Cosatu counts the cost of 25-year gains

2010-12-04 14:09

It is said that the working conditions of Cosatu members, and perhaps the living conditions of workers in general, are better as a result of the relentless struggles that the ­labour federation has waged over the past quarter of a century.

The shop-floor victories and broader societal triumphs, ­especially in the past 16 years, are reason for the two?million people who swell the ranks of Cosatu to celebrate its 25th ­anniversary.

After the ANC took over in 1994, Cosatu played a key role in fighting for the pro-worker labour dispensation South Africans ­enjoy.

Cosatu leaders successfully resisted pressure from business lobby groups to relax labour laws – ostensibly to stimulate job ­creation as employers would have been free to hire and fire as they chose.

They have equally defended those labour gains when the ­ruling party in 2005 under former president Thabo Mbeki flirted with the idea of a two-tier labour ­regime that would have seen younger workers working under a different labour regime.

But Cosatu did suffer political setbacks even as its bargaining position strengthened.

There are indications that ­government dumped the ­reconstruction and development programme (RDP), the Cosatu blueprint that informed the ANC’s 1994 election manifesto, partly because the federation did not adequately fight for its implementation once it became the ­official policy of the Nelson Mandela ­administration.

Jay Naidoo, the former Cosatu general secretary who became the minister in charge of RDP in Mandela’s presidency, ­intimates in his recently published memoir, Fighting for Justice, that while he fought for the implementation of the programme in government, Cosatu concentrated on key struggles in the National Economic Development and ­Labour Council (Nedlac).

In about two years, the RDP office was shut down and the ­Cosatu blueprint made room for government’s much-maligned conservative macroeconomic policy called Growth, Employment and Redistribution (Gear).

This must have been one of the worst political setbacks for ­Cosatu and the left in the democratic political dispensation.

This is not to say the issues on which Cosatu waged fights in Nedlac – such as the insertion of a clause that recognises the right to strike in the Constitution, the health and safety agreement and the reduction of tariffs – were not important.

But the moral of the story is that, important though the ­Nedlac issues were, it was not enough for Cosatu to craft a ­political programme and ­outsource it.

It needed to see its implementation through.

Even though in the post-Polokwane era Cosatu has pushed for its candidates to represent its ­issues in President Jacob Zuma’s administration and in Parliament, it does not look like Cosatu’s leadership has learnt much from the failure of the RDP.

Its current candidate in ­Cabinet, economic development minister Ebrahim Patel, seems not to enjoy a lot of support from his core labour constituency.

His economic policy ­blueprint, the New Growth Path (NGP), seems to be getting the kind of lukewarm reaction that Gear got when it was first ­introduced in 1996.

It remains to be seen whether Cosatu will come to defend the NGP, or will leave Patel out on a limb should he face mounting ­resistance.

It does not help that some of Patel’s departement’s functions overlap with the treasury and the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI).

This makes turf wars between ministers over economic policy direction inevitable.

In contrast, SA Communist Party-aligned DTI minister Rob Davies’ ­industrial policy action plan got the endorsement of both ­labour and communists.

Some say that’s because Davies kept both core constituencies in the loop when he crafted the strategy – something that seems to have been lacking in Patel’s case.

Nothing will stop the Economic Development Ministry, which was Cosatu’s idea, from suffering the fate of the RDP in future should Zuma feel that it does not add value to his administration.

This is not to say Cosatu has not successfully waged political struggle.

Its vocal criticism of Robert Mugabe and Swazi King Mswati III’s ­regime did force the ANC to ­reconsider its political stance on its two wayward neighbours, even as government doggedly stuck to its “quiet diplomacy” policy.

Some argue that were it not for Cosatu and its communist allies, the Zimbabwean crisis would have remained a peripheral issue in our politics which only mainly white opposition parties bleated about.

Of course, there was also the vexing issue of HIV/Aids. Mbeki’s government dug in its heels on the issue at the turn of the past ­decade, and did very little to ­provide ­antiretroviral drugs to people who needed them.

Some people reckon that the Treatment Action Campaign’s successful battles to move Mbeki out of inertia would not have been successful were it not for the backing the group received from Cosatu.

Cosatu boss Zwelinzima Vavi was one of the first people to ­argue that HIV/Aids was taking its toll on workers.

In the Zuma administration, the fight against the pandemic is ­receiving the kind of political support it needs.

Labour was also not shy to point out that political debate was being stifled and clamped down on in Mbeki’s ANC.

They were the first to leap to the defence of ANC leaders Cyril Ramaphosa, Mathews Phosa and Tokyo Sexwale when they were accused of plotting to overthrow Mbeki.

That helped keep the ­political space open within the ruling party and its alliance.

Labour’s role in Zuma’s rise to power in 2007 is well documented and need not be rehashed.

Despite its influence in ­government, Cosatu, does face challenges to its ­political ­influence in society.

Cosatu union membership has changed over the past 16 years. University of Johannesburg ­labour sociologist Sakhela ­Buhlungu observes that ­blue-collar workers have given way to skilled workers and professionals such as civil servants.

In his recent book – A Paradox of Victory: Cosatu and the Democratic Transformation in South Africa – Buhlungu notes that the changes were partly to do with the evolution of the labour market that has seen a decline in the employment of unskilled workers over the past three decades.

Post-1990, there has also been growing unionisation of ­previously unorganised ­professions, such as teaching and nursing, which explains why civil service union the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union’s membership grew from 15 000 in the 1980s to about 200 000 today.

This because of the increased focus on those once ­described as “petty bourgeois” workers, and unions focusing less on agricultural and retail sector workers, who usually have casual jobs and are ­employed via labour brokers.

Buhlungu sounds alarm bells about the implications of this ­development for Cosatu: “In ­future, Cosatu and other unions could find themselves increasingly ­isolated from the rest of the working class, particularly from the new movements formed to mobilise against the effects of economic liberalisation on the working poor and unemployed.”

Another weakness is that ­Cosatu shop stewards, unlike in the 1980s and early 1990s when union officials such as Moses Mayekiso and Thozamile Botha were active in civic bodies, are no longer influential in their communities.

Back then, strikes would ­receive support from communities who would also plan boycotts in solidarity with the striking ­workers.

Such moves were a ­result of the role shop stewards served as leaders in their ­communities, something that is sorely lacking today.

Union officials seem to understand the idea of ideological ­hegemony to mean that they just have to swell ANC branches or serve in government, rather than influence groups such as school governing bodies and community organisations.

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