Let’s be clear here. Cosatu might oppose unemployment, but that is an abstraction and Cosatu’s opposition is largely symbolic and ineffectual.

It is the interests and strivings of the unemployed themselves that Cosatu actively works to counter.

It’s obvious really. Cosatu is a federation of trade unions. A trade union is the representative of employed people, as employed people. As such the collective interests of employed people (the sellers of labour) is to get the best deal – in terms of wages and working conditions – from the employer (the buyer of labour).

As in any market, if the seller can control the supply of the good he or she can command the price and the terms of the deal.

But how to control the supply of labour in a situation of high unemployment?  By locking the unemployed out of the labour market!  Cosatu strives – and has generally succeeded – to deny the unemployed and the potential work giver access to each other.

Opposition to labour brokers, calls for increases in the minimum wage and a range of compulsory regulated collective bargaining processes have one thing in common: they lock in the interests of those already inside the system. They work together to make it either costly or illegal for the potential work giver to look beyond the pool of Cosatu members (i.e. the formally employed) for work seekers ( i.e. the formally unemployed).

The interest of the unemployed is to find work. The various protections and minimum wage and bargaining agreements and elaborate benefit schemes for those already in the system are of no interest to the unemployed who benefit nothing from these goods. In fact these “goods” impose a huge cost pressure on the work giver such that he or she will do everything possible to keep employment to a minimum.

Cosatu’s 10th annual congress closed this last week to much self-congratulation, much of it deserved.  Trade unions have undoubtedly saved capitalism from itself. The logic of the individual capitalist is to pay as little as possible (in wages and working conditions). It is only by the banding together of workers and the advancing of their collective interests (against the individual employer, through strikes and boycotts, and within the state and legislature itself) that working conditions have evolved into the human rights compliant work culture of modern capitalism.

But we forget at our peril that Cosatu represents a special interest group not coterminous with the national interest or the interests of all citizens. In important ways some of Cosatu’s interests are inherently opposed to the national interest.

Attempting to represent the national interest is the job of  the ruling party. Ruling parties can be captured by special interest groups, groups whose interests are at odds with the nation as a whole. Cosatu sometimes crows like it has successfully captured the ruling party. I argue here and here why I believe Cosatu has bitten off more than it can chew and already its crowing, to my ears anyway, is a hollow echo.

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