Inside Labour | Mayday, Mayday, Mayday! – the distress signal workers are sending out today

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Cosatu and labour unions should focus on the deeply worrying challenges workers face today. Photo: Mlungisi Louw /Netwerk24
Cosatu and labour unions should focus on the deeply worrying challenges workers face today. Photo: Mlungisi Louw /Netwerk24

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These are parlous times for trade unions, not just in South Africa, but globally. And as May Day dawns, once favoured slogans such Phambili basebenzi! Forward [with the] workers! should perhaps, more appropriately, give way this year to the international radio distress signal: Mayday, Mayday, Mayday!

For, almost everywhere, the labour movement is floundering, losing members and often weakened by fragmentation, political compromise and nationalism. In the past two years, this situation has been exacerbated by the effects of the coronavirus pandemic and the steps taken to counteract it. And although a number of unions and federations have put on brave faces for this 133rd May Day, there can be no denying the reality.

How difficult the situation is for labour has been spelled out clearly in studies by the ILO and others: with very few exceptions union membership has been in steady decline for the past 20 years.

This at the very time when joblessness and precarious part-time work has increased and the share of wealth to workers has fallen as the very rich have become very much richer.


It was such inequality and exploitation, along with the demand for the right to vote, that gave birth to trade unionism. With unions playing a significant role, the vote was gradually – in South Africa, very belatedly – won and, so too, were better rights and protections for workers, South Africa being a good example.

And, as the major labour federations in South Africa point out, union pressure has seen some recent positive developments such as the introduction of a national minimum wage and action to deal with labour brokers.

However, as Federation of Unions SA (Fedusa) general secretary, Riefdah Ajam admits, these are “turbulent times” that the movement faces.

This May Day calls for strong leaders to step forward and tackle issues affecting underemployed and unemployed workers. Photo: Brenton Geach/Gallo Images via Getty Images

Times have also changed – and are certainly changing even more – the future of work and, therefore, the future of trade unions are now both uncertain. The gains of recent years – even in some regions, the gains of many decades – are threatened or are being clawed back.

For trade unions, it is not a matter of “adapt or die” but rather how organised labour can, may or will adapt.

READ: Inside Labour | Adapt or die

Some in business circles and elements in governments have already made it clear that they would like to see unions adapt to the new reality by accepting it as inevitable and becoming part of an entrenched, tripartite “social compact”.

This would mean the incorporation of organised labour into business and the state, in effect the “conveyor belt unionism” beloved of authoritarian nation states.

The ILO, itself a tripartite body, supports “inclusive and effective social dialogue”, but does not promote such incorporation and tends to be backed in this by most unions.

The position of the international body was spelled out last year in four scenarios that seem adequately to sum up the future for trade unions at a time when algorithm-driven machine learning and artificial intelligence in the workplace is increasingly making workers redundant.

In the first place, unions that remain wedded to old, bureaucratic and inefficient ways may became marginalised and gradually loose their effectiveness.


Others, in a process the ILO terms dualisation, can defend their current positions, concentrate on, and provide service to, their members, usually in the public sector and in major industries, but at the expense of other workers.

The ILO notes that unions can also find themselves being replaced when they lose the confidence and support of workers. NGOs, even labour lawyers and employers, may step into such a breach. New unions too, that are better able to deal with the world of today, could supersede the old.

However, the international trade union movement, for all its differences, remains a basic organisational structure that unites those who sell their labour in order to survive.

The ILO obviously feels that a united and “revitalised” movement has the potential to be a potent force in society. So the call now is for “revitalisation” or, in the words of Cosatu general secretary, Bheki Ntshalishali, “renewal”.

According to Ntshalishali, the: 

trade unions of yesterday cannot be the trade unions of the future”. Organisational renewal, he maintains, is “the key demand to remain relevant.

Probably all of South Africa’s 224 registered unions, along with the labour federations, Cosatu, the SA Federation (Saftu) and Fedusa. would almost certainly agree with this, together with the prime demand of worker unity.

However, Cosatu remains part of the governing, ANC-led alliance, while Fedusa has always opposed such a link and Saftu unions split from Cosatu, partly on the political affiliation issue. On that front, little has changed.

Fedusa’s Ajam blames many of the country’s job losses on “government’s trade liberalisation policies”, while Saftu states more bluntly: “Government is following in the footsteps of the most brutal corporate bosses.”

Saftu general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi also adopted a similar blunt approach to the question of “foreign” workers.

In a statement this week, he noted: 

Our problems are not created by African and Asian immigrants but are created by capitalism – a system that is predicated on enriching the few at the expense of the majority – and by a state run by the governing party’s most heartless neoliberal cadres.

Perhaps significantly, none of the federations mentioned, let alone acknowledged, the fact that all are – at least in theory – still bound by the common macro-economic policy outlined in their joint 1996 Social Equity and Job Creation document.

In direct contrast to government’s successive policies, it put redistribution ahead of (and responsible for) growth. However, much water has flowed under bridges of compromise since then.

READ: Foreigners are not taking our jobs, the government is failing to create jobs

What seems certain is that the labour movement as a whole is aware that a turbulent time lies ahead and that there is an urgent need to work out how to adapt to the new reality. What the various unions and federations will do – and which, if any, will remain relevant – is still unclear.

What is clear is that increasing numbers of workers – employed and unemployed – are becoming disillusioned with an establishment that includes registered trade unions.

As several noted on Freedom Day call-ins on national radio on Wednesday, a vote is meaningless when you are hungry, powerless and have no hope. This is the reality that inspires populist demagogues, who peddle the extreme nationalism that is, in principle, the antithesis of the labour movement.

In this environment, trade unions remain the only strongly organised groups of workers in a society where perhaps more than half the working class is now unemployed or under employed.


To remain relevant, they can no longer be seen to be fighting – and acting – only on behalf of the already diminishing numbers of employed workers who, for the most part, live in the same communities as an increasingly desperate proletariat.

This May Day will, correctly, celebrate and remember historic victories and labour heroes, but the prime focus should be on the deeply worrying here and now. And this should mean planning how to unite and organise the working class majority for a truly better life in the turbulent future.


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