Inside Labour | Labour is lost as May Day approaches

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What unionists such as Cloete label “Stalinism” has become the norm.
What unionists such as Cloete label “Stalinism” has become the norm.
Brenton Geach


May Day is here. And, for the first time in a long and quite active life as a social campaigner, I shall approach that historic occasion not with jubilation, pride and determination, but, rather, with sadness. 

And I will not be alone: there appears to be a growing consensus that May Day may mark the nadir to which the local labour movement has fallen.

Sadness is certainly not an emotion that traditionally belongs to a day that celebrates the resilience and fortitude of often brutalised and exploited workers who organised to become a bulwark against greater deprivations visited on the poor and dispossessed.

Theirs was a long, hard and often bloody road that, especially given the present economic and social context, needs to be studied and understood by anyone hoping for a better and more democratic world. 

In Chicago in May 1886, it was that fight by working people for a better life for all that gave us May Day as a celebration of the courage and determination of workers who dared to dream of a truly democratic world. 

But, as the “Durban Moment” strikes in February and March 1973 gave rise to the modern South African union movement, that single event had a history that echoes across exactly 150 years.

In 1873, what became known as the Long Depression – a few decades before the 1929/30 Great Depression – began.

It lasted for more than five years, causing wage cuts and a surge in unemployment: conditions that have a distinct echo today.When workers organised, they often faced the bayonets and bullets of state and private militias along with a biased media, the courts and the gallows. 

READ: Unions divided over way forward on wage dispute

Four activists, two of them journalists, one a printer and the other a carpenter, who were part of the call for an eight-hour working day to be introduced on May 1, 1886, were hanged.

Seconds before they died together on the gallows, journalist August Spies shouted: “The time will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today.”

That statement reverberated around the world and, in 1890, the “Haymarket martyrs” were honoured by naming May 1 as the day of labour solidarity.

There are many echoes from quite recent local history of that legal lynching in the US and of the events leading up to it. In our part of the world village, it was a largely democratic, worker-led and militant trade union movement that fought against incredible odds  to help bring about the transition that we celebrated this week as Freedom Day.

But, as Karl Cloete, former deputy general secretary of the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) noted this week, the South African labour movement’s strong traditions of worker control and accountability are on the decline. 

He notes:

So we are approaching May Day with a trade union movement in crisis.

“It will be a sad May Day 2023.”

With many of the fragmented and weakened trade unions in a critical state, he fears that the movement may find it difficult to “get out of the ICU”. 

This because dissenting views are often simply not tolerated, and democratic decisions, where made, are ignored. It is obvious that much internal union democracy has broken down.

What unionists such as Cloete label “Stalinism” has become the norm. And so, along with some bitter sniping by some union leaders, the courts come into play.

A number of actions are threatened or under way, the Police and Civil Rights Union in North West, for example, making several legal sorties.

But there are currently two major cases scheduled, the first being an action to have the proceedings of the chaotic and expensive 11th Numsa national congress and all its resolutions and elections declared null and void.

READ: Ann Bernstein | The forgotten story of school state capture

The second is a clear reminder that a general election looms: the SA Democratic Teachers’ Union (Sadtu), a Cosatu affiliate, has taken its federation and other affiliates to court for having, without “proper procedures”, decided to commit Cosatu and its affiliates to support the SA Communist Party or a “socialist alliance” in the coming elections. 

“This would be a bloody disaster,” a Sadtu official said.Sadtu general secretary Mugwena Maluleke, who is currently in Washington, DC, in the US, at an educational conference, was more diplomatic.

The prime objection, he noted, “was that we have democratic processes and these were not followed”. 

Sadtu is calling for a special national congress to discuss the issue. 

Maluleke added:

I don’t see any problem with demanding democracy.

More litigation is also apparently in the pipeline following alleged refusals by some union leaders to adhere to the rules that are contained in democratic constitutions. 

In such an environment, it is perhaps not surprising that most trade unions have not filed audited membership lists or financial reports for at least the past two years.

This is the sad reality brought about largely by greed, personal ambition and the abuse of power. It is something that must now be confronted and overcome for the sake of a truly better future for all.

Terry Bell is a broadcaster, writer and editor focusing on political and labour analysis.

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