We are not affiliated to any political party, says new union

Cape Town - Unions in South Africa are allowing themselves to be manipulated by employers and political parties, according to newcomer, the National Trade Union Congress of SA (NTUC).

"Currently, unions sleep in the same bed with the employer. They sold the mandate of the workers," NTUC interim spokesperson Maston Phiri said on Monday.

The union is one of five new unions which have registered with the Department of Labour since January alone.

By June 2016, there were 187 registered unions in South Africa, according to the department of labour. Another two were deregistered, but were allowed to continue operating until various issues were resolved. 

From fishermen to veld workers - there appears to be a union for everybody already, but according to Phiri, too many workers still do not have anybody to stand up for them when the going gets tough.

The formation of the new union was not without its hitches. Initially it was touted as being associated with the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), when the party was still in its early stages in 2014. Some of its founder members were also EFF members.

"We cannot dispute that, but the union is not formed by the EFF," said Phiri.

EFF Labour Commissar Thembinkosi Rawula said the party had distanced itself from the union, and was not aligned to it or any other union.

With its logo of a worker's hammer over the African continent, the NTUC says its vision is one of independence, no political affiliation, no alignment with union federations, and no separating workers into sectors. It also does not care which party a member belongs to.

It describes itself as a "radical, non partisan, young union".

In practice, said Phiri, if a domestic worker member was aggrieved, the members in other types of jobs would also go on strike if necessary. This way the strike would have more clout, he argued.

It was not an easy concept to sell to the department of labour, he said, but eventually they got the go ahead.

'They become compromised'

The union's leaders and organisers would stay in their current jobs, said Phiri - who is a development researcher in government - using time allowed for union work to organise or represent workers involved in disputes.

"We want to have a union that is overarching, that is going to represent workers as workers, and not necessarily workers in terms of their social sectors, as defined in the South African fraternity," he explained.

So far, it had about 2 500 members, who each paid a R65 a month membership fee to cover running costs. The union's initial base is in Gauteng, but says it is making some inroads in KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga.

It planned to target workers in private companies where it was either difficult to get unions off the ground, or where workers had been overlooked by other unions. It also wanted to make inroads in the security industry, where it felt employees had extremely difficult working conditions that were not being properly addressed.

It had found it difficult to get a foot in the door, but was pressing on and was challenging at least two companies for not allowing them to pitch the union to employees, Phiri said.

"If they receive a salary and payslips, they have a choice to be in a union."

NTUC's interim president is Stephens Msiza, interim deputy president is Ayatola Matseke, and its interim secretary general is Benjamin Zinza.

The problem with some unions now, said Phiri, was that the radical voice was being silenced. Companies used tactics like a sudden promotion at work to make a worker less likely to rock the boat.

"As a manager, he would be referee and player, which would be difficult."

And, mixing unions with politics had led to some taking their eye off the best deal for workers.

Many union leaders had also found themselves in government, a major employer in South Africa.

"Immediately, when workers are not happy, the first call they get is from Luthuli House, asking 'how do you march against your own?'. They become compromised."

He cites Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, a former secretary general of the National Union of Mineworkers, as an example. Ramaphosa also sat on the board of Lonmin Platinum during the prolonged platinum strike of 2012.

'We are revolutionising unionism'

He was found to have sent an email to the then police minister Nathi Mthethwa and minerals minister Susan Shabangu, pressuring them to deal with the strikers. Critics have blamed him for contributing to the fatal shooting of 34 mineworkers during that strike, but the Farlam Commission of Inquiry said he could not be held responsible for what happened.

The strike also led to many National Union of Mineworkers members changing sides to the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, which took over as the dominant union in the platinum sector. 

"You will see that there won't be strikes by Cosatu unions until the election is over," claimed Phiri, referring to the long-standing alliance between the Congress of SA Trade Unions and the ruling African National Congress.

But Cosatu spokesperson Sizwe Pamla dismissed this.

"Strike season is in August. Most of the sectors have only opened their negotiations now," said Pamla. 

"If they are going to deadlock, they usually deadlock in August. If there is a strike, it is usually late August, September."

He added that workers who join unions which were afiliated to Cosatu knew about Cosatu's links to the ANC and this formed part of their reasons for joining.

But Phiri remains convinced that workers are ready for a new type of union.

"We are revolutionising unionism," he says.

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