Mamokgethi Molopyane
4 minute read
7 May 2018
7:28 am

Labour needs to regain credibility

Mamokgethi Molopyane

May Day messages rang hollow.

President Cyril Ramaphosa greets workers at the Worker’s Day commemorative event at the Isaac Wolfson Stadium in Port Elizabeth, Eastern Cape, 1 May 2018. Picture: ANC Communications

Trade unions are known for their dislike of capitalism; they see it as the enemy of the workers and accuse it of exploiting them. In South Africa, trade unions are both social and political actors wielding influence over economic matters.

Lately, they’re turning out to be their own worst enemy, undone by their own hands, as they navigate the multifaceted political space they occupy.

Media reports said hundreds of workers walked out while Cosatu president Sdumo Dlamini was delivering his speech on Workers’ Day this year. This is by no means an insignificant development. It will echo throughout Cosatu, its unions and the broader labour movement. That seemingly drama-free walk out, however, may have started a conversation labour movements so desperately need: have we lost touch with the reality of our members? What are we here for? How do we revitalise ourselves?

For Cosatu, a once mighty federation, it’s time to think about what once seemed inconceivable. Is it doomed to end up archaic, irrelevant to its own members and, as such, a failure? The present is cruel, because it quickly forgets what once was and only looks at the now. History is more forgiving and tolerant: it will look at the ups and downs, the victories and losses from beginning to end.

Yes, a time will come when the inconceivable will happen, when labour movements, and not just one federation, will be obsolete and replaced by something else.

Unless unions find a way to place themselves in the broader societal issues and not just among workers, they risk being left behind.

Of course, if your life’s work is studying issues that affect the working class, you’ll object indignantly, arguing that for as long as capitalism remains dominant and is characterised by class division between those who own and those who sell their labour, unions will always be relevant.

Although some trade unions and even a federation may fall by the wayside, the complete demise is still not probable for now. The source of SA’s labour movement crisis is more self-inflicted than a result of outward influences. Saftu’s nationwide march against the national minimum wage and Workers’ Day activities reminded us that while unions may be under pressure from challenges caused by globalisation, they are equally responsible for their own suffering.

It would be mischievous to completely dismiss the not-so-hidden hand of how the ageing union members, labour force diversity and rapid advances of globalisation have had a negative impact on labour movements, not just in SA, but globally.

This has led to a state of confusion that’s rendered labour movements weak and unable to cope. After all, its inequality machine is more sophisticated and ensured the surplus value produced by labour was accrued to the few while sacrificing the low-, semi- and unskilled working class at the temple of free trade and technological advances.

What stands out is that there’s diversity in the labour movement; it’s no longer dominated by one voice. Amcu and Saftu have added what some would say were the missing voices. All three (Amcu, Cosatu and Saftu) had very interesting things to say on Workers’ Day yet they’re all at risk of becoming unappealing to workers. Their speeches are rarely followed by tangible action. In fact, it has been the opposite: those who lead labour movements are more and more confined to offices, meeting with business and government.

The last five years have been dominated by displays of a fragmented labour movement. Unions have been reduced to enterprises of ‘get-rich-quick schemers’ who have used their leadership position for personal economic gains. The missing millions from investment units of the SA Municipal Workers Union are an example.

Is this criticism fair? Yes, the SA labour movement has had significant impact in fighting for workers’ rights, but it has also grown complacent. Little wonder organisational structures of different unions are unable to withstand the decline in their respective sector or are collapsing under the weight of uncertainties as the world’s economy changes seasons. The worry for the labour movement should be how it’s still unable to respond to the challenges brought on by advancing globalisation – especially the precariousness of work and advanced technology in the workplace.

The effort labour movements put in, in contending with globalisation (and the young generation of workers who are yet to understand the relevance of unions) will shape both their programmes and message, and so will affect their future.

At present the past and historic victories of labour movements, unions themselves and even important days such as Workers’ Day holds little value to workers and might in the near future become faded memories of a distant past.

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