9 Dec 2014
The National Union of Metalworkers’ of South Africa (Numsa) is set to host a preparatory assembly for the launch of its United Front on 13 and 14 December 2014 in Johannesburg. Just over a fortnight ago, the United Front’s coordinator Dinga Sikwebu, talked about the aims and objectives of the front at an international seminar exploring the theme, “The Relationship between Labour and Civil Society in the Struggle for Social Justice”.
Delegates from as far afield as Norway, India, and Canada attended the seminar. It was co-hosted by the South African Civil Society Information Service (SACSIS) and Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA) at the Civicus International Civil Society Week at Wits University in late November 2014.
Numsa’s United Front: A New Partnership between Labour and Civil Society in South Africa
The United Front is a coalition between unions, social movements and protest organisations, which Numsa is taking the lead in establishing. Sikwebu talked about why the United Front is being established alongside Numsa’s objective to explore the establishment of a new political party.
According to Sikwebu, Numsa is concerned with the ruling ANC’s embrace of neoliberalism and feels that there's a need for a new political party that will represent workers and ordinary people more effectively. He argued that Numsa is on a journey of discovery with its new initiatives. However, he made it clear that the prospective new political party and the United Front are related, but separate entities.
The focus of this SACSIS/NPA seminar held in late November was to examine civil society and labour partnerships. In this regard, Numsa is engaging in pioneering work in South Africa. However, the concept of partnerships between labour and civil society is far from new globally and international speakers who were present at the event talked about their experiences in this regard.
A Case Study from Abroad: How a Civil Society and Labour Partnership Work in Norway
At the seminar representatives from Norway talked about labour and civil society partnerships that go back many decades in their country. Their experience proved thought provoking for delegates interested in how such partnerships work.
Johannesburg-based Trygve Augestad, Regional Director of NPA informed delegates that NPA is a civil society organisation that was established by labour unions in Norway 75 years.
His colleague from NPA’s Oslo office, Ingeborg Moa explained further that NPA is the humanitarian and solidarity organisation of the Norwegian trade union movement whose main aim is to challenge the current unjust distribution of power and resources whilst working towards a world where there is a fairer distribution of power and resources.
Moa used the opportunity to present a case study of a successful labour/civil society campaign, highlighting lessons about what worked best.
She reflected on the principles of co-operation between NPA and Norway’s biggest municipal trade union, the Norwegian Union of Municipal and General Employees, in relation to a joint campaign dedicated to solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for freedom.
She explained that union representatives from 19 Norwegian counties were chosen to become involved in the campaign. These representatives were dispatched to Palestine to learn more about the occupation and bring back information to their local unions. There is now a union representative in each county specializing on solidarity with Palestine.
Moa talked about the significance of union support in challenging companies who profit from the Palestinian occupation, elaborating on how NPA and its union partners kicked out one such company, G4S, form Norway. G4S still operates in South Africa.
G4S is a security company that is involved in a number of issues that affect the Israeli occupation. Amongst these, they provide security services to Israeli prisons where Palestinian political prisoners are held.
NPA started campaigning against their presence in Norway and at the same time campaigned to have both the Norwegian Sovereign Wealth Fund and Norwegian private banks and investors divest from the company.
NPA’s joint campaign with the trade union started in 2012 and by January 2014, G4S announced that it was selling the local division of its company to a Norwegian company and leaving the country.
Moa reflected on critical success factors of the partnership by way of highlighting important principles of co-operation, such as, getting both the union and the NGO leadership involved as well as ordinary union members who were key in bringing pressure to bear on their respective municipal employers. Also critical in the partnership’s success was using each other’s differences strategically rather than demanding that partners emulate each other.
In offering advice to others, Moa said it was vital to ensure that the people you are trying to engage or influence are aware of your potential to mobilise.
She concluded by saying that celebrating each step is important. “Plan to brag about your success because it gives your members motivation and also gives the media something to write about.”
Challenges in the Relationship between Labour and Civil Society
Also at the seminar, was Vegard Groslie Wennesland from the Norwegian trade union, Fellesforbundet, which organises people in the metal, construction, hotel and restaurant industries. Fellesforbundet is the largest union in Norway’s private sector.
Amongst other things, Fellesforbundet supports NPA’s programme in South Africa. Members of the trade union have been to South Africa to see what NPA does here. This collaboration has had both successes and challenges.
It has proven challenging to engage union members who are so far away from what is going on in South Africa. In this regard, members seem to show a preference for trade union work in other parts of the world, as they identify more easily with the work of unions, argued Wennesland. As a consequence, Fellesforbundet are now looking at a process of how to create linkages between their members and trade union work here in South Africa.
Wennesland reported that Fellesforbundet members felt quite strongly about international solidarity. For example, he referenced the union’s work in Qatar in the Middle East where the 2022 World Cup will be hosted. There are up to two million migrant workers building world cup stadiums. Fellesforbundet members are deeply concerned about their conditions, which are barely better than slave conditions. With the current rate of deaths in the construction of the stadiums, one can expect 4,000 workers to die by the time the first ball is kicked in the 2022 Qatar World Cup.
Social Justice Means Making Common Cause with the Poor in their Struggle Against Elites
In setting the context for this panel discussion, Leonard Gentle of the International Labour Research and Information Group (ILRIG) also talked about challenges that affect labour and civil society.
He identified the changing nature of the workforce as a major challenge facing trade unions. Gentle argued that there is currently a mismatch between the industrial trade union form and the actual practices of the largely casualised and informal working class of today.
The challenge, in his view, is for trade unions to make common cause with struggles where people have been involved in revolts of the poor - and to have the kind of openness to contemplate different ways of organising people who are partially employed.
According to Gentle, the global elite has been able to distance itself so much from democratic processes in every country that ordinary people all over the world appear to have very little capacity to challenge their power. The sources of poverty, inequality, violence, sexual abuse and so on can be traced in many ways to the powerlessness of the majority of people in the world today and the entrenchment of political power over us by a global elite.
In this regard, Gentle argued that the issue of inequality is a political issue about power being vested in elites. If we want to talk about social justice then we have to be talking about challenging the power vested in elites and we have to be talking about how ordinary people build popular movements of resistance against that power, he said.
Gentle contended that professional civil society is part of the problem because it works within the rules of the game of how our society is structured. In the meantime a revolt of the poor is taking place. But polite civil society either sees it as criminality or something that interferes with the smooth working of society -- or they ignore it completely.
Gentle said that civil society needed to move beyond the NGO framework. If we accept the notion that the struggle for social justice is also about the agency of ordinary people then we need to look around the world and ask where are poor people actually active in acting as agents of possible social change? How does one learn from the experiences of their struggles and in the course maybe transform what is considered to be civil society?
The power that is the cause of poverty and inequality is a political problem and we need to respond to this political problem with the concept of a new political mass movement, Gentle argued.
** This report was compiled by Fazila Farouk, executive director of SACSIS.