Unions: Workers’ Day a bitter-sweet occasion

2009-04-30 00:00

Labour movements in South Africa, which are probably experiencing the most challenging period since the post-apartheid era began, need to radically reinvent their organisations in order to remain relevant and responsive to the needs of ordinary workers.

While many South Africans — particularly those who still have jobs — celebrate Workers’ Day, unions and other such organisations will spend the day reflecting on a desperately difficult 12-month period.

It has been argued that union movements need to adopt more creative approaches and proactive responses to both the needs of workers in the workplace and the needs of workers in their homes.

This undoubtedly requires practically-oriented interventions aimed at the most vulnerable grouping of the union’s membership.

They will also need to strategise and construct a sustainable “game-plan” in order to secure the future of workers and the union movement itself.

Although Cosatu’s spokesman Patrick Craven told The Witness that KwaZulu-Natal will host 10 of the 36 Workers’ Day celebrations in South Africa, he also stressed that — apart from the recent ANC election victory — there is little to celebrate.

Craven noted that there is an unavoidable bitter-sweet twist to this year’s public holiday.

Workers are facing the ramifications of the global and local economic downturn, while celebrating the ANC’s election victory.

Cosatu, of course, has a strong alliance with the ruling party and the union movement played a major role on the political scene in the run-up to the elections.

“There is a contradiction facing us. There are real fears about jobs, in several sectors especially, for example, in the clothing and textiles sector.

“It’s about looking realistically at the challenges and the world economic crisis has forced us to do this,” he said.

Jaco Kleynhans, spokesman for Solidarity, which has a 130 000-strong membership, told The Witness that Workers’ Day 2009 is a day of reflection and planning.

“Traditionally, the union has been seen as a reactionary institution, but it needs to redefine itself to be a more proactive force.

“We’re raising funds and even giving out food parcels to families affected by the retrenchment crisis,” he said.

Dennis George, general secretary of the Federation of Unions of South Africa, is under no illusions regarding the scale of the challenges facing all stakeholders. “It’s our view that it [the crisis] is real and massive,” he said.

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