Labour rights clash: Cosatu vs DA – Sara Gon - Biznews

Cosatu, one of the ANC’s tripartite alliance partners, says that the DA is a hard sell to its membership.

In a spirited critique, Cosatu lambasts the DA, alleging it undermines workers’ rights by opposing a minimum wage and labour laws. Cosatu’s Matthew Parks accuses the DA of hostility towards workers, calling their policies akin to slavery. In response, the DA argues for flexibility in wage laws to combat unemployment, sparking a fiery debate on economic policy. Amidst ideological clashes, the future of South African labour rights hangs in the balance, caught between progressive ideals and pragmatic economic reform.

Sara Gon

Cosatu, one of the ANC’s tripartite alliance partners, says that the DA is a hard sell to its membership.

Acting spokesman for Cosatu Matthew Parks is quoted as saying that the DA is going to “scrap all the labour laws, they are opposed to a minimum wage”.

He told the Sunday Times: “We appreciate that the DA is being honest about how it hates workers and how it doesn’t want to see them earn a living wage. A farmworker wanting simply to be able to buy a loaf of bread and pay for transport, buy electricity and feed his children – that they have a problem with. The DA hates workers and wants them to be treated like slaves.”

Oh, honestly!

The DA doesn’t propose simply phasing out the minimum wage, but says that “a dogmatic commitment to minimum wage policies and laws [will] lock South Africans out of the labour market, prioritise the interests of unions above the unemployed, and protect uncompetitive local industries”.

It points out that South Africa’s national minimum wage is more than three times the national upper-bound poverty line. Such a high minimum wage keeps people unemployed.

The DA proposes issuing a certificate to people between 18 and 35 who have been unemployed for a year or more, entitling them to be exempted from sectoral wage agreements. 

This would give them two years during which they could enter employment at a wage below the sectoral minimum wage.

Collective bargaining
The DA’s policy also proposes to exempt small, medium and micro-enterprises from collective bargaining agreements to which they were not a party.

One could characterise this interpretation, other than ‘ungenerous’ as the sort of tantrum-like, huffy views that Cosatu and other leftwing unions have impressed upon its membership. Everything must be interpreted in terms of the eternal suffering that the industrial revolution wrought upon the working class, romanticised in extremis by Lenin and his successors.

Maybe the DA’s approach won’t work, but to deny individual agency and choice, which is core to the dogma of the Left, is a crime of ANC governance. Anyway, it is surely the core business of unions to recruit such employees and use its bargaining power to improve said employees’ conditions of employment?

The terminology used by the left is so clichéd and dense that one can just envision in one’s mind’s eye poor miners walking stooped, trudging through the depths of the earth, with their canaries in their cages to warn them of noxious gases.

This is not to diminish the experience of labourers today who work in tough physical conditions. Nor is it to diminish workers who have suffered from diseases and injuries caused at or by a workplace.

Role of the union movement
However, given that not everyone will be in a position to work in a healthy, absolutely safe and/or comfortable environment, the very role of the union movement is to pressure employers into ameliorating working conditions.

Cosatu and the big employers made monumental strides in improving working conditions since the Wiehahn Commission, established in 1977, recommended to the Nationalist government the legal necessity of recognising black employees and their unions.

Recognising black unions and their right to represent their members for these very reasons was key to the improvement of conditions of employment which accorded with international standards.

Cosatu became the biggest union federation and, allied to the ANC and with the United Democratic Front in the early 1990s, it became one of the foremost players in the country’s transition to democracy. Effectively, Cosatu played a role beyond its significance as worker representative by filling the vacuum left by the then still-banned ANC.

The industrial relations and labour law regime now governing employment in South Africa is world class. However, since our labour law was codified by the alliance, the ‘One Industry, One Union’ idea came to benefit Cosatu and its member unions. This had been extrapolated from the idea of ‘One Nation – One Federation’ decided at Cosatu’s inaugural congress in 1985.

All attempts to create ‘one nation, one federation’ (Cosatu) and ‘one industry, one union’ (Cosatu unions) failed.

“Ideological outlooks”
According to Karl Cloete, former Deputy General Secretary of the National Union of Metal Workers of South Africa (Numsa): “It could well be that political alliances, ideological outlooks, organisational form and content, different administrative traditions and cultures kept the many different trade union federations from bringing about the unity of organised and unorganised workers in the formal and informal economies”. 

That was harshly demonstrated at a special congress in December 2013. Numsa withdrew support from the ANC and SACP and called for an “alternative movement of the working class”. It stated that it would not endorse any political party in the 2014 South African general election.

It called for Cosatu to break away from the Tripartite Alliance and form a front of left-wing forces similar to the UDF.

A special conference in 2014 explored the possibility of establishing a new workers’ socialist party. NUMSA remained affiliated to Cosatu until November 2014, although it ceased its R800 000 monthly subscription fee payments to the federation. 

In December 2013, Numsa had said it would also stop paying to the SACP its contributions, which had been R1-million a year. 

It also called for the resignation of Jacob Zuma as President of South Africa. The union distanced itself from the Economic Freedom Fighters over concerns about corruption, authoritarianism and a limited conception of anti-capitalism.

On 8 November 2014, Cosatu’s Central Executive Committee (CEC) voted 33–24 in favour of expelling NUMSA. After the vote, a row occurred between Cosatu president, Sdumo Dlamini, and Zwelinzima Vavi, Numsa’s general secretary: the former called for Numsa CEC delegates to leave the meeting; the latter said that Cosatu’s constitution required NUMSA’s expulsion to be committed to writing before it became valid.

Even more heated
This row became even more heated until Numsa’s delegates walked out and its secretary-general, Irvin Jim, announced the union’s expulsion to journalists waiting outside Cosatu House.

In 2015 Cosatu’s central executive committee (CEC) fired Zwelinzima Vavi as its general secretary. He had been suspended, inter alia, for having an affair with a junior employee, and for alleged irregularities in the selling and buying of Cosatu headquarters, and his “failure to fulfill his duties as secretary”.

Vavi became the founder of the South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu) in 2017. It became the second largest federation after Cosatu, with 21 affiliate unions and 800,000 members, including Numsa and its 328,827 members.

The above is just a description of the schisms within Cosatu, never mind the various ideological differences, from right to left, of other unions and federations, which have always been a feature of South African unionism.

The ideological range of federations include Cosatu, Saftu (workerist), FEDUSA (centrist) and NACTU (black consciousness). 

The idea of “One Industry – One Federation” was a naïve non-starter for the ANC and Cosatu. South African politics and ideology was never homogenous. Our recent elections support that view.

Cosatu has ended up being mostly a public sector federation. It haemorrhaged many of the private sector unions.

Dropping all the time
Membership figures are dropping all the time with the implosion of the economy as there is, essentially, no growth.

Cloete regarded as problematic in this equation that the unemployed were “hardly mentioned as a component part of the unity of workers”.The “real-life experience of workers who have been retrenched or dismissed from companies is that they are abandoned by their unions, perhaps because they no longer contribute subscriptions to the coffers of their former unions”.

This is where reality hits the road, to mix metaphors. When union members cease to pay their union dues they cease to become members, and so too, when they cease to be employed, they cease to be eligible to become members. This is irrespective of the ideology that has purported to serve the ‘worker’ as an ideological class.

A ‘worker’ can only become a union member once he/she becomes an employee – irrespective of whether the employer is in the public or private sector.

The union movement cannot claim to represent the unemployed: it can assist them, but until businesses are created, only people who are employed by those businesses become eligible for union membership.

Unionism was not a Marxist invention. Arguably, it isn’t even compatible with Marxist political systems. Trade unions, independent or otherwise, should become redundant in a communist society. The reality is that they never will; utopia is a chimera.

Unionism came into being with the evolution of the industrial revolution in the UK and then in the USA.

Destruction of the economy
And for all the reasons for the destruction of the economy by the ANC and its tripartite alliance, employment in the public sector is likely, at best, to become stagnant and is more likely to fall.

The ‘bad’ news is that significant employment, which is the country’s most pressing need, will happen in the private sector. And it will only happen if the DA manages to persuade the ANC to adopt, if not accept, that capitalism works.

If this happens, or at least happens to some reasonable extent, local and foreign investors will inject money into the economy and employment will rise. If employment rises, then Cosatu and its member unions can gain more members and earn more membership fees. It’s as simple as that.

Margaret Thatcher said: “The problem with socialism is that you eventually run out of other people’s money”. She may have been the devil incarnate to the Left, but it’s the socialist ANC (and its alliance partners) who have run out of our money. So, socialists have nothing to work with.

They can print money in terms of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). One of the significant criticisms is that the consequences are inflationary: unevenly rising prices inevitably reduce the purchasing power of some consumers, which erodes real income. This is the single biggest cost of inflation. Inflation also distorts purchasing power over time for recipients and payers of fixed interest rates.

“Pickled in aspic”
But the “pickled in aspic” left wing, with its ideology and associated convoluted and anachronistic language is just not fit for purpose.

Now is the time to inject some realpolitik into Matthew Parks’s and Cosatu’s hidebound ideology. It’s time for a choice: modernise for a digital world or sink into 19th century irrelevancy.

Cosatu should embrace free markets: its member unions can only stand to benefit from actual economic growth. As the Treasury stated this year, GDP growth has averaged only 0.8 per cent since 2012, “a rate of economic growth that is insufficient to address high levels of unemployment and poverty”.

If Cosatu really wants to see the scourge of our unemployment decrease, while creating a whole new coterie of potential union members, it should cross over to the “dark side”, embrace free market ideas, and come into the light!    

Sara Gon is a Head of Strategic Engagement at the IRR

This article was first published on the Daily Friend.