After last week’s Cosatu strike against labour brokers and e-tolling the question of the future of the relationship between the Cosatu and the ANC has again consumed public debate.

I have quickly jotted down some of the issues as I see them and how I think the situation might play out in the longer term (and apologies for scruffiness – I am under the whip):

It is necessary to understand what these organisations are and how they differ – before we think about what they might do

Cosatu is a federation of trade unions (trades union, actually … but that always sounds a little pompous) and therefore represents employed workers while the ANC is currently the ruling political party in this country and as such represents a much broader set of interests, especially, in this case, the unemployed and business – and is additionally obliged to balance these interests against each other.

It is obvious why Cosatu must oppose labour brokers. Cosatu has spent considerable energy in influencing the ANC to structure the labour market in a way that strengthens it’s cartel-like hold on the supply of labour. Labour brokers are a way in which the unemployed and potential employers can circumvent some of the strictures of the regulatory environment. Labour brokers have helped create a shadow duality in the market – and have thus caused Cosatu to lose some control over supply.

Another way of saying this …. If you have one set of workers that are employed with the full  protections and benefits afforded them by legal and regulatory structuring of the labour market and another set who are essentially desperate enough to work for less money and with less job security, then those who cannot find a place in the first set have the option of joining the second set – and employers who cannot afford to shop in the first set will shop in the second … meaning Cosatu loses control over supply.

Cosatu argues that if you make the existence of the ‘second set’ illegal it will force employers to shop in the ‘first set’ – thereby creating permanent ‘quality jobs’.

The eternal wrangle is that most economists and several ANC thinkers believe that what actually would happen (and is happening) is employers, at some difficult to determine point, decide that the costs and hassles of only having the ‘first set’ to shop in incentivises them to “shop elsewhere” – shift parts of the labour process to other countries where labour protections are less onerous on the employer, or they mechanise the labour process – hence the structural nature of our unemployment.

The ANC, on the other hand, is under the whip to create more employment – and that pressure comes directly from the unemployed. The youth wage subsidy scheme was correctly understood by Cosatu to be seen as a threatening – to its interests – attempt to create duality through the back door. The ANC agrees with Cosatu that many labour brokers are guilty of the worst excesses of free market exploitation, but propose to remedy the situation by regulating the labour brokers more carefully … not removing them completely from the market.

But what about the e-tolling?

Essentially the e-tolling issue was serendipitous timing for Cosatu. Completely separate disputes occurred in Nedlac over e-tolling and labour brokers so Cosatu had the right to declare protest strikes and marches under section 77 (1) (d) of the Labour Relations Act against either, neither or both issues – they did both. Essentially the melding of the actions allowed Cosatu to win a few class allies to its cause of opposing labour brokers. Not that e-tolling is not genuinely hated by Cosatu and the federation believes that its members will be worst effected … which should give you an insight into just who Cosatu’s members are and the difference between them and the marginalised and unemployed majority who would invariably use un-tolled public transport (mostly taxis) or travel on shank’s marewhich takes another kind of toll entirely.

Cosatu and Zuma

Cosatu clearly backed Zuma against Mbeki because it believed either that Zuma would be beholden to it and therefore allow it more policy access (which I think has essentially been true) … or just that Mbeki was a more dangerous enemy of Cosatu’s narrow agenda (something I also believe was true). There can be no argument that Zuma was more likely to hold ideological or policy agendas that were essentially closer to Cosatu’s. To my mind Cosatu was opportunistic and unprincipled – whichever way you spin it – in backing someone so clearly hell-bent on extending his control over patronage networks and making his family and friends fabulously wealthy.

One way to understand what is happening in Cosatu now is that one faction is trying to withdraw from the strategy because the Nkandla chickens are coming home to roosts, while the other faction is sticking to its guns.

I think, however, that both factions have realised that they have put too much energy into influencing national politics in the ANC and not enough energy into building up the federation’s grass-roots and factory-floor structures, membership and leadership. Trade unionism is on retreat globally – because of the globalisation of the labour market – and Cosatu is worried about not having stuck to its knitting (sorry for all the awful clichés here, but I am in something of a hurry.)

Cosatu has always had an ambiguous relationship with the ‘political movements’ – be those the United Democratic Front, Azapo or the ANC … perhaps even Inkatha should be included here. When Cosatu was established in 1985 out of the unions that had made up Fosatu (the Federation of South African Trade Unions) it immediately inherited the main debates and factions that had characterised trade unionism for years in South Africa.

The divisions centred around:

  1. whether to register and thereby co-operate with the Apartheid state
  2. whether white workers could be organised into progressive unions
  3. the desirability of general unions versus industry based unions
  4. ‘workerists’ versus ‘populists’ – which boiled down to a debate about whether unions should be involved in national politics and be in a formal relationship with the national political movements; whether they would be sucked into the agenda of those political movements and should therefore focus instead on ‘shop floor’ issues and maximum worker unity.

From the start the National Union of Mineworkers was a pro-ANC/SACP bastion within Cosatu and the National Union of Metal Workers of South Africa, formed out of at least 6 other unions, came to represent a position more cautious and suspicious of the political movements.

Thus we have an emerging consensus in the press that Zwelinzima Vavi, Irvin Jim and the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) have upped the ante against Zuma and ‘corrupt ANC leaders” while an SACP aligned faction including Cosatu president Sidumo Dlamini and the powerful National Union of Mineworkers is firmly behind Zuma.

Currently Cosatu seems – to my mind – to have finessed an internal agreement between its factions to back Zuma for re-election at Mangaung in exchange for a more vigorous opposition to corruption generally in the ANC and to campaign for a more worker friendly ANC NEC to emerge out of Mangaung.

Ahead  … (remember ‘tomorrow’ is the country from which no-one has ever returned … so take this all with the appropriate pinch of salt):
  1. The struggle will continue. Cosatu has fought with the ANC since 1994 and strong suspicions existed between much of the trade union movement and the ANC before that. This is normal, natural and appropriate given the diverging interests of the people represented by each organisation. The relationship has always contained the seeds of its future breakdown.
  2. Zwelinzima Vavi’s faction is most similar to a combination of European social democrats, labour parties and green parties. It is radical and anti-capitalist, but it is also modern, deeply opposed to corruption and authoritarianism, has consistently taken the right line on Zimbabwe and HIV/AIDS, is protective of the constitution and freedom of speech and is most likely to seek alliances with anti-ANC ‘civil society’ groups over single issue campaigns (right to know, freedom of speech, corruption, HIV/AIDS etc.)
  3. The tension is inbuilt … the ANC will never give into Cosatu’s full set of demands – if anything it will go the other way – and Cosatu will  never stop making the demands, louder and louder.
  4. At some future time – probably way down the road –  the Numsa faction will ally itself with those attempting to organise the constituency the ANC Youth League aspires to represent and break out of the ruling alliance to form a new left opposition. For the foreseeable future (and remember none of the future is actually foreseeable) the advantages of staying in the alliance with the ANC outwieghs the losses and gains that would be realised by setting off on their own.
  5. The SACP will increasingly concern itself with trying to mediate the relationship between Cosatu and the ANC – which effectively means it will support the Num faction or tendency in Cosatu. This is not a basis upon which a political party can sustain itself. The SACP would have to split from the ANC and fight elections on its own – essentially capture the space that a Numsa/ANCYL type breakaway might have occupied – if it was to grow and prosper. I don’t think this will happen and therefore I think the SACP will be gradually squeezed into irrelevance.
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