History was made in South Africa on 30 April 2016 when 1406 representatives of 29 separate trade unions and one existing federation, Nactu, with 22 affiliates, supported by a range of civil society and community organisations, came together to commit themselves to building a new, worker-controlled, democratic, non-racial, non-sexist, independent, financially self-sufficient, internationalist, socialist-orientated and militant union federation.
The formation of this new body is vital and especially urgent because of the economic crisis gripping South Africa. 22 years after the democratic breakthrough on 27 April 1994, mass unemployment, poverty, extreme inequality, racism and rampant corruption are the daily experiences of the majority of the working class.
Workers face attacks on their living standards and job security. Jobs are becoming more and more precarious, with outsourcing, labour broking, casualisation and sub-contracting growing exponentially. Workers in informal employment are unsupported and unprotected. In the manufacturing and mining sectors whole workplaces and even entire industries like mining and steel are in danger of disappearing and throwing thousands more on to the streets. As well as retrenchments, workers are suffering short-time working and unions are being forced to negotiate training layoff schemes.
And the chances of retrenched workers finding another job are next to zero given the shocking rate of unemployment – 33.8% in the fourth quarter of 2015, by the more realistic expanded rate which includes those who have stopped even looking for work. The economy is growing very slowly – just 1.3% last year. That means that there are not enough jobs for all those coming from school and tertiary institutions, still less for older retrenched workers.
The living standards of those who can hang on to a job are plummeting. In 3 months, from November 2015 to January 2016, the price of their basic food basket increased by 9%. The year-on-year increase for Jan 2015 to Jan 2016 was 14.6%. Some of the biggest increases have come in some of the most basic foods:
- Mealie meal 21.2%
- Samp 36.2%
- Cooking oil 38.8%
- Potatoes 120%
Nearly all the biggest price increases are on items on which workers and the poor spend a higher percentage of their incomes than the wealthy. It means that in real terms all those on fixed incomes are substantially poorer than a year ago. 13 million people go to bed hungry every day, including many of the working poor.
Yet the super-rich bosses, in this, the world’s most unequal society, tell us that the wage rises we demand will drive up unemployment and worsen poverty. They call for belt-tightening and below-inflation increases so as not to scare away investors and lead to ratings agencies downgrading the country to junk status. But tightening our belts does not make the economy grow! On the contrary, paying workers more makes the economy grow, because they spend more on goods and services which stimulates more production and more jobs. They only want us to give them even more profits.
Now a new battle front is being opened up by the bosses, the Free Market Foundation and their political allies, especially in the DA and other openly capitalist parties. They want to destroy rights which workers have won through struggle, especially to collective bargaining, despite the fact that only 23% of workers’ wages are determined by collective bargaining; and only 9% determined through centralized bargaining, while 54% of all wages received by workers are already determined by the employers without any negotiations. These people want that figure to rise to 100%! Meanwhile more and more jobs are being casualised or outsourced to labour brokers.
Never have workers had a greater need for the protection of strong trade unions and a powerful, united federation to defend jobs and living standards and repulse the attacks, yet never since the days of apartheid has the union movement been weaker and more fragmented. Cosatu has become a shadow of its former self and is little more than a labour desk for the ANC government, whose neoliberal policies are the source of the very attacks we are facing.
The Department of Labour records 184 registered trade union entities and many more are unregistered or are in the process of being registered. Even worse is that a staggering 76% of formal workers remain unorganised. Many of these workers are in the most vulnerable sectors in greatest need of a strong trade union, those employed by labour brokers, part-time and casual workers who have no permanent employer of workplace. In addition millions of informal workers are unprotected and are subject to harassment, evictions and confiscations.
It is therefore essential that the new federation recognises the changing nature of the labour force, and moves beyond traditional areas of scope and targets recruitment of these vulnerable, often unorganised workers.
The Summit agreed that the new federation must also be based on the following founding principles:
- Independence: Unions must be independent from employers (in the private and public sector) and from political parties. This does not mean that unions are apolitical.
- Worker control and democracy: Unions must be worker-controlled and practise democracy, accountability, transparency and be tolerant. Within the federation affiliates must have autonomy but not independence, but differences of opinion must be tolerated.
- Non-racialism and non-sexism: Unions must fight for the maximum unity of all workers and reject all divisive and negative sentiment such as xenophobia etc. It must ensure that women comrades play a full role, including in leadership.
- Financial self-sufficiency, accountability and opposition, in word and deed, to business unionism, corruption, fraud and maladministration within its own ranks and in society as a whole.
- Anti-imperialist and internationalist: Unions must place a high priority on international solidarity.
- Socialist orientation: Unions must be ready to engage in the transformation of our societies to counter capitalist exploitation, inequalities and poverty.
- Militancy in fighting for the working class and the poor: Unions must be ready to actively campaign for change, and make links with all of the oppressed of South Africa.
- Effective Organisation and Representation: Unions must organise in the most effective manner to represent workers and serve their interests.
- Solidarity with all workers in struggle for better wages and conditions or to save jobs
- Support for workers exposing corruption, e.g. Prasa and Midrand municipality
The Summit agreed that the new federation must embrace a renewed commitment to internal democracy and worker control, with an insistence on mandates and reporting back.
There was not time to debate fully all the other four discussion papers which will now be thoroughly discussed in depth at all levels in all the unions, in line with the principles of bottom-up democracy, and then placed on the agenda of the founding congress of the new federation.
The Summit condemned moves by state employers to refuse to process debit orders for union members and to campaign to force them to stop denying workers their constitutional right to join a union and depriving unions of much-needed funds.
The Summit expanded the interim steering committee to include the presidents of all unions in attendance. All members of this committee will be properly mandated by their members so that they have the authority to take bold decisions, and more importantly to see that these decisions are then fully implemented. It is hoped that the founding congress can be convened by the latest in 2017, possibly earlier.
There will be a campaign to say no to job losses, and yes to restructuring the economy. Active state support must be given to industrialisation and the creation of jobs, and government must increase tariffs, cut interest rates, reject inflation targeting, bring back capital controls and end privatisation. We shall support the campaign against the new laws on provident fund annuitisation.
An important page in labour history has been turned
The Workers Summit has agreed that measures must be taken to ensure that we have a new Workers Federation up and running before the end of the year. This will be a federation that leads by example. It will be a model of union democracy, and will show in practice how to unite workers by democratic means and not by dictatorship from the top. The new Federation will not be a ‘Board Room Federation’, but will actively link with workers’ struggles on the ground, so that all workers and their unions are supported and given the solidarity they need to win. This will be a federation that supports and encourages its affiliates to grow, and evolve to be able to respond to changes in the economy. This will be a federation that builds the capacity of its affiliates, through targeted recruitment campaigns, research, and workers’ education. Most importantly, it will link with informal workers, unemployed workers and poor communities that are experiencing very harsh conditions, so that workers everywhere will know that they are not alone, and that a solid new home is being built that will protect workers against the ravages of an economy that is based on exploitation and inequality. Our message today is very clear, forward to the New Federation. The time has come!
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