Vavi: Union movement fragmenting at alarming rate

Johannesburg - The trade union movement has been fragmenting at an alarming rate, but it has not translated into more workers belonging to unions, Zwelinzima Vavi, former general secretary of labour federation Cosatu, told City Press.

"More and more workers do not find unions appealing. Only 26% of workers belong to unions and it is declining by the day," said Vavi, who was the convener of the steering committee for this weekend’s workers’ summit.

"Unions have been defocused from the bread and butter issues of their members. There has been too much political shenanigans. More importantly, most workers join unions to get protection of their jobs. No union or federation can claim it has been successful at stopping the jobs loss bloodbath."

Vavi pointed out that some in the labour movement is calling for a new federation that will be "independent, democratic, fighting, militant and united". He himself is for the concept of "one federation, one country".

He pointed out that international experience has shown a trend for unions to amalgamate, because of changes in capital.

"The vertical organisation seems to be what is being embraced by workers all over the world. Any strict adherence to a one-union-one-industry will simply weaken the workers," said Vavi.

In his view, one of the biggest areas of discussion towards the formation of a new federation would be how to manage it - how to create more solidarity instead of more divisions and strife.

"The SA trade union movement is no longer seeing itself as a broader labour organisation," said Vavi.

At the same time he said it is "scary" that no real progress is being made with employment equity.

"They (white workers) are better paid, they are better skilled and they enjoy better protection and better job security. That makes unity very difficult," said Vavi.

"But to keep the status quo on the basis of those divisions will be committing treason towards both black and white workers. Unity must arise and be based on fairness. Fairness means that there must be redress and there can be no negotiations about that."

Apart from being concerned about what he calls social distance between union leaders, shop stewards and their members, Vavi said it would also be sad if rivalries between different unions would lead to wars in the workplace and workers turning against each other.

"We should avoid that. Better education about what the real enemy is must continue going forward," said Vavi.

* Read the full interview in City Press here.

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