Inside Numsa’s expansion plan

2013-12-08 10:00

Union says labour federation’s founding principle of ‘one sector, one union’ is failing workers and is outdated

The National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa), Cosatu’s largest private sector union, is openly rejecting the labour federation’s founding principle of “one sector, one union”.

Numsa says that the principle is failing workers and is outdated.

This paves the way for the formal recruitment of members in sectors that “belong” to other Cosatu unions, namely the ailing National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the SA Transport and Allied Workers’ Union (Satawu).

Both unions are already accusing Numsa of “poaching”. Numsa is vehemently denying this, even as it claims that members of these unions come knocking at its door unsolicited due to the shoddy union service they receive.

However, a contentious discussion document tabled for Numsa’s special national congress next weekend is asking delegates to decide on the extent of the union’s expansion beyond the narrowly defined “metal” sectors.

This apparent intention to become a multisectoral union will add significantly to Numsa’s rapid alienation from Cosatu, the ANC and the SA Communist Party. It also adds to speculation that a new union federation, or even a workers’ party, may be imminent.

The document, Positioning Numsa as a Shield and Spear of Struggling Workers, presents three broad strategic options for Numsa’s future. (see box)

All three will involve encroaching on other union sectors.

Numsa argues that the changing face of capitalist workplaces requires new union strategies that fly in the face of the “one-sector” rule.

The rise of outsourcing, subcontracting and complex interdependent value chains necessitate new union strategies, it says.

“As a result of these vast changes in the field of production, the principle of one industry, one union has become difficult to adhere to,” reads the document.

At the same time, the union claims that disenchanted members of other Cosatu unions are constantly trying to join Numsa without it actively recruiting them.

“Some Cosatu affiliates have experienced severe difficulty in servicing and supporting their members. This has resulted in the growth of unions such as Amcu and the National Transport Movement, which are breakaways from the NUM and Satawu,” it says.

“Although we understand Cosatu’s policy of one industry, one union, it is hard to turn away workers whose only alternative is to join a non-Cosatu union or to remain with no union to support them at all.”

A former unionist and coordinator of the University of Cape Town’s Labour and Enterprise Policy Research Group, Jan Theron, says the “one-sector” policy was never very effective. “Unions in Cosatu have been at each others’ throats since day one,” he says.

“We’ve been saying for some time that the notion of a ‘sector’ has been eroded, with huge implications. They are right to say there is a problem that requires a bigger view. How you do that is a different question. What I’m hearing is an intention, not the means. I don’t think anyone has an answer for it.”

Numsa’s proposals fly in the face of a stern warning from ANC general secretary Gwede Mantashe at Cosatu’s collective bargaining conference in March.

He lashed out at the weakening of the “one sector, one union” rule calling it a “founding principle” of Cosatu.

A copy of the document was leaked in October and was attacked by, among others, the NUM’s Frans Baleni.

Satawu this week released resolutions from its central executive committee (CEC) meeting, accusing Numsa of “resolving to become a superunion” and “poaching” Satawu members.

“If certain individuals and unions fail to respect the principles of the federation that are embedded in the constitution, then it will be relevant for them to find new homes out of the federation,” it said.

Later in the week, Satawu spokesperson Vincent Masoga set a more moderate tone.

The CEC resolution “had to make a strong statement”, he said. “We will engage them first. We believe we can address it and complement each other. We are getting reports from the provinces that Numsa is encroaching on Satawu in transport, at harbours and Transnet.

“They took the decision a few weeks ago and some of their organisers are coming into our workplaces.”

There would be problems if Satawu “left it like the NUM”, he said, referring to the NUM’s ousting from most platinum mines last year.

“If they go in, they might think it is easy because they are popular today,” said Masoga.

What Numsa proposes


Numsa seeks to go beyond the Cosatu principle of “one sector, one union” and have its “sector” include all the non-core services attached to the metal industry workplaces. This includes cleaners, security guards, outsourced maintenance workers, as well as transport and warehousing workers.


Scenario two envisages Numsa organising “along value chains”. For the metal industries, this means everything from mining and metals beneficiation to the manufacture of final goods.

Numsa already follows this model in the motor industry to some extent, where it bargains for everyone from petrol pump attendants to parts manufacturers, to the actual vehicle assembly lines.

Satawu organises that sector at the moment.


The third proposal is to make Numsa a “hybrid” union that operates within defined sectors in the economic hubs of the country, but becomes a “general union” in underdeveloped provinces like the Northern Cape, where the industrial base is small and dispersed.

This would amount to competing with all unions in many parts of the country.

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