Making Sense of Shifts in Labour

By Mohamed Motala · 26 Aug 2013

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Picture: Lenny Flank/Flickr
Picture: Lenny Flank/Flickr

What happens to Zwelinzima Vavi and COSATU is less important than what is happening to worker organisations themselves.

At its launch in 1985, COSATU put forward “worker control” as one of its founding principles. ANC General Secretary, Gwede Mantashe, recently accused some unions of drifting away from worker control and being “politically and ideologically immature”. But Mantashe, who is formerly from the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), has an ill-conceived understanding of worker control. He confuses independent thinking with obedient loyalty.

Worker control is about independent worker organisations. They are distinct from sweetheart unions that are close to employers. Today, the ANC government is the biggest employer, partially evidenced by the growth of public sector unions within COSATU. Thus, those public sector unions organising amongst the police, teachers and health workers - and who are close to the ANC - can be termed sweetheart unions. Sweetheart unions are constituencies where the bosses can go and speak badly of other progressive unions openly. This is pretty much what happened recently when Mantashe addressed police union, POPCRU, accusing other more independently minded affiliates of not practising worker control.

Making sense of the organisational realignment and correction that is taking place amongst organised workers both inside and outside of COSATU is better explained by recent research conducted by the Community Agency for Social Enquiry (C A S E) undertaken on behalf of the Forum for Public Dialogue (FPD). This national face-to-face survey of 2,052 COSATU shop stewards was generally representative of all workplace shop stewards within COSATU. The fieldwork, which was conducted between April and September 2012, also took place during the tragic and explosive events of the North West province’s platinum belt industrial action, now commonly referred to as the  “Marikana massacre”.

The survey focussed on a range of issues that spanned industrial relations, unions and politics, shop stewards’ views on society, government and the media. The report will be publicly launched by the FPD on August 29 at an event being hosted at the Gordon Institute of Business Science. The full report can be purchased from the FPD. Much in the results confirm what is already common knowledge about the state of our country, political institutions and government.

In relation to the state of the country, a major concern for workers is corruption. A staggering 91% felt that corruption was increasing in South Africa.

Insofar as their own situation is concerned, workers do perceive some improvements in their working conditions, but not nearly enough. Seventy-six percent felt that workers’ conditions had improved since 1994, but they also believe that things could have been much better.

This recent round of research is similar to a survey of shop stewards carried out in 1992, and so, is also helpful in understanding what is happening in COSATU over a period of time. In 1985, different unions with different organisational and political affiliations came together to form COSATU. Some were independent unions rooted in factory floor organising with strong elements of independence and worker control. Others were highly politicised ANC and Black Consciousness aligned unions, whilst yet others were welfarist organisations focussing on worker benefits like old age pensions. The extent to which the compromises of 1985 both within COSATU and between COSATU and its alliance partners would be able to hold for another round of organising a victory for the ANC is evident in the views of the shop stewards when asked about the state of the alliance. Slightly more than half, 53% felt that the state of the alliance was good. However, more than a third, 35%, felt that the state of the alliance was poor.

This uncertainty and anxiety of a large minority of more than one in three is borne out by the data, which shows that there are increasing levels of discomfort about the ability of the ANC to govern effectively and appoint competent managers in the public sphere. More than two out of every three, 67% of shop stewards, believe that service delivery is poor in South Africa. COSATU Shop stewards also expressed their views about the electoral system, direct representation and a workers’ party. These and other supporting data are contained in the report and will be presented at its launch.

What shop stewards are unambiguously clear about in the survey is the state of their unions and COSATU. The study confirms that the level of organisation within COSATU has drastically declined - 37% of shop stewards have never attended a meeting of COSATU. This is not new, but what is new is how far they are prepared to go in support of something different and herein lie the possibilities for some profound progressive politics in the making.

What is important about workplace shop stewards is that they are at the very coalface of the interface between capital and labour. They have the power to influence the economy directly. Secondly, given the nature of our society, they represent the poorer sections of the middleclass (employed, indebted, supporting a huge network of poorer family and community members). These are people who have just stepped onto the first rung of the ladder out of poverty and have every intention of not falling back materially. They have a keen interest in politics, government and society.

What they think and how they act really can change things profoundly because of their location, numbers and relationship to capital and society. But this also depends on the organisations that are built around supporting their views and harnessing the energy of their positions. Recent history has shown that in some countries, such as Brazil, organised workers’ direct involvement in national politics can bring about real changes in relation to poverty, unemployment and inequality. That is why it is well recognised and accepted that the ANC needs a strong and supportive COSATU to continue being in power.

This failure to organise and harness the energy of a strategic constituency is being exploited by the ANC government that has put in place policies and practices that have demobilised many important constituencies and reduced them to election fodder. Perhaps things have now gone too far and realignment that is grounded in the original founding principles of COSATU is worth revisiting.

In the end it is not about whether this or that leader would be better for COSATU, but about whether the current forms of organisation within organised labour and the political parties we have provide options for progressive politics.  

** Correction: This article was amended at 14:25 on 26 August 2013. It originally stated that the full report of the shop stewards' survey will be made available at the launch on August 29. However, a synopsis of the report will be presented. The full report can be purchased from the Forum for Public Dialogue.

Motala is executive director of CASE, the Community Agency for Social Enquiry.

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31 Aug

This Sounds Like Vitally Important Information

I'll be looking out for the full report. COSATU seems to be the only realistic bulwark against the proto-fascism of Malema & CO and the utterly corrupt and increasingly authoritarian nationalism of Zuma.

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1 Sep

More Details from Terry Bell

@MN Terry Bell writes about this survey's results in greater detail:
"What SA shop stewards really think" -