When Cosatu members meet for the federation’s national congress on Monday, the turmoil in Marikana will not be top of the agenda as you might expect.
Although the National Union of Mineworkers is Cosatu’s biggest affiliate with 270 536 members, which means it will have the most delegates at the congress, the continued unrest in the country’s mines sparked by the Marikana tragedy will not dominate because “it is just a symptom of what’s happening in broader society”, says the federation’s Patrick Craven.
The Num’s performance will be examined at the congress just like all other unions’, says Craven.
But business owner and labour analyst Johnny Goldberg believes the unrest on the mines is a bigger crisis than Cosatu currently admits and could have massive ramifications for the trade union federation, especially once workers are sacked because of unprotected strikes. He says opportunists have capitalised on the situation and Cosatu is “under siege”, having been unfairly blamed for the Marikana tragedy by people across the board.
It was indeed time for more introspection, said political analysts. Mthetho Xhali, a researcher at the International Labour Research and Information Group, said Cosatu had to focus on the “increasing differentiation” of the working class due to casualisation, labour broking and outsourcing instead of just taking resolutions on organising vulnerable workers.
“Simply speaking on behalf of vulnerable workers without organising them to allow vulnerable workers to shape solutions to problems that they confront, is not working. For example, to simply call for the banning of labour brokers without organising workers employed through labour brokers does not help realise the demand for the banning of labour brokers,” said Xhali.
He said the issue over who would lead the ANC at Mangaung was simply a distraction.
“Perhaps it was time to step out of the alliance. It is not justified since the ANC has cut its social spending and introduced neo-liberal policies affecting workers and were not advancing the interest of the working class.”
Political analyst Zakhele Ndlovu also called for Cosatu to define its role in the tripartite alliance at the congress. He said Cosatu leaders, general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi and president S’dumo Dlamini, had sided with different ANC factions and these differences in Cosatu would diminish its influence. He believed the trade union federation was too involved in politics and should focus more on its role in inculcating a culture of discipline among workers.
Ndlovu, who is attached to the University of KwaZulu-Natal, said while Cosatu supported the ANC it was not necessarily a reciprocal relationship. One example was that Cosatu had supported President Jacob Zuma in his campaign to become the president, but this did not have any impact on the country’s economic policy. “Much of the [perceived] influence is rhetoric.”
Cosatu, however, was not likely to change its stance on the tripartite alliance, with Craven confirming that the federation would reaffirm its commitment to the alliance to ensure that it had greater sway on government decisions and push for a strong developmental state as “many of the challenges it currently faces hark back to government’s neo-liberal approach”.
Craven said, however, that in many cases the government had already adopted good policies, but getting it to implement them had been the challenge. “There isn’t total agreement on policy. Even the government and the ANC are debating issues.” So instead chief among Cosatu’s concerns at the congress would be that not enough farmworkers, domestic workers, hotel and catering workers are unionised. At the core of all their discussions, said Craven, would be coming up with ways of fighting unemployment, poverty and inequality.
Another concern was that the education unions had fallen behind in political and trade union education for shop stewards and officials. To this end, Ndlovu said Cosatu should focus on raising productivity among its workers and that a sense of urgency was needed, especially among teachers so they could take the lead in improving education.
The contentious youth subsidy, which in May saw Cosatu and DA supporters clash in the streets of Joburg when the DA marched on Cosatu House to protest against its opposition to the plan, would also be up for discussion. For once the opposition party was on the side of the government. Last month Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe said the youth wage subsidy would be introduced after negotiations in the National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac).
However, Cosatu believes the subsidy will do more harm than good, giving firms the incentive to replace existing workers with subsidised ones and that unskilled and semi-skilled workers will be most at risk of losing their jobs. It says at least 3.7 million workers are currently vulnerable to substitution. In addition there is no guarantee that training and skills development will take place in the workplace.
Also on the agenda is youth unemployment. Cosatu believes the government should use more young people to boost service delivery, thereby solving two problems at the same time. Craven says they can be used to boost housing delivery, sanitation and public transport, while gaining skills and experience at the same time. Some of the other hot potatoes include youth unemployment, the youth wage subsidy and labour brokers.
Also on the table are a number of amendments to the Basic Conditions of Employment Act and Labour Relations Act. During public submissions to the labour parliamentary committee last month it emerged that labour brokers would be here to stay, but would face much tougher regulations in future.
Goldberg said for the first time since 1994 no agreement could be reached between unions and government and business about amendments to the two acts, and the amendments could have a direct effect on jobs and cause job losses.