Letters l This Suffocating Silence

As an ordinary worker in any sector within Mzantsi being elected as a shop steward and not being elected again after your term has expired does not mean it is the death penalty.

In fact, the vast experience gained as a former shop steward should be used as a step ladder for newly elected shop stewards because that translates into continuity, consistency and synergy. In reality, this helps to foster the spirit of comradeship within any given company to continuously consolidate gains achieved over a period of time.

Stanford Ndoba in his letter: “Bring ideas, don’t throw stones!”, is very relevant in this context. His letter appeared in the Numsa Bulletin no 9 and 10, August 2003.

In most instances, it is the negative tendencies of some outgoing shop stewards in some companies to sabotage the potential collective endeavours of newly elected shop stewards in focusing on the mandates of their constituencies within a company.

It is as if some of those former shop stewards are saying: “nke lesa??re ntsha! – ngeningafanelanga ukusikhupha!”

It is an accepted fact that it is painful to relinquish power once you have tasted it. But you need to ask those truly democratic leaders who stepped down while still popular and functional. They will tell you that it enables them to bask in glory forever!

Some of these former shop stewards shift the goal posts as in soccer, obliterate the demarcated lines in the playing field, take away with them the kit as it were, sit at the grandstands, fold their arms and expect the newly elected shop stewards to perform miracles.

The poor newly elected shop stewards are then expected to start from scratch in obtaining written agreements and minutes reached between the former shop stewards and management in any given situation in companies. This makes it easy for those vulturous management to pounce on the unsuspecting shop stewards.

The bosses will then willy-nilly reverse the gains fought for by the workers. They run circles around the new shop stewards, much to the disappointment of their constituencies. This triggers a domino effect, an exodus of unionised workers from the union and into the wilderness. This cannot be allowed to happen. A loss of one unionised worker is too much for Numsa.

In this process, the new shop stewards are harangued, hustled, harassed and ridiculed by management on one side, by misguided shop floor workers in the middle and some former shop stewards on the side lines. This is an unfortunate recipe to kill unions in companies.

Regarding this phenomenon, it is the duty of the unionised workers to intervene and save the situation. But for one reason or another, in most instances, shop floor workers are unable or reluctant to assist. They maintain this suffocating silence! It is as if they are trapped to watch a cat and mouse fight, forgetting that the struggle goes on!

By the time the constituency wakes up from its trance-like slumber and starts to voice its concerns, a trickle of loyal unionised workers has resigned from the union. In this context, unionised workers need to be sensitised towards the bashing of newly elected shop stewards. Allow me to quote observations made by a man of the cloth when Hitler was like a raging bull in a china shop:

A heavy silence!

Pastor Martin Niemoller writing in Germany , 1942

They came for the communists and I did not speak up because I was not a communist

Then they came for the Jews and I did not speak up because I was not a Jew

Then they came for the trade unionist and I did not speak up because I was not a trade unionist

Then they came for the Catholics and I did not speak up because I was a Protestant

Then they came for me and by that time there was no-one left to speak!

(Source unknown)

In essence this means that it is the duty of the unionised workers to see to it that newly elected shop stewards and former shop stewards get together in the early stages in order to generate synergy that will benefit the constituency in the long run. The constituency is the catalyst.

Of course, as an ordinary shop floor worker, one might argue that it is not his/her duty to unify the two but the duty of the leadership itself. It might be the opinion of the majority. But the fact is that if the unionised workers do not take a stand, they will encounter the very same problem further down the stream sooner or later. Time is of the essence! Constituencies need to come out of their shells with bright new ideas.

To find a permanent solution to the problem, the following steps should be encouraged:

When shop steward elections have been held, those not chosen again should immediately initiate steps to congratulate and embrace the new incumbents.
Within the same day, all agreements and written minutes obtained during their tenure should be handed over to the newly elected shop stewards. It is the spirit of comradeship and a sign of maturity.
Immediately after elections, the newly elected shop stewards should show eagerness to want to tap into the experience of the former shop stewards. There is no time to develop swollen heads because experience is the ultimate teacher.
Any other pending issues should be discussed among the two groups with the view of charting the way forward.

I would like to implore the leadership in Numsa at NEC level to formulate the above mentioned suggestions into a policy for the attainment of a permanent solution.

This may be achieved by the NEC mandating all local organisers to shepherd, guide and see to it that the relay race baton is passed on successfully without any hiccups.

Nicholas Bushy Mani, Femco full-time shop steward, Madibeng local, Northern Transvaal