Opportunity knocks with crumbling of reactionary Cosatu – Business Day, 17 November 2014

The crumbling of the Cosatu comes not a moment too soon. In a way this is a pity, because the union movement that gave birth to Cosatu and other unions wrote one of the most inspiring chapters of SA’s history in the apartheid era.

THE crumbling of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) comes not a moment too soon. In a way this is a pity, because the union movement that gave birth to Cosatu and other unions wrote one of the most inspiring chapters of SA’s history in the apartheid era.

Bannings in the 1950s and 1960s had destroyed black unions. But a new movement got going in the early 1970s, and this time round, bannings and other attempts at suppression failed. African workers had begun climbing the jobs ladder, so the weapon of mass dismissal that employers used against unions was blunted because workers could not be replaced as easily as in the past.

Black unions had also established strong factory-floor structures that kept the leadership accountable to the members. There were plenty of strikes, but little of the violence against nonstrikers that has led to almost 190 killings in strikes in the Cosatu era (excluding workers shot by the police at Marikana in 2012).

Throughout the 1970s and into the early 1980s, by which time unions had signed 200 recognition agreements with companies all over the country, the unions occupied the moral high ground. This helped them overcome the hostility of the government, business and organised white labour. Another ingredient of success was that most unions were wary of subordinating themselves to the demands of political organisations.

All this changed in 1985, when the once independent Federation of South African Trade Unions rebranded itself as Cosatu and threw in its lot with the African National Congress (ANC) and the South African Communist Party (SACP). The result has been destructive.

Cosatu mouths revolutionary platitudes, but it has become one of the most reactionary forces on the political scene. At times it seems even more reactionary than some of the white unions of the 1970s. Most blocked the employment of blacks in skilled jobs. But they eventually relented when white skills shortages became so serious that white unions had little choice but to acquiesce in the erosion of the industrial colour bar to keep the economy growing.

Today, Cosatu vociferously opposes relaxation of our rigid labour law. Yet without this, SA has no hope whatsoever of dealing with our high unemployment levels. Cosatu sheds crocodile tears about unemployment but uses its alliance with the ANC and the SACP to entrench the position of its members and keep the jobless out of the labour market. One of its affiliates, the South African Democratic Teachers Union, is a major stumbling block to desperately needed reform of the schooling system.

With the crumbling of Cosatu, the way is open for the ANC to press ahead with comprehensive liberalisation of the country’s industrial relations system — which works to the advantage of 3.72-million union members and the disadvantage of 8.33-million unemployed.

Tragically, the opportunity for reform is likely to be missed. The ANC is quite simply devoid of either the leadership or the intellectual capacity to contemplate the kinds of reforms needed to shift the balance of labour law towards the unemployed.

Business is no better. Herman Mashaba is challenging key aspects of labour law. The National Employers Association of SA is challenging the undemocratic bargaining council system. A few clothing factories will no doubt continue to defy that system. To the fury of Cosatu, labour brokers are placing thousands in jobs. These brave exceptions aside, business lacks both leadership and courage to push for labour law liberalisation.

In the meantime, a crumbling Cosatu might have the last laugh as the ANC puts through the national minimum wage it has always wanted.

• Kane-Berman is a consultant at the South African Institute of Race Relations

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