The long journey to recover and rebuild the unions has started

by Jun 27, 2022Amandla Editorial

THE FIGHTBACK HAS BEGUN, BUT it will be a long road. In our last editorial we described how the labour movement has degenerated. How its leadership has become largely detached from the members. And how they have become corrupted by the lure of material benefits, in the form of huge salaries, kickbacks from service providers and union investment companies.

The trade union movement is weak, especially in the private sector. Informalisation and mass unemployment have created high levels of insecurity and disorganisation. These are key factors which have affected militancy, consciousness and organisation. Functionaries and lawyers have come to substitute for shopfloor organising. And they have given rise to a self-seeking, bureaucratised labour movement, with a leadership intent on staying in power at all costs.

In the last weeks there have been important developments. Firstly, the Numsa National Executive Committee took the extraordinary step of suspending and charging elected Regional leaders, including two Regional Secretaries and two Regional Chairpersons. And secondly, there was a huge struggle for control of Saftu, the federation which Numsa was instrumental in setting up and which its leadership has recently seemed intent on destroying.

Drama at Saftu Congress
The drama at the Saftu Congress was played out for all to see. Numsa led a vicious attack on the General Secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi. Numsa delegates toyi-toyied in front of the front table, singing and gesticulating that he must go. The intention was to win control of Saftu and subordinate it to Numsa’s political objective – the endorsement of the Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party. And it turned out that the Numsa delegation was in fact two delegations. At one point, when a delegate from what became known as Numsa 2 tried to speak, delegates from Numsa 1 tried to physically prevent him. There were reports of threats from within the Numsa delegation.

The majority-female leadership of SAFTU that was elected is clearly an important moment for the trade union movement. Nevertheless, divisions remain and the federation is financially struggling.

In the end, there were two nominations from Numsa for president. And the candidate of the Numsa leadership, the previous president Mac Chavalala, was defeated by the current 2nd Deputy President of Numsa, Ruth Ntlokotse. The majority-female leadership of Saftu that was elected is clearly an important moment for the trade union movement. In addition, a compromise was reached between the competing slates at the Congress, creating a better environment for building Saftu. Nevertheless, divisions remain and the federation is financially struggling. The new leadership will need to follow through on the resolution to rebuild Saftu from the ground up, starting with residential-based Locals, if Saftu is to be rescued. And plans for a three-day strike and occupation of the main cities and towns of the country will require a Numsa committed to Saftu’s programme of action and alliance with other components of the labour movement.

Numsa deeply split
The struggle at Saftu indicated the deep divisions in Numsa. The comrades who have been suspended from Numsa are all recently re-elected to their positions, through the votes of members, in Regional Congresses. For the leadership of other regions to vote to suspend them is an extraordinary step.

And their sin? To ask too many questions about the Numsa Investment Company. If it wasn’t clear before, it is clear now which is the dog and which is the tail between the union and its investment company.

A structural not a personal problem

And what is also clear is that this is not an individual matter. There is no single devil in this story. The Numsa General Secretary may lead the degeneration, but he has many willing followers. The leaderships of a majority of Numsa regions supported him. This is the bureaucracy we are talking about – a layer of leaders who gain enough from their leadership to trample on the interests of their members. That is what has to be broken.

And that is why, when Numsa members put together a rank-and-file manifesto of their vision of the Numsa they want, one of their top commitments was to open a discussion in the union on limiting the term of office bearers. We have to break the cycle in which comrades are elected to leadership and become comfortable with their new lifestyle, to the point where they are prepared to fight to safeguard it. With the investment companies providing logistical and financial support.

A manifesto to restore and revive Numsa
This manifesto is a very welcome contribution in the struggle to recover Numsa. For too long, political struggles in unions have been conducted underground, in secret caucuses and hidden meetings. Part of this is an understandable fear of Retaliation – as has already happened in Numsa. But it is an unhealthy political culture. It is a political culture which weaponises a corrupted version of “democratic centralism” to silence any views except those of the dominant leadership faction.

It is essential for democracy and worker control that union members are asked to elect a leadership based on clear commitments, not on personalities. Just as in other union movements, members should be allowed to organise around different platforms, perspectives and strategies.

So what are the commitments in this manifesto?
They call it a 12-point plan for the union:

  1. Restore tolerance of different views in the union.
  2. Restore democracy, accountability and worker control and promote open debate.
  3. Respect the union’s policies and constitution.
  4. Promote debate in Numsa on the issue that is dividing Saftu – support for the SRWP or build a mass-based, broad working-class movement for socialism. Revive the United Front and rebuild Saftu
  5.  Prioritise education
  6. Rebuild plant-level collective bargaining and strengthen centralised bargaining.
  7. Restore the independence of the gender and youth structures and prioritise the struggle against patriarchy and sexual abuse.
  8. Remove the bureaucracy from the union by discussing limitation of Office Bearers’ term of office; make full-time shop stewards account to their members and the union; give some financial autonomy to regions and locals and ensure equitable expenditure of union resources.
  9. Audit the investment company; get back the R132 million the NIC owes the union; start a debate in the union about whether the investment company should continue.
  10. Finalise the results of the 2019 Policy Conference which have never been brought to a national constitutional structure.
  11. Control the union’s legal expenditure which now accounts for 32% of the union’s expenditure after payroll.
  12. Mobilise and campaign to rebuild the manufacturing sector.

During the Sibanye-Stillwater strike, an extraordinary level of unity was achieved by Amcu and Num workers. It got to the point that these workers coined the term Numcu for the united way in which the strike was organised.

A platform to restore and revive the union movement
Not only is this a platform around which to mobilise for the upcoming Numsa Congress in July. It also contains the seeds of a platform to rebuild the union movement from below.

Most important is the emphasis on undermining the material basis for the bureaucracy: limit terms of office; make sure that the union’s resources are spent equitably, not on exorbitant salaries of senior leadership and excessive legal fees; and allow some financial autonomy for regions and locals. Then, undermine a key material base for corruption in the union: deal with investment companies.

And restore a tolerant democracy. Once the material basis for the bureaucracy dissolves, it becomes much easier to restore democracy. People no longer have positions, lifestyle and money riding on winning. We called for a new vision and practice for the labour movement, and the beginnings of such a vision has started to emerge.

Numcu the way forward
A living example of this new practice was the way the recent strike at Sibanye Stillwater was conducted. During the strike, an extraordinary level of unity was achieved by Amcu and Num workers. It got to the point that these workers coined the term Numcu for the united way in which the strike was organised. Mandates for negotiations were developed in central mass meetings of Amcu and Num members. When union leaders addressed mass meetings, they were recognised as speaking on behalf of both unions. Amcu members joined and were welcomed by their Num comrades on the Num buses which went to the Cosatu May Day rally in Rustenburg.

During the workers’ encampment at the Union Buildings, their unity was symbolised by workers wearing T-shirts with the logos of both unions. The workers did not win all that they were demanding from the intransigent, union-busting employer. But the possibilities for this level of unity to achieve even more significant gains for workers in the coming platiNum wage negotiations are very high.

Much organisational and political work remains to be done. But some green shoots are starting to be visible.

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