Talking about the future

Numsa President, Mtutuzeli Tom, reflects on challenges that Numsa faces today and in the future. 

If you compare the early days of Numsa to now, what are the big challenges that face Numsa now?

In the past, we relied on communities to support our struggles. There is a division now. We need to revive that vibrancy and dynamism which made us different from other trade union movements across the world. When we collect demands we must make sure that our demands accommodate the unemployed and the youth. If we can ensure that all trade unions and the federation endorse that, then it will assist us in bringing back that community support.

Could the other problem be the massive unemployment out there? That the youth never get into the labour market and so view trade unions as not being in their interest?

It's not just that. For example, we used to campaign around the banning of overtime. Right now, there is excessive overtime across the sectors of the union. In the past we boycotted overtime. Now it's not the case. If we want to get support from the unemployed, we must struggle against overtime so we can open up opportunities for them to be employed – they will be the beneficiaries and then they will support workers' struggles.

Casualisation is another issue that if we take up seriously, will help shift the support to trade unions. Currently casual jobs are not quality jobs. For both these issues – overtime and casualisation – we have to revive the living wage campaign co-ordinated by Cosatu.

What other issues are different from organising in the 1980s?

Organising the ‘new workers' is a challenge. Their literacy levels are higher, these workers are thinking about the future, they want to climb the ladder, they want to improve their status. We need to look at their needs and aspirations. But we must also balance the rich history of the older workers with these new workers. It is not easy, that section of the workforce is not as vocal as the new one. The new ones are looking at improving and advancing themselves. That is the challenge.

We have to strike a balance so that one section doesn't feel marginalised and isolated. We must get the message through to workers that collectively they can achieve things, not individually.

Another big difference is that now, when white workers start in the factory, they no longer go and become quality controllers and artisans, they start with us on the line. They feel the speed of the line, when it drifts, all of us drift. They don't see themselves as different from other workers now. That's why white workers are joining the union.

What about organisations like Legal Wise, the Scorpions, how do we deal with the shift of members to them?

When it comes to labour related matters, trade unions can cope with those issues. But evictions, criminal acts, divorces – these are things that currently trade unions cannot assist members with.

We need to develop guidelines to say – ‘we can assist you up to here, after that, you must go here and there for assistance'. But even then, where does the one line end and the other begin? Is a member that is facing eviction from his house because his employer has fired him, our responsibility? And members whose names are at the credit bureaux – should they deal with this thing on their own? We are not helping those members now.

Can some of these shifts of members to Legal Wise etc. be resolved through improved service?

Yes, we have lost our tradition of service to members. Gone are the days when as shop stewards we were at the gates by 5.30am waiting for members to arrive for the 6am shift. On trains, buses everywhere, we were organising and talking. In lunch-breaks we were with members discussing their problems and issues both inside and outside the factory.

Organisers and shop stewards are no longer working to get workers into the trade unions. Instead, workers come to the office to join. This is good, but we need to supplement it because those workers need to know what the union is all about.

As a shop steward you are an organiser, an educator – shop stewards have a wealth of expertise and knowledge but they are not passing it across to members.

Shop stewards used to be the ‘all-in-one' – you could discuss with them about overalls, safety boots and community issues. Now they only take up the issue of overalls and safety boots – the issue of community work is off the agenda.

Our struggle on the shopfloor is not complete without combining ourselves with community struggles – we need tarred roads, running water, electricity – we can't say we are not part of that struggle.

Are there other questions that we need to still answer?

Yes, did we make the right decision when we shifted from pension to provident funds in the 1980s? Provident funds are just like savings accounts so when you retire you are left with nothing but the government old age pension.

We have taken the responsibility of old age away from employers and put that responsibility in government's lap. It's no longer the responsibility of employers to take care of their ex-workers and their dependants.

Medical aids are ripping into our members' hard-earned earnings. We were supportive of the National Health Insurance Scheme (NHI) that government proposed. But things are moving very slowly. And now when workers' benefits run out, they are forced to use the run-down government health system. The NHI was going to ensure that money from medical aids went into the government health system as well.

Just after the ANC government came to power in 1994, you said that trade unions must support the ANC government because it is ‘our government'. But you also said that if it adopted policies that started to erode what the trade unions were fighting for, we should oppose it. Do you still believe in what you said?

Yes. As the trade union movement, our primary duty is to defend and advance the interests of workers – it is from them that I receive my mandate. We can't allow government to erode policies that we have fought for. If you take away these, then we can't keep quiet. We must put forward an alternative.

Our actions should not be perceived as if we are fighting the ANC. We are fighting the policies, we are not fighting the ANC. Workers must continue to vote for a government that is labour biased. We must have that type of government and reinforce it, give it support so that it continues to adopt programmes and legislation to prevent the erosion of benefits.

The Alliance is relevant because we want to guard what we have achieved and work to improve workers' working and living conditions. But the problem is that the alliance is only at provincial level – it doesn't go down to local level. But it should operate where it matters – at the local level because that's where we want to deepen democracy. Bring back this concept that has brought freedom to us!


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