“The strength of Cosatu still lies in its members”

by Jan 21, 2013Magazine

amandla-28-cosatuInterview with Eddie Webster, director of the Chris Hani Institute

Edward Webster is Professor Emeritus in the Society, Work and Development Institute (SWOP), at the University of the Witwatersrand. He was recently appointed director of the Chris Hani Institite (CHI) in Cosatu House. His goal is to develop the CHI into an independent left think tank. A! interviewed him on the 12th Cosatu conference that took place in October 2012.

Amandla! : Give us some of your impressions of the recently held Cosatu elective conference?

Eddie Webster (EW): In many ways it was a very impressive display of the power of organised labour in South Africa. However, I think behind the show of unity are challenges that were not adequately addressed.

Labour stands at the crossroads globally and locally. The shift towards growing flexibility, short-term, part- time and casual work has transformed the conditions under which labour historically has built its power.

Therefore the challenge for labour is to come up with new ways of organising, with new sources of power, and above all with an alternative to the dominant regime of neoliberal accumulation.

Despite Zwelinzima Vavi’s attempts to steer the conference in this direction, my sense is that these central challenges were deferred.

A!: What do you mean by ‘these central challenges’? What exactly was deferred?

EW: I think there are three central challenges. The first is to re-connect with the day-to-day concerns of workers at the workplace level. Cosatu retains a strong commitment to shop floor organisation, but in certain sectors that strong connection has been eroded. This was most dramatically illustrated shortly before the Congress in the conflict in the platinum mines that culminated in the Marikana massacre.

The second challenge is to develop new alliances and coalitions with movements that have emerged in working class communities around working class struggles over water, electricity, sanitation, and basic services.

A gap has opened up between organised labour and what one could call the precarious classes which leads to what I see as the third, and arguably the most difficult challenge, which is to bridge the representational gap between organised labour and the growing number of marginalised workers. This includes not only farm and domestic workers but also the growing numbers in the low wage service sector.

The challenge is building organisation amongst these workers, and I would here include those working in what people have called the informal economy: self-employed street vendors, the self-employed proletariat working, for instance, in clothing sweatshops at home in the townships and the inner city. They are what Guy Standing has called a ‘precariat’: workers without benefits or security of tenure, who work long hours with low wages.

This growing number of workers falls outside both the regulatory framework of the state and the organising structures of the labour movement. Unless these workers find a voice within the labour movement, I see organised labour being left representing only the better-off, socially-mobile layers of the work force.

A! : Could you explain what you mean by the dominant regime of neoliberal accumulation?

EW: I mean finance driven globalisation, where inequality has widened, and increasingly trade union leaders are finding it difficult to meet workers’ expectations, including not only a living wage but also the basic cost of social reproduction: expectations of access to clean water, safe housing, electricity, education and healthcare.

Migrant labour, for example, has created a double burden on working people who on the one hand are trying to maintain a rural family, while on the other sustain another in informal settlements.

That crisis of social reproduction was at the heart of the disputes in the platinum belt and the inability of unions to respond to workers’ demands at Marikana.

In other countries too – in Argentina, Russia, China and India, all countries that have experienced rapid exposure of previously protected economies to global competition and globalisation – much of the collective action is of a largely spontaneous kind, where workers are responding outside the collective bargaining system.

Instead of channeling their grievances through the existing institutions, they take to the streets, blocking the roads.

What we’re seeing emerge in the context of neoliberal globalisation is the self-activity of workers and the difficulties this is creating for trade unions and the collective bargaining process.

The actions that have taken place in Rustenburg over this year have not been led by trade unions, they have been led by informal worker leaders who articulated their fellow workers’ grievances.

A! : Is there a crisis in the unions?

EW: We have a crisis in a particular kind of unionism not in the idea of unions. What we are faced with is a situation where the traditional notions of the trade union are not adequately responding to a dramatically changed labour force.

The idea, historically, of solidarity amongst a homogenous group of workers sharing a similar background, colour, and gender is no longer appropriate to the modern workplace. Increasingly we are now dealing with diversity. For example, the growing number of women working underground in gold mines, the growing numbers of workers who work from home. I cannot assume a workforce with common interest arising from homogeneity.

What is required is recognition of difference and the need to build a different kind of solidarity. Questions of sexual preference and sexual identity have also come to the fore. In Sao Paolo, Brazil, there is an annual march of 300,000 workers – led by unions – around the gay and lesbian movement.

What I am suggesting here is the need to construct a different kind of workplace solidarity in the age of neoliberalism.

A! : Is this our Arab Spring moment?

EW: We had our Arab Spring in 1973 when we saw spontaneous collective action at the heart of an authoritarian regime. What has happened here, between 1973 and Marikana, is something that is universal in trade unions and organisations and that is the tendency towards bureaucracy and of leadership becoming distanced from ordinary workers.

Over a century ago, the German sociologist Robert Michels called this the iron law of oligarchy. I don’t think it’s an iron law, but it is a tendency. And there are countervailing tendencies that come from below, from members, when unions’ promises are not being met.

That’s what’s happening here in South Africa. It’s a demand for organisations to respond to the basic needs of their members.

A! : Zwelinzima Vavi delivered a very critical, honest and frank political report to the Conference.

EW: I think it was a remarkable document and a great credit to Cosatu that it is able to publicly reflect on its own weaknesses. This level of transparency is unusual. I think that it brought out the contradictions that are contained within the federation’s alliance with the governing party. But from its very conception, Cosatu has been a contested federation and that contest has been around its relationship to the African National Congress.

What is possibly more interesting is that the membership is making it quite clear that they want to retain the kind of critical independence that Vavi articulates and that they do not want to be the transmission belt of the governing party or any other political party.

In that sense Cosatu remains unique in post-colonial Africa, as an independent organisation with its own funding, its own political culture and accountability, and its own distinct leadership. Whether this contradictory relationship can be retained is difficult to predict.

My sense is that the strength of Cosatu still lies with its members and in some ways the most significant thing about the Congress was the continuing support for an independent worker leader such as Vavi.

A! : What lies ahead for Vavi, given the opposition from some affiliates?

A: There are divisions within Cosatu as there would be in any organisation.

EW: It was suggested in the Mail & Guardian newspaper after the conference that Vavi was now a lame duck leader. But I would be surprised if he fails to win broader support for his leadership, because this is a time in which the trade unions have been put on the back foot and clearly have to prioritise getting back to basics. And the members have made clear that the future of Cosatu depends on that.

So while there may be differences over the alliance with the ANC, I think Cosatu will hold together and Vavi will win support in doing so.

A! : We saw in the workers’ survey that workers felt violence was often the only way they feel bosses hear their demands? What is your view on this issue?

EW: I think that violence during strikes was a feature of the apartheid period. What puzzles me is its persistence in spite of the fact that we have the right to strike and picket.

The answer to that puzzle lies in the fact that neither labour market institutions nor local government structures are not adequately responding to workers’ basic needs. The result is that they feel the only language government and bosses understand is violence.

But clearly the tradition of labour as a social force is one of non-violence. A strike is a non-violent action, a picket is a moral appeal to fellow workers to stand together. So where we have this pattern of violence it is counter to the values of the labour movement and points towards a need to revisit our labour market institutions.

A! : What is the way forward? Are you optimistic Cosatu will remain the voice of workers?

EW: If you look at our history, you will see that whenever there have been major strikes, it has led to a reconfiguration of politics.

The 1922 white miners’ strike led to an alliance between Afrikaner nationalism and white labour. The 1946 mineworkers’ strike led to a realignment of the ANC and black labour. The 1973 strikes led to the emergence of an independent workers’ movement.

I think that Marikana is another political crossroads for South Africa. I think it is going to lead to a process of political realignment. What precise direction this will take and how soon it will happen must be left to another occasion.

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