Cosatu continues to complain of the “problematic manner” in which government prepares for and handles discussions. It accuses government of launching “the most serious attacks on workers’ right to strike since the inception of the LRA in 1995 or even before.”

“It’s all-systems go for the biggest mass protest in years!” declares Cosatu as it girds its loins for mass action on Wednesday (March 7) against labour brokers, the casualisation of labour, attempts to restrict the right to strike, and the imposition of e-tolling . Cosatu is also against independent power producers, the Walmart/Massmart deal, the youth employment subsidy, the extension of the definition of essential service workers.

Cosatu has often occupied the moral high ground from its calling for lifestyle audits to its opposition to Mbeki’s Aids denialism, BEE deals, and the butcher of Zimbawe, Mugabe. It is now taking a tough line on corruption. It was the unions who have blown the whistle, from the Aurora mine to the dirty dealings of the Limpopo provincial government.

However Cosatu’s moral authority has been damaged by its mealy-mouthed condemnations and reluctance to act against strikers who make incendiary statements, the destruction of public property and violence; its brinkmanship when it threatened to derail the Fifa World Cup; the exacerbated disruptions in education by the discredited Sadtu. On Wednesday the schools will be closed once again.

Plans for a universal national health insurance and enthusiasm for government’s ambitious infrastructure plans might provide a much needed opportunity for cooperation between the alliance partners.

The question however remains: for whom does Cosatu actually speak? Are the actions it pursues really in the interests of the working poor, the very poor and the unemployed?

The liberation struggle became based on what political scientist Franco Barchiesi describes as the “redemptive promise of employment”. The ANC (and all the major political parties) have made employment the foundation of citizen rights – an ideological position that is open to being questioned. In its quest for a socialist utopia Cosatu wants full employment and the state to be the employer of last resort.

Stacked against Cosatu and the government’s job creation plans is what Harvard economist Richard Freeman coined “the great doubling”. When the workers of China, India and the former Soviet bloc entered the global economy in the 1990s, the global labour pool went from 1.46-billion to 2.93-billion workers. The effect is felt from Johannesburg to New York, where the worst job market since the Great Depression in now in effect.

It used to be enough for ANC politicians to pop up every five years and promise a million jobs. Now they have to promise 11-million jobs. Those jobs are simply not going to materialise. Even the youth in the United Kingdom are currently sitting with unemployment levels equivalent to South Africa’s overall unemployment rate. Government has to confront and plan for the reality that there are going to be millions of unemployed people in this country for decades to come. As successive generations are unemployed or have limited employment experience, the very culture of having a job, of working, starts to fray. This effect is already becoming evident amongst today’s youth.

Despairing at the lack of progress has meant a turn to more radical policies. What would really be radical is if the ANC and its alliance partners work more effectively together. It is time for economic innovation, not a time to recreate failed economic experiments. Sober heads are required. And 2012 brings a unique opportunity; for the first time, all three alliance partners will be holding their national congresses in the same year. What they decide will determine the future of South Africa for many years ahead.

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Abbreviations:

National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu)

National Union of Mineworkers (NUM)

National Union of Metal Workers (Numsa)

South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (Sadtu)

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