Wherefore art our unions in SA?

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South Africa’s trade union movement is in a state of flux.

However, largely at a bureaucratic level at this stage, a battle is raging between the various federations competing for both affiliates and wider support.

Focus over the past week has been on the tripartite National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac), a grouping often referred to by some unionists as a “toy telephone”.

This is because, although all government policies affecting labour are supposed to first be agreed at Nedlac, this seldom happens, with labour’s viewpoints often being ignored.

However, Nedlac is a forum where labour, business, government and representatives of the wider community may put their points of view across and argue for policy directions.

As such, the country’s newest federation, the SA Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu), wants to be represented at Nedlac.

However, the Saftu application has been blocked on the basis of a set of “protocols” adopted more than a year ago to stop the affiliation of the Confederation of SA Workers’ Unions (Consawu).

The driving force behind Consawu was Solidarity, the ethnically based “Christian union” that once formed the hard core of apartheid support. Solidarity’s origins date back to 1902 and the racially exclusive Mynwerkers Unie that, in 1922, adopted the now notorious slogan: “Workers of the world unite for a white South Africa.”

Today, Solidarity is a much more subtle version of its previous incarnation. The union professes to be “the only Christian trade union in South Africa”, and supports the Afrikaans language and “minority rights”. These are widely seen as codewords for the now discredited racism of Afrikaner nationalism.

Understandably, the labour component of Nedlac did not wish to have Consawu/Solidarity included as a representative of labour. But the excuses used to block Consawu are now being used to refuse Saftu a seat at Nedlac. These reasons include not having been in existence for more than two years, and not having up-to-date and audited membership and financial statements.

However, because Saftu was only formed a year ago, it is impossible to have such audited figures for the federation. But at least two of the affiliated unions do comply.

The National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa), for example, also happens to be the largest trade union in the land. The Food and Allied Workers’ Union, which, like Numsa, is a former Cosatu affiliate, is also registered and has supplied audited figures. The total membership of these two unions alone is more than can be claimed for the National Council of Trade Unions (Nactu), the smallest of the three Nedlac labour members.

Nactu, which now promises to produce a website “in 38 days” giving full details of the federation and its affiliates, recently lost the membership of its largest affiliate, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu). Amcu left after the chaotic end to the Nactu congress in November.

Amid accusations of massive irregularities, Nactu general secretary Narius Moloto refused demands to step down. The demands came from several affiliates, including Amcu, that were unhappy that he remained the president of a political party, the Pan Africanist Congress.

“So now we are independent,” said Amcu president Joseph Mathunjwa. Given the current “unsettled state” of the union movement, Amcu has made no decision yet about future affiliation to any federation. Like several other unions, Amcu would “wait and see”.

Cosatu has haemorrhaged members over recent years, while the other Nedlac member, the Federation of Unions, seems stable.

Saftu, based largely on breakaways from Cosatu, has taken on the militant mantle once associated with Cosatu, but there are concerns about Saftu being “overreliant” on Numsa.

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