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TAKING POWER SERIOUSLY ISSUE NO. 76 JUNE 2021 South Africa’s new progressive magazine standing for social justice. Towards a general strike: interview with Zwelinzima Vavi / Can we reclaim football from below? / Saving the public sector

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South Africa’s new progressive magazine standing for social justice.
1 SEPTEMBER 2020Amandla! Issue No.71Towards a general strike: interview with Zwelinzima Vavi / Can we reclaim football from below? / Saving the public sector
‘A remarkable book - Ngwane’s great achievement is he once more rescues the amakomiti from academic condescension and historical obliteration. Here, he says, is a vision of another world made, run, and governed by working people. Amakomiti is a book everyone should read’ - Leo Zelig, author of An Ounce of Practice (Hoperoad, 2017)
‘One of the most exciting and provocative books that I’ve read in a long time, Amakomiti challenges the stereotype of shanty-dwellers as a powerless underclass without social power. Ngwane unveils instead a defiant working-class world with rich traditions of resistance and a genius for self- organization’ - Mike Davis, author of Planet of the Slums (Verso, 2007)
AMAKOMITI Grassroots Democracy in South African Shack Settlements
Trevor Ngwane is a scholar activist who spent twenty years as a full-time organiser in South African trade unions, community organisations and social movements before and after the defeat of apartheid. He later obtained his PhD in Sociology at the University of Johannesburg where he now teaches and conducts research.
an people who live in shantytowns, shacks and favelas teach us anything about democracy? About how to govern society in a way that is
inclusive, participatory and addresses popular needs? This book argues that they can. In a study conducted in dozens of South Africa’s shack settlements, where more than 9 million people live, Trevor Ngwane finds thriving shack dwellers’ committees that govern local life, are responsive to popular needs and provide a voice for the community. These committees, called ‘amakomiti’ in
the Zulu language, organise the provision of basic services such as water, sanitation, public works and crime prevention especially during settlement establishment.
Amakomiti argues that, contrary to common perception, slum dwellers are in fact an essential part of the urban population, whose political agency must be recognised and respected. In a world searching for democratic alternatives that serve the many and not the few, it is to the shantytowns, rather than the seats of political power, that we should turn.
Email your comments to [email protected] or visit www.amandla.org.za for additional articles, news and views. Tweet us @AmandlaMedia // Facebook amandla! media // Subscribe to Amandla! website at www.amandla.org.za // To post material on the website, contact [email protected]
Climate crisis
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News Briefs
Towards a general strike
Amazon wages war against unions
EFF organises and represents workers
Unions in crisis: has the union form outlived its usefulness for workers?
Weakening of unions and erosion of worker control
Demystifying nuclear energy: do we need it to save ourselves?
Policing the colony: a police abolition primer for this land
Against nuclear vanities
The EFF will not bring the change South Africans need
Saving the public sector is critical for a just recovery
A turning point in the Palestinian struggle Mozambique: the gas dream becomes a nightmare
Mass-rooted Left renewal as the foundation
Can we reclaim football from below?
The economy on your doorstep
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15 Amazon wages war against unions
28 Policing the colony: a police abolition primer for this land
We welcome feedback
HE SCANDAL SURROUNDING the Health Minister is symptomatic of a terrible disease gripping
South Africa. Literally, billions of rands are looted, not just by the predatory elite (a small collection of wannabe capitalists), but also by the “civilised” Sandton elites. Their combined efforts are laying waste to the economy.
The crisis Covid-19 has laid bare the depth of the social, economic and political crises facing South Africa. No country or state can sustain a society where almost 50% of the work force is unemployed. Nor is it possible to talk of a united single nation where just 10% of the super-rich own 90% of the wealth. And no society can develop where a woman is raped on average every 25 seconds.
Billions of rands are lost to looting, price gouging and profit shifting. This is money that the state should be investing in social renewal, creating decent work and reindustrialising the economy for a low carbon future. For example,
Global Financial Integrity estimated South Africa lost just over $26 bn through trade misinvoicing, transfer pricing, profit shifting and other forms of illicit financial outflows;
According to Kenneth Brown (SA’s former Chief Procurement Officer) in his 2016 report, 40 percent of the government’s budget for goods and services was being consumed by inflated prices from suppliers, and fraud;
Davis Tax Commission conservatively estimated that SA loses at least R50 bn to corporate profit shifting annually;
Pravin Gordhan estimated that “state capture” between 2014 -2017 cost R250 bn.
Corruption and cronyism dominate the discussion of SA’s current political situation. So we need to understand their roots. They are the symptoms of the crisis of the project to create a black capitalist class without redistributing wealth - assets - capital.
The reality of state capture A predatory elite has increasingly taken control of the ANC and used it as a platform to influence state tender and
procurement processes. This has been done from within the state at all levels, including state-owned enterprises. Hence the term “state capture”. This illustrates the linkages between capital and the state.
But instead of that being made clear, we get a story that it’s all about a bad faction of the ANC.
It is not something exclusive to Zuptas. It stretches from CEOs of state- owned corporations, to Director Generals, Chiefs, Headmen, ward councillors, and even trade union officials. All desperate to accumulate, in order to escape their Apartheid-defined circumstances.
A key focus for all components of the aspirant black capitalist class is the state procurement budget, worth +/- R900 bn per year. It is on this procurement budget, and in particular the budgets of state- owned enterprises, that the organised network of predatory capital honed in. And with Broederbond precision, they placed their people to facilitate access to the contracting process.
Civil war in the capitalist class Even within the new black capitalist elite there are divisions. There are sections more dependent on the state for accumulation, and other sections more dependent on transnational
capital. Hence the political differences between a Jimmy Manyi, on the one hand, and a Sipho Pityana or Cyril Ramaphosa, on the other.
Ramaphosa’s clean-up campaign against corruption, is convenient. It deals with his political opponents in the ANC. But it is riddled with contradictions. Some of his closest allies are deeply embroiled in corruption scandals. David Mabuza, his Deputy President, his close ally in the Eastern Cape Oscar Mabuyane and of course, Gwede Mantashe, Pule Mabe and now Zweli Mkhize.
The roots of this crisis lie in the failure of the state and the ruling elites to renew a strategy for accumulating wealth that was capable of sustained economic growth and rates of profit for capital. Instead, the post-Apartheid government attempted to reproduce the accumulation model of the Minerals- Energy Complex. At the same time it tried to engineer greater black ownership of the economy.
It has been a dismal failure. And it is the source of a class conflict inside the capitalist class. On the one hand there is an emerging black capitalist group hungry to secure ownership of the
Corruption is a class project
The post-Apartheid government attempted to reproduce the accumulation model of the Minerals-Energy Complex. At the same time it tried to engineer greater black ownership of the economy.
JUNE 2021Amandla! Issue NO.76 2
heights of the economy. On the other hand we have big business desperate to restore profitability in the face of global competition.
A dysfunctional state This has coincided with a neoliberal hollowing out of the state. And this hollowed out state is what the so-called “predatory elite” depend on. This has made the state even more dysfunctional as its institutions have been perverted to serve their interests.
Using the state for accumulation has consequences. Provision of water and other services is contracted out to private companies, whether they have the expertise to provide the service or not. Outsourcing and sub-contracting become a major means of delivery of services and infrastructure development. This requires over-pricing and the cutting of corners to be profitable. And worse - neglect, and even sabotage and destruction of infrastructure, become a positive as they
create opportunities for outsourcing, from which state officials can benefit.
And we are not short of examples: an estimated R57 bn needed to fix defective RDP houses. Rand Water’s accusations that water tanker contractors are sabotaging water pipes. To name but two.
So rivalries within the capitalist class, rather than between capital and labour, are most significant in shaping the current political situation.
The consequences of this are not hard to see. Clover has announced recently that it is closing down the country’s largest cheese factory in Lichtenburg, North West, blaming water and power outages. The company also struggled to use the road leading to the factory due to large potholes.
Likewise, Astral Foods, SA’s largest poultry company, JSE listed, with a market capitalisation of R6.6 bn. Astral was forced to take government to court to try to get a reliable supply of electricity and water to its Standerton operation. As the CEO of Sibanye Stillwater, Neil Froneman, complains: “It’s one of the reasons why foreign companies don’t want to come here, because they can see they’ll have to do what the government is supposed to do but isn’t doing. They’ll end up tarnished with social issues that they haven’t caused.”
Opportunities for accumulation This dysfunctionality is not a random outcome of looting. It is intentional. For big business it justifies liberalisation and privatisation; for the predatory elite it provides opportunities for accumulation.
Eskom is a case in point. On the one hand, its crisis is justifying the creation of a private electricity sector, worth billions of rands, through the Renewable
Energy Independent Power Producers Procurement Programme. And then, as the crisis deepens, the opportunities for private accumulation multiply. Look at the R218 bn for Karpowership. A 20- year deal to supply 1,220 megawatts of electricity from gas-burning power plants stationed on ships moored offshore. And of course there is the plundering of Eskom’s massive procurement budget, whether for Kusile and Medupi or to supply coal.
The same process is unfolding at Transnet and Prasa where billions were looted. And it has given rise to government’s plan to privatise part of the rail system and ports.
So where do we go from here? As the fight between different sections of the ruling class intensifies, it is crucial to avoid false dichotomies: Ramaphosa good; Magashule bad. Neither faction of the ANC are friends of the workers and the poor. And as Ramaphosa gains the upper hand, leading to prosecutions against erstwhile comrades, this should not be seen as a renewal of the ANC.
Different factions of the ANC are differently implicated in looting and profiting through their political connections and proximity to the state. And all factions agree on austerity and some version of neoliberalism as appropriate economic and social policy. The workers and popular movement should take an attitude of a plague on both their houses.
It is imperative not to repeat the mistakes of Cosatu and the SACP, which chose Zuma against Mbeki. The politics of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” is mistaken. It leads to disasters such as
the 2008 Polokwane conference of the ANC.
The Alliance is dead as a progressive block. In spite of the challenges of rebuilding the mass movement on principles of working class independence, it is the only way for the workers and popular movement to recapture its relevance and renew itself. This will entail struggle on multiple fronts, not least corruption and state dysfunctionality.
The provision of decent social services, especially at local government level, is at the centre of the struggle against corruption, cronyism and state capture. And in this struggle, demands for in-sourcing and against privatisation will be important to unite workers in the labour movement with their sisters and brothers in working class communities.
The struggle against austerity, against wage cuts and retrenchments in the public sector, and the struggle against corruption are intimately linked. They provide the bridge for building the necessary worker / community alliance. To fight effectively against corruption, we have to join the struggle against austerity and neoliberalism.
As the crisis deepens, the opportunities for private accumulation multiply. Look at the R218 bn for Karpowership
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NUM follows NUMSA What goes around, comes around In 2013, Numsa held its Special National Congress. The resolution that got the most attention was to stop support for the ANC and the Tripartite Alliance. But the congress also resolved to break away from the Cosatu tradition of industrial sector unionism – one industry, one union – and start organising “along the value chain”. For metal and engineering, organising along the value chain meant, amongst other industries, organising in the mining industry – the beginning of the value chain. As a result, Numsa now has thousands of members in the sector.
Well, it has taken NUM eight years to catch up but now they have had a Special Congress of their own and resolved to do exactly the same. The language is also the same, “The steel sector is the core element in the metal industry value chain…we can look at the mining of iron ore as one value chain contributor to the steel manufacturing process”. Limusa, the unsuccessful union set up by the late former President of Numsa, Cedric Gina, will be absorbed. And from now on Numsa can expect competition for its members in the engineering sector, the auto and tyre and rubber manufacturing sectors and the motor sector of component manufacture, petrol stations and small garages.
Whatever the result of this new competition, it represents yet another chapter in the history of South African trade unions – chasing each other’s members while over 70% of South African workers belong to no union at all.
Rands or percents? A court case about the 2015 Gold Sector agreement is at last in the Labour Court. Amcu is arguing that the 2015 agreement increased the wage gap between the mass of ordinary workers in the gold mines and higher paid groups. By law, companies must work to close the apartheid wage gap. The Labour Court is being asked to award each ordinary mine worker R50,000. Expert witness for Amcu, leftist economist Dick Forslund, has demonstrated that since 2015 inequality has increased in rands. Professor Haroon Bhorat from UCT, for the Minerals Council, says it hasn’t: “Not if you count in percent”.
So which is it that workers receive in their pay packets – rands or percents?
Sanral forced to the table by Crisis Committee On Monday 6th June, yet another drama in the battle about the N2 Wild Coast Toll Road played itself out in Sigidi village on the Amadiba coast. The Mayor of Mbizana municipality (today called Winnie Madikizela-Mandela municipality) came together with Chief Lunga Baleni and project leaders of state road building company Sanral. In the delegation was also the MEC for Public Works in Eastern Cape, Mr Babalo Madikizela.
The visitors came to get an “access agreement” for Sanral to build their 80m wide and fenced 120km/h highway through the village.
300 villagers blocked the car convoy 1 km from the Sigidi school. The dignitaries were told that the 120 learners were in session. There would be no meeting there. The school was built by the community. The Department of Education now threatens to close it.
To break the stalemate, MEC Madikizela walked into the crowd and caucused with Amadiba Crisis Committee leaders. He was allowed to speak after Amadiba Crisis Committee’s (ACC) Nonhle Mbuthuma first reminded the dignitaries of all the disrespect, deceit, intimidations and incitement of violence coming from Sanral and the mining lobby during the N2 saga.
MEC Madikizela then shocked Sanral. He opened the N2 negotiations again.
It was on 23rd January 2020 that an imbizo for the whole of Amadiba decided that Sanral must be engaged to move the N2 at least 10km from the coast. After two meetings with Sanral, the chief went behind the backs of his committee and reached an agreement with Sanral in secret talks.
The MEC gave a public assurance that this time there will be a community
delegation negotiating with Sanral, the province and the municipality. The province will wait for ACC to inform them when the community delegates have been chosen, and the time and place.
This is a substantial victory. Finally to be included in a negotiation process. And it’s a tribute to the strength of the community and its organisation to have held out so long and against such pressure and violence.
Austerity kills It has been reported that Ethekwini TVET student, Yonwaba Manyanya, died of starvation after spending three days and nights outside. NSFAS was very quick to disclaim responsibility for Yonwaba’s death on the remarkable pretext that it wasn’t funding her. So, they congratulated themselves, she didn’t die as a result of any delay in payment.
news briefs
Visitors came to get an “access agreement” for Sanral to build their 80m wide and fenced 120km/h highway through the village. 300 villagers blocked the car convoy.
JUNE 2021Amandla! Issue NO.76 4
No, NSFAS. She died as a result of no payment at all. Maybe that failure to pay her and many thousands of others might have something to do with the R6.8 billion cut in the NSFAS budget. Maybe without that cut Yonwaba would still be alive.
Billionaires: tax and charity A lot of noise is made about the generosity of billionaires who give away millions in charity. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is often cited as an example. Very rarely do we hear anyone asking how they managed to accumulate such huge wealth in the first place. And of course their wealth increases massively as a result of avoiding tax.
Now a report by a non-profit journalism organisation has put numbers on this. The 25 wealthiest Americans earned $1.1 trillion in 2018. That’s the
same amount as 14.3 million “Ordinary” Americans. But there’s a difference. The ordinary Americans paid $143 billion tax on their income. The 25 billionaires paid $1.9 billion on theirs. So those ordinary Americans paid 76 times more tax than the billionaires. In fact in 2007, the richest of them all, Jeff Bezos, paid no federal tax at all. Yet in that year Amazon doubled in value.
So the billionaires have all that money because they don’t pay tax. If they did, we wouldn’t need the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The state would have that money. It would be public money. So really, these “generous” foundations actually represent the privatisation of tax income. In the process, they allow individuals to decide what to spend that money on, rather than a democratically elected government. However flawed that democracy might be, it is no solution to allow billionaires to decide what social, medical and
educational services we get, according to what they feel like.
Solidarity with Palestinian struggle from Durban dockworkers
During the Israeli state’s ruthless bombardment of defenceless civilians in Gaza, the Palestine General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU) issued a call to workers and trade unions to “refuse to unload [Israeli] ships and goods from sea and airports”. The call was met with action by SATAWU members in Durban. The Zim Shanghai, owned by Israeli state-owned company Zim Lines, docked on 19th May. SATAWU workers refused to unload it.
Dockworkers took similar actions in the port of Oakland in the US and in the Italian City of Livorno. The union
in Livorno said the cargo “contained weapons and explosives that will serve to kill the Palestinian population…The port of Livorno will not be an accomplice in the massacre of the Palestinian people.”
Whilst the global labour movement has suffered during the pandemic, it has not lost its determination to act in solidarity with oppressed and brutalised people.
Solidarity against Saudia Arabia and its intervention in Yemen The following is part of a report from the Canadian Left magazine, The Bullet: “On March 26, members of anti-war organizations World BEYOND War, Labour Against the Arms Trade, and People for Peace London blocked railway tracks near General Dynamics Land Systems- Canada, a London Ontario-based company
manufacturing light armoured vehicles for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The activists are calling on General Dynamics to end its complicity in the brutal Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen and calling on the Canadian government to end arms exports to Saudi Arabia and expand humanitarian assistance for the people of Yemen.
This marks the sixth anniversary of the Saudi-led, Western-backed coalition’s intervention in Yemen’s civil war, leading to the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
It is estimated that 24 million Yemenis need humanitarian assistance –some 80% of the population – which is being thwarted by the Saudi-ledcoalition’s land, air, and naval blockade of the country. Since 2015, this blockade has prevented food, fuel, commercial goods and aid fromentering Yemen. According to the
World Food Program, nearly 50,000 people in Yemen are already living in famine-like conditions with 5 million just a step away. To add to the already dire situation, Yemen has one of the worst Covid-19 death rates in the world, killing 1 in 4 people who test positive…
… What our community needs is government funding for rapid conversion from military exports back to production for human needs, as these plants used to do,” says David Heap of People for Peace London. “We call for immediate public investment in much-needed green transport industries that will ensure good jobs for Londoners while protecting peace and human rights in the world.”
The Zim Shanghai, owned by Israeli state-owned company Zim Lines, docked on 19th May. Satawu workers refused to unload it.
JUNE 2021Amandla! Issue NO.76 5
Precarious workers continue to search for organisation Interview with Sydney Moshoaliba, Education Officer of Casual Workers Advice Office
Please start by telling us a little bit about CWAO, just broadly speaking, what work you do.
CASUAL WORKERS Advice Office was mainly formed to assist and organise precarious workers. By precarious workers we are talking about labour broker workers, casual workers and part-time workers. To some extent we do assist domestic workers.
So why do workers come to you when there are trade unions for all the industries around Ekurhuleni where you are based? Why aren’t they going to trade unions to get this kind of support?
WELL, YOU SEE WHEN WE STARTED this project, it was during the time when trade unions have totally declared that labour broker workers, casual workers and part-time workers are an administrative burden. So to organise them was becoming an unmanageable exercise in union organisation. And that’s when we intervened in the formation of the CWAO.
Are you saying that trade unions actually chased those workers away?
TRADE UNIONS TOTALLY REJECTED those workers on the basis that they are an extra administrative burden. At that time, around 2010 and 2011, the labour broking industry was growing massively and growing even into the state-owned enterprises, where lots of services that were provided were being outsourced. So quite clearly there was a need at that time, a greater need to organise these workers. We created space, we created a platform for them to be able to organise and challenge employers for their issues. We created a platform for workers to explore self- organising initiatives.
Unions only organise permanent workers. I can make you an example. In 2015 we embarked on a campaign called section 198 where we demanded that labour broker workers become permanent workers of the client. And in many workplaces, we were able to achieve that goal where labour broker workers were made permanent. But even though they were deemed permanent, they were still treated as second class citizens in those different workplaces.
As a result, these workers felt that because now they are deemed permanent, they can now join those unions in those different workplaces. And they then joined
those unions, different unions in different workplaces, different sectors. They joined.
But still even after they joined those unions, the issues they were raising, which are mainly the issues of equalisation in terms of conditions and wages, have still not been resolved. Three years down the line, those workers have come back to CWAO to say, “look we tried joining unions with a view that the unions would be able to assist us, and we are still where we were three years ago when we were deemed permanent”.
This is an experience that we encounter from time to time as the CWAO. As a result, these workers in turn are saying we must in collaboration form our own type of union that will be able to aggressively address these issues that we are facing in the workplaces. The birth of Simunye Workers Forum was the result.
The Simunye Workers Forum was formed in June 2016. In fact these workers came to CWAO already organised because they came from different workplaces. And when they came to CWAO they put themselves into a workers’ forum which remains the Simunye Workers Forum. There has been a forum since 2011, but the Simunye Workers Forum as such was formed in 2016.
“Trade unions have totally declared that labour broker workers, casual workers and part-time workers are an administrative burden… And that’s when we intervened in the formation of the CWAO.”
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the state of the workers’ movement
Are you saying that you are now forming a union, or that you have formed a union?
WE ARE IN THE PROCESS OF REGISTERING Simunye Workers Forum as a trade union. But Simunye Workers Forum, as a forum itself, is a trade union. Since its formation, the issue of registration has never been priority for the members of Simunye until such time that they realised that the employers are using this as an advantage to attack them whenever they try to address and challenge employers. So this issue of registration is not necessarily that we are now captured by the formation of the union. it’s simply to say that these workers think it would be important to register so that they can be able to advance their struggles in the workplaces.
These workers are registering Simunye as a trade union because the employers are refusing to engage with them when they raise conditions or issues or improvement of wages and conditions. They say “this Simunye is not recognised” so they cannot engage with these workers.
But we are able to represent these workers at the CCMA, bargaining council, labour court, that is not an issue.
Speaking of the CCMA, I know you are involved in a campaign to restore the services that have been cut by the budget cuts. Could you tell us what’s been happening with this campaign.
WE DO HAVE A CAMPAIGN. THE OPEN CCMA Campaign is a collaboration of civil society organisation with an interest to advocate worker rights and workplace democratisation. You see the other thing that is happening here at CWAO, we also assist individual workers that maybe want to refer unfair dismissal cases, unpaid severances, unfair labour practice and so on, but we know that there are also numbers of workers who are also going directly to CCMA offices and reserving such cases.
But what we’ve realised is that the CCMA has declared that they will no longer be dealing with what we call walk-in referrals. Now those workers who normally go to the CCMA for those particular cases have been left in the cold. No-one is attending to them. When they get to the CCMA they are told to go to the internet café, get a referral, go find people to fill in the referral and so on. And these people are charging these workers.
Now it creates a problem because most of these workers who go there to refer cases are dismissed. They do not have money to buy referrals, to scan, to e-mail and so on and so on. So it means that the CCMA, by these budget cuts, is attacking the poor and the working class. That’s one of the main problems.
The second problem we are encountering is the time it takes for the CCMA to issue a set down is now taking longer because there is a limited number of commissioners who are dealing with the cases.
From what I hear you saying it means that effectively the CCMA has stopped doing the job that it was set up to do if it is not accepting workers to walk in. And yet the CCMA has trade unions on its board. What are they doing to sort out this situation?
WE ARE WELL AWARE IN THE BOARD OF CCMA you have Cosatu representation, Fedusa representation and what they were
saying in those board meetings was that workers must go online to refer cases. So basically, that is a selling out, it’s a sell-out position. You have an organisation that is supposed to be representing the interests of the working class. They know the working class are poor workers who have an issue of the data, the resources. And they say they must go online.
And the campaign to open up the CCMA again, is that in motion?
THE CAMPAIGN IS IN MOTION AND THE campaign will not stop until such time that the CCMA agrees to open its doors and allow walk-in referrals. So we basically are putting pressure in areas where we have formations and structures that exist. We know that in Western Cape comrades are busy from time to time. They go and picket outside the CCMA. And we also here in Joburg from time to time are going to the CCMA offices and picket and protest there. So the campaign is on and it’s ongoing and it’s gaining momentum as we move along.
“The Open CCMA campaign is in motion and the campaign will not stop until such time that the CCMA agrees to open its doors and allow walk-in referrals.”
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the state of the workers’ movement
One way to assess the state of the trade union movement is to look at the proportion of workers who are union members. And it seems we are now down to 23 per cent, compared with 45% in 1997. Saftu has always said, and you have always said, even from before Saftu, that its purpose is to go out there and organise the unorganised. How is it going?
NOT YET ANYWHERE close to where I would like to see it being. We have a great plan from the Congress and always the problem is execution. The biggest stumbling block to execution of that plan is that all of our unions are start-up and they are fishing in the same pond as the bigger unions. So you’ve got many manufacturing unions, and quite a number of service and public sector unions. Coordination of recruitment from that perspective is exceedingly difficult.
We’re thinking now very, very hard about how we can perhaps develop the idea we raised in the Congress, the idea of “bridge” unions. Bridge unions means that unions accept to focus on a particular area. Even if you are a general union, you can accept to organise in a particular geographical area. So that doesn’t lead you
into competition with another union. And where there is already an established union, you must allow that union to continue recruiting and to work in that area.
Only when we have that strategy coordinated properly, can we begin to make progress in terms of our recruitment strategy. But for now, we tried in the public sector. There were tensions immediately. We have not even tried in the private sector because the problem of overlapping scope is much more pronounced there.
What is it that is interrupting it, what is stopping unions merging? There are lots of precedents; Cosatu was formed out of mergers; Numsa was created out of mergers with a number of unions. What is the obstacle to these mergers taking place?
THE OLD PROBLEMS. YOU KNOW THE old problems where leadership think that their logo and their colours and their positions are more important than unity. They don’t pronounce that. You just see a dragging of the foot to realise that, no, we still have much more work to do at a political level for the leadership to embrace unity as the principle, instead of regarding their current positions as the principle.
So Saftu is now 4 years old, what has happened to Saftu’s membership numbers between 2017 and now, 2021?
THEY INCREASED, YOU REMEMBER WE launched a federation of 600 000 it went up 70,000, way below our target. We wanted to hit a million in the second year of our launch. We’re not anywhere close to that. And it’s stagnant.
If you look at that stagnant situation, one of the things we hear about is workers who are terribly disappointed with the service they get from their unions. So one of the reasons for the failure of unions to grow is that they can’t provide the service that members want and so they leave. Is that also your impression and how do we remedy this situation?
SAFTU HAS TO DO WHAT IT SAID IT was going to do. If Saftu is no different from the rest of other unions it won’t attract members, full stop. Our battle, and the battle as we go to the Congress of Saftu, is to implement the service charter that we have adopted at a federation level; to help train the leaders of the unions, train their organisers and develop manuals to help
“Without the general strike we can’t achieve our strategic programmes… If we strike one by one, we will be defeated… But if you can pull everything together, it won’t be 2 weeks before the government is forced to come with their real discussion.”
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the state of the workers’ movement
unions train their own shop stewards. We had no capacity all along, but now we have just employed about two months ago a person to do that.
The major problem we face is that shop steward training has died, even amongst the big unions. Once you don’t train the shop steward, the union dies. You don’t need sharp organisers, you need sharp shop stewards.
Another challenge that you’ve raised quite continuously is the issue of social distance, the fact that leadership and membership of unions inhabit different universes and this leads to mistrust. How can that be solved?
POLITICAL TRAINING, DEEPER ideological grounding of the leadership. Look, the gap now is no longer between General Secretary and the rest of the membership. Even amongst the shop stewards, between the shop stewards, there is a gap between the full-time shop stewards and the ordinary shop stewards. The full- timers are more likely to never go back to work. They are full-time officials of the union; they have cars, they have smart phones, they have i-pads and sometimes they even have laptops. They have offices, air-conditioned, and they treasure never ever going back to work. I was told a story of a shop steward who lost his position of a shop steward, who just collapsed in the morning in the bathroom whilst having a shower. That’s how serious this matter has become.
As Marx once said, it is the material conditions that determine your levels of consciousness.
But if your material conditions determine your level of consciousness, that seems to me not to be compatible with an approach which says we will change consciousness by political education. Don’t you have to change material conditions as well?
WE HAVE TO. WE HAVE TO CHANGE the material conditions. We can’t be chasing, as general secretaries, the same pay as the director generals or ministers or even the CEOs of private companies. If we continuously improve the size of the car, of the cellphone, of the latest laptop,
and then the massive housing and benefits and all of that, that gap increases in reality. Before you know it, the level of anger in the leadership is not the same as that of members who are queuing up in the public transport in Joburg.
And then the person receiving that big package, that big car and the rest of it, really, really wants to hold on to it, they really want to keep it, they will do almost anything to avoid losing it.
YOU SAID IT. INCLUDING BEING prepared to commit murder in order to retain their position. The issue now becomes so personal because there is so much at stake if you lose it. You just look at your kids. You have to look at your kids.
What about the old maxim of the labour movement - anybody who works for the labour movement gets paid the average skilled wage and no more than that.
THAT IS WHAT IS WRITTEN IN THE Saftu constitution. The constitution says you will not be paid above your skill, your comparable skill level in society. The question is, is the GS of Saftu paid above the comparable skill level in society? I don’t think so; I don’t know.
Another of the ingredients of this crisis is the investment companies and all that has gone on around them. We know in many, many cases that they are the cause of terrible trouble, either by people openly looting them or by
these companies using the structures of the union as its salesforce of financial services products. How do we deal with all of this?
LET ME TELL YOU WHAT HAPPENED the other day to me. Workers who are members of Ceppwawu, the Cosatu union, came to my office last year. And they told me the tales of how they were battling for the food parcels which ended before they could even reach them They were suffering. And they asked me a question, “GS we know that Ceppwawu invested in the pharmaceutical company and the last time we checked the union had R6bn; are we not entitled to that R6bn as former members who were there when this thing was taken on our behalf?”
Jesus. And they’re then saying, “should these things not be orientated around a worker, a worker in retirement no longer having an income, a worker who got dismissed at work even if he’s still searching for employment, a worker
unemployed wanting a job and therefore looking at the direction of the investment company?”
That made me to think. We discussed with them for hours, to say perhaps the union must rethink the whole thing as to who benefits from them essentially, outside the CEOs and the top leadership getting some goodies. How does a worker, who was a member, who is now no longer a member, benefit from this thing?
And I know that some unions, such as Sactwu for example, have done a great job in terms of resuscitating factories that would have collapsed and therefore getting workers that would have lost their jobs to continue being employed. Is that a model we should
follow? Really be serious about taking over collapsed factories and run them as cooperatives, not for profit, but to sustain workers? Or ideologically is this thing completely not compatible with the whole idea of a trade union?
In the beginning when Saftu was formed, relations with other federations, particularly Cosatu, were very frosty. Has that moderated over the last four years? What are relations like now, particularly with Cosatu?
“Cosatu is weak even though it has most of the public sector workers. The reason why government saw it fit and safe to just impose a wage freeze and to walk out of a signed agreement is because they knew they would face no consequences.”
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SORT OF IMPROVED, TO THE POINT that last year when Cosatu called a strike, the NEC of Saftu said, “let’s join the strike and raise our own issues”. But the symbolism that was registered on 7th October last year was massive. And that was carried on 24th February when Saftu called the strike. Even though Cosatu didn’t practically join, but we found ourselves singing the same tune against austerity. And as a result Cosatu issued a formal statement to support Saftu strike.
What I had hoped is that we will by now have met Cosatu leadership and have a coordinating centre, even if it means moving towards a confederation of some kind. And a confederation will agree on the minimum programmes: let’s fight austerity, let’s coordinate better the public sector strikes. And I’ve made a call for the
public sector to coordinate with the private sector and embark on a single strike, one day across all of the sectors of the economy.
And let’s face it, Cosatu is weak even though it has most of the public sector workers. The reason why government saw it fit and safe to just impose a wage freeze and to walk out of a signed agreement is because they knew they would face no consequences. And yet if we were to coordinate properly, not just the federation, but bring all of the 200 plus independent unions, I think workers will begin to have hope again that unions are about them and not about the leadership and the logos.
I suppose some people would say it’s interesting to talk about the unity between Saftu and other federations but you’ve also got a problem at home, of unity within Saftu. There are significant reports of conflict in
the leading structures of Saftu. What happened to the unity that Saftu is supposed to represent?
ALL FEDERATIONS ARE CONTESTED. We are a contested terrain. And we are a new brand, and political formations are contesting that brand and that creates tensions. What I hate about these tensions is that Saftu has no tensions about whether we should fight against the LRA amendments or not. It’s all about the political policy, whether we support or do not support, or whether one is accused of being closer or not closer to that political formation. It’s all about politics. The elephant in the room is the politics. And even Cosatu was split by the politics and not by the campaign against or for basic income grant for example. And that’s very sad.
It seems a bit ironic. In 2014, when Numsa was expelled from Cosatu, the issue that caused that expulsion was the relationship with the ANC and Numsa’s call for Cosatu to sever that relationship. My impression was that one of the founding ideas of the new federation was that we wouldn’t have that contest again. We wouldn’t ask the federation to support a particular political organisation because to do so is divisive; individual unions could support particular formations but why should the federation do so? Why is it that we seem to have fallen into exactly the same trap again?
THE POLITICS IS JUICY, VERY, VERY sweet. Because the politics speaks to the individuals’ careers beyond the trade union. For example, here is what I think has created a tension in Saftu.
When Saftu was formed in 2017, there was no SRWP. Saftu makes a call for a debate on the creation of a mass workers’
party. Immediately there are tensions between what Saftu congress decided and the process that is unfolding in Numsa that crystallises with the creation of the SRWP later, when it was formed in 2018. And so the delay in the formation of the SRWP, the emergence of Saftu and the failure to coordinate these two aspirations, from Saftu Congress and the Numsa congress, has created all of the tensions that you are seeing.
The fight now is either to get Saftu to endorse SRWP or to allow it to implement the decisions of its congress and the working class summit it convened.
If we turn to the more material battles, there is a huge confrontation that’s looming in the public sector. And it increasingly looks like there can’t be
any room for compromise between the 0 per cent, if you can call it an offer, of the state, and the 7 per cent demand of the unions. It feels like this battle is going to be crucial in setting the tone of the balance of forces and political engagement maybe for years to come. So how do we win this battle?
IN MY VIEW, THE ONLY WAY WE CAN win that battle is when we do not fight it in isolation. And that’s my call. And I hope that this call will be endorsed by the NEC. The only way to win that battle is when we coordinate the public sector as a whole, meaning the PSCBC, the local government, the parastatals, all of them. And we coordinate the disputes. And we coordinate those disputes with the rest of the private sector.
Already a number of private sector employers are refusing to even talk about wages. And in fact if you look at private security, the employers have bolted out of the agreement and they are saying, “No your government has led the way, so we are not coming to implement or even in the next round of negotiations, to talk to you about the wages”. So that’s where we are and we ought to be coordinating that effectively. And we are not.
“What I hate is that Saftu has no tensions about whether we should fight against the LRA amendments or not. It’s all about the political policy, whether we support or do not support, or whether one is accused of being closer or not closer to that political formation. It’s all about politics.”
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Am I right in interpreting that as a call to build a general strike?
EXACTLY. WITHOUT THE GENERAL strike we can’t achieve our strategic programmes. Forget it. Let’s face it, even a Saftu-coordinated general strike, even if the other federations can join, 1, 2, 3 days it will make no real mark.
What can change the whole scenario is a protracted strike over wages. But in that strike we don’t just talk wages. We say “Fix our public hospitals, introduce the NHI now, we are tired, we are working there, we have no infrastructure, get the infrastructure, employ, fill the vacancies.” You make the same demands in education, “Fill the vacancies, get us laboratories, libraries, employ security, fence our schools, get rid of latrine toilets.” And you do the same in every police station, “Fix our police stations, renew the infrastructure get more vans and ensure there is more training for the police officials.” Same in correctional services, “We can’t cope with these current levels of overcrowding, we need correctional centres to be correctional centres and not a breeding ground for training of criminals.”
And we make the same demands centred around the overall economy, “Nationalise the mineral wealth but put it under the democratic control of workers. Take us out of the quagmire of the current levels of carbon-based economy, put us into the just transition, but place that ownership under the communities and under the workers.”
You make those fundamental transitional demands. But you then go into a protracted strike around them. I think that if we can do that, we will force the government to increase corporate taxes and introduce something about the illicit cash outflows. It will stop the bleeding of this procurement budget which is currently losing 35 to 40 per cent, and it will address corruption. And we will see a real reconstruction of society again.
And we can say, “fine we may not be ready to pull such an action in 2021 with this corona virus. So we need to maybe see what goes beyond August/September and begin to coordinate for such an action next year, with every worker knowing, that fine they can impose a wage freeze for now but we are coming next year. It’s not just going to be about the 7 per cent. It’s going to be about reconstructing this society totally.”
A protracted general strike would be completely unprecedented in this country.
THE LEVELS OF ATTACK ON WORKERS are unprecedented. If you don’t do that type of a strike, we are finished. We are going to be on our backs throughout. And unemployment which is at 42 per cent will go to 50 per cent. Already the Eastern Cape is 52 per cent; already it’s 47 per cent for women. Already.
If we strike one by one, we will be defeated. The current conditions are putting so much pressure on each worker family that they can hardly afford a protracted strike that will go 6, 8, 10 weeks. But if you can pull everything together, it won’t be 2 weeks before the government is forced to come with their real discussion. And the discussion must be, “Fix the economy, fix the economy, this growth path is going to reproduce this poverty, unemployment, and inequalities, fix that”.
“The only way to win that battle is when we coordinate the public sector as a whole, meaning the PSCBC, the local government, the parastatals, all of them. And we coordinate the disputes. And we coordinate those disputes with the rest of the private sector.”
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HE GENERAL FRAME: A DEEP, systemic crisis. There can be
little argument that the world of work in South Africa, and
indeed globally, is in the throes of a deep, systemic crisis.
There are record levels of socio- economic inequality between those who own the means of production and those who produce. This is threatening to pauperise the vast majority of workers and has only been further catalysed by the ongoing pandemic. Workers and worker organisations are increasingly divided, ideologically, socially, economically and organisationally. The trade union
movement is disorientated and weak. This has given rise to strategic
confusion. Past ideological certainties are no longer able to provide the framing glue for holding together a clear strategic vision and set of goals. Previously, we have had institutional and organisational moorings that allowed for the strategic building of more inclusive, militant and effective unions as well as the catalysing of working class unity in action. These have largely crumbled or been captured by corporatists, corrupt bureaucrats, abstentionists and sectarian/factional politics.
All of this raises a range of crucial questions and issues for the working class, as well as for progressive/Left forces in general. One of those questions is whether or not the union form has outlived its usefulness for workers, as a historically central component of working class organisation and struggle.
The two dominant views of unions on the Left largely derive from Lenin’s idea of “trade union consciousness”.
The one view is that only the (vanguard) political party can be a vehicle for mass political struggle and revolution. Although unions are good sources for party recruits and for some economic struggles,
they are fundamentally compromised, reformist and limited.
The other view sees unions as potential vehicles for mass struggle, but only where there is socialist leadership and involvement of a socialist party. The main problem here however, is that a great many who call themselves socialists, and more specifically layers of union leadership and officialdom who belong to “socialist” parties, have been responsible for the degeneration of unions and have themselves also been fully compromised.
Regardless of these framing views
though, it is in the realm of union life, practical action and experience of struggle that a more grounded and accurate assessment can be made about the state of unions, unionism and the associated usefulness of unions to/for workers.
Specific realities A crisis of worker participation and representation There are three unfortunately enduring features of South Africa’s post-1994 union picture: • A minority of workers are union
members. The latest Stats SA figures show that, as of 2018, only 29.5% of employees are members of a trade union;
• Unions have fundamentally failed politically and organisationally to see and acknowledge casualised workers, not only as equals but as forming the majority of the working class;
• Organisational and material gaps between union leadership/officials and rank-and-file members have increased. This has been accompanied by a general lack of assistance to, and representation of, those members.
A 2018 Cosatu survey found that many union officials considered the financial and human resource “costs” of organising and recruiting casual workers were too high for the consequent “return” in union subscriptions. The membership of most existing unions overwhelmingly comprises male permanent workers. They are themselves insecure about their jobs and social status. Their general attitude to casual workers (and more especially women workers who make up a majority of casual workers) is either one of indifference or hostility and control.
A crisis of consciousness Workers’ social, political, economic and moral consciousness has generally been missing from the strategic radar of unions for the better part of South Africa’s post- apartheid transition. Much like the party, state and social movement terrains, the personal has been largely removed as a central component in shaping and guiding both individual and collective practice.
Unions in crisis: Has the union form outlived its usefulness for workers? By Dale T McKinley
Unions have fundamentally failed politically and organisationally to see and acknowledge casualised workers, not only as equals but as forming the majority of the working class
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Large parts of the labour sector, both individual union leaders and rank-and- file workers, have contributed negatively to (re)shaping the landscape of political and socio-economic possibility, of what it means to be a progressive worker/ activist, to build and engage in inclusive and tolerant organisation and struggle. Basic ethics/values of honesty, respect, humility, accountability, empathy, responsibility, solidarity and generosity informed the huge personal sacrifices for, and collective moral power of, past worker and liberation movement struggle in South Africa. With some exceptions these have been cast aside.
In their place, union investment companies have been at the heart of the preoccupation of union leaders/officials with high-end lifestyles focused on personal enrichment and accumulation. They have prioritised factional power-mongering and engaged in destructive, socially reactionary behaviour, including violence against women. As Mandy Moussouris asked soon after the formation of Saftu: “‘What exactly is the new federation going to do to ensure that women do not continue to be used as political tools in a battle of men over power?”
A crisis of organisational form The post-1994 labour market terrain has been institutionally, legally and procedurally constructed to privilege unions as the principal form of worker representation and voice. Worker organisation has been required to formalise into the union form to get recognition by employers and participation in the institutional and legal-procedural frame. And this has cost significant financial, human and legal- institutional resources.
The union form in South Africa has been mostly characterised by exclusivity and hierarchy, which have gone hand-in- hand with formalisation. Exclusive in the sense that unions represent a shrinking minority of workers; hierarchical because all unions have embraced formal leadership positions differentiated by title and salary, centralised bodies of executive authority at the core of regular decision-
making and the general dominance of men at all levels of the organisation.
While the form of worker organisation does not completely determine its core character, the two are in many ways inter-linked. The form can go a
long way in determining how effective the organisation is in:
practically advancing the workplace struggles of its members;
linking up/creating solidarity with other workers and the broader working class, not just in the workplace but on a more mass, campaigning and solidarity basis;
responding to the overall needs of those members; and
reflecting its stated values and principles as well as aims and objectives.
With some exceptions, unions in South Africa and globally have largely proven to be ill-fitted to the overall and rapidly changing structure of the working class, the conditions of work and the needs of both union members and other workers.
Alternative forms and possibilities But unions are not about to just disappear or be wholly replaced by more democratic, worker-controlled forms of organisation, even if there is a strong case to be made for such. Nonetheless, over the last 20 years the key foundation of gains for workers (both unionised and otherwise) has come from creative, mass, collective action outside of the formal/legislative labour institutional framework of Nedlac, tripartite corporatist negotiations and bargaining councils. In other words, from collectively conceptualised and independently practiced class struggle, regardless of the dominant worker organisational form
This includes non-union worker collectives such as the African Reclaimers
Organisations (ARO) who are considering adopting a model of “community membership” - middle-class supporters etc. can join as “activists” and lend their expertise and practical support. In this way, the organisational form is built to
cover the multiple and changing needs of members; for example, kitchens supplying food to workers and their families, rehabilitation centres and the occupation and self-management of empty spaces for production.
Workers in South Africa should also look at the Argentine Union de Trabajadores de la Economia Popular (UTEP - Union of Workers of the Popular
Economy). It was formed in 2011 as a confederation, bringing together worker- recovered enterprises with self-employed and casualised workers in recycling, textile and housing cooperatives. UTEP has more recently formed itself into a new type of “extended trade-union”. Crucially, UTEP’s underlying ideological frame, principles, values and social relations are at the centre of its organisational form and practice. In this way, it is able to adapt its forms of organising to the holistic needs of all members, dependants and supporters. At the same time, it has a solidaristic and movement-building focus and intent.
So, it’s possible to see the current and coming period as heralding a transition of possibility rather than decline. The present union form, as well as the labour movement as a whole, needs to be reimagined and rebuilt. It is within and alongside the world of casualised work (which houses the majority of workers) that it can and needs to be done.
Here, there is the possibility of a future in which much of the old ideological, organisational and discursive baggage can be off-loaded. New spaces for critical thinking and debate can be created, in which progressive and personal as well as collective social and moral values and principles can be committed to, and in which the basics of inclusive and grounded organisational forms and struggles can take centre stage.
Dale T. McKinley is an Education and Information officer at the International Labour, Research & Information Group (ILRIG)
What exactly is the new federation going to do to ensure that women do not continue to be used as political tools in a battle of men over power?
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Before we discuss the state of the trade union movement, we need to understand what is happening to its membership. You have been saying that the nature of the work and the nature of the workforce have been changing. The 4th Industrial Revolution.
IT IS VERY NEW. IF YOU go into the assembly plants, they used to operate with our old guys on the line. Now there are operators who have got not only matric as it used to be the case. These operators are now called artisans/ technicians. They not only operate these machines. When they break they attend
to them. Employers want people who will look after the machinery and run production at the same time.
There is a movement away from the old traditional toolmakers/mechanicians. Now what they need are people with mechatronics and other far advanced skills. An hour or 30 minutes before the shift, these people will come in to ensure that the machines are up and ready and are guaranteed to run for the next eight hours. And they run that production by themselves. And when they leave, a new crew comes in, qualified in the same way. This is not the ordinary operator as you would have in the olden days. With the 4th Industrial Revolution, the workforce is sinking, but production is going up.
Take another example. A company that I used to work for. All of the guys that I used to lead when I was a young shop steward there, they are 55 and above. And they are expensive. Companies have just started giving them packages and early pensions. They must go because their rate per hour is above the industry rates. The new and young workers are paid almost half of the old folks. So they’ve turned the plant upside down.
And these young workers, they don’t want to take part and be responsible for the union affairs unlike the old workers. At lunchtime when we have meetings,
they get in their cars and go to town.. But if they see something wrong, they will act spontaneously. The older workers want to go by the procedure, but for the younger workers that is too slow and cumbersome. They want action now, and at times with external political influence. No regards for the rules that are in place.
And the younger workers don’t see that they are getting anything useful from the union. They don’t have as much confidence in the unions. They don’t trust them. You must listen to the language they use in meetings - shop stewards or officials are being bribed by the employer or are corrupt. Without any proof or evidence.
Why do you think there is distrust between young workers and the unions?
AT TIMES IT COULD BE THAT WE DON’T deliver to their expectations. For example, there is an old tradition: when you go into a company as an official, before you go and speak to an employer, you must go and speak to workers first. But these days you do get union officials who will just sneak into the factory and be seen by workers when they are leaving. And that makes a lot of noise in the shopfloor, “That organiser was here, never came to speak to us”. Such things create mistrust amongst workers.
But the perceptions about closeness
of trade union leadership to management or whether that is a perception or it is real is another issue for another day. Although workers in some factories feel that leadership is in a close relationship with management.
We saw the problem that Num had which led to a massive drop in membership and the building of Amcu. And we know that in the big plants you are talking about, all the stories are that fulltime shop stewards now work for the HR department, they don’t work for the union anymore.
THAT’S PARTLY TRUE. IN SOME plants, shop stewards are assigned with
“With the 4th Industrial Revolution, the workforce is sinking, but production is going up.”
Weakening of unions and erosion of worker control Amandla! interviews Mziyanda Twani, Numsa Eastern Cape Regional Secretary
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cars for the committee or even worse individually, at a less cost. Each full-time shop steward has his own office. Office bearers of the plant have got their own offices. Time spent on the shopfloor with workers is far less than what you would desire. They don’t take time to be in the lines, experience what workers are going through.
And all that leads to mistrust unfortunately. Organisational instability at times becomes the order of the day – a fight for the control of resources and not to serve workers’ interest per se. Once workers become aware that their leadership spends too much time on flights and in hotels it sometimes has repercussions for the unions.
And I suppose even more so the young workers who see that and don’t want to be part of it.
YES, THEY DON’T WANT TO BE PART of that arrangement. especially if they don’t see direct benefits to themselves. And employers have been so comfortable with the new arrangements of employer – union relations given the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. They are happier to meet with the union via virtual but deny the union to meet with its members on the basis that physical meetings are a super spreader. Some companies have even made arrangements to ensure that shop stewards are fully equipped with necessary tools to connect with them via virtual platforms.
But we are not able to create the very same virtual platform with our members to
talk to them as we are doing on a daily basis with employers. Why would workers not be discontent with trade unions, if this is our new reality?
If I am a full-time shop steward at one of these companies and election time is coming, I face a terrible choice. If I’m not elected, my whole life will change. I will have to go back onto the shopfloor, do some real work and wear overalls. Obviously that is the last thing I want, so I will do anything I possibly can to get re-elected. How does that work?
YOU WILL DO ANYTHING & EVERYTHING that must bring you back to the office, otherwise you will not rest. Part of the current practices, which are not being spoken about, is the question of buying workers. Some leaders will not mind, at times with the help of service providers, to dish out money to ordinary workers, to ensure they are re-elected.
If we have got to this point in the existing trade unions, is there any hope of restoring them to some kind of worker control?
WE ARE PREPARING FOR ELECTIVE congresses now. Part of the pertinent questions we must ponder on is the whole question of investment arms in trade unions in general. We must discuss our own experiences in the trade union movement in South Africa; the rest of the trade union movement; what is it
thatwe have learnt from Australia and from elsewhere about trade unions and corruption and investment arms. We must discuss whether these things are indeed required to be part of the trade union movement or not. And whether they are helping or not Because if we’ve got investment arms, for an example, why must we have factories closing, why investment arms are not coming to the party? This is but one example.
Part of trade union’s policies is that unions don’t invest in industries where they organise. But what if we were to convert these workplaces to embrace principles of cooperatives? Once
a factory is collapsing, the investment company comes in and intervenes and saves that. It must be for the intention of ensuring that job security for those workers in the first instance is guaranteed.
What you have described is a
picture of a trade union movement in crisis. How do we change?
THAT IS A GOOD QUESTION. IT’S A BIG ask. It’s something every trade union must ask itself. This must not be a question to be answered by leaders only but include the rank and file. That’s where answers will come from.
The balance of power on the shop floor has shifted and in the current moment, whether you like it or not, it resides with the employers now. Today it’s very easy to dismiss workers unlike before the new LRA. It’s very easy for employers to engage without fearing strike action from workers today. Before a strike, workers must think of their bonded houses and hire purchases they have with banks and various other financing institutions. And employers are alive to this reality.
So the balance of power has shifted tremendously away from workers to employers. And this will require a fundamental change of attitude from organised labour to change things around. A serious re-thinking of new ways of organizing and mobilising. A whole new attitude against the establishment is required by every exploited person.
If I’m not re-elected as a shop steward, my whole life will change. I will have to go back onto the shopfloor, do some real work and wear overalls… You will do anything and everything that must bring you back to the office, otherwise you will not rest.
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HEN WORKERS AT AN Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama, decided to unionise, the trillion-
dollar company, marshalled by the world’s richest man, waged a war against them.
The warehouse - Amazon calls these facilities “fulfillment centers” - only opened in March 2020, just as the Covid-19 pandemic began rapidly spreading across the US. Bessemer is in the Deep South, in a “right to work” state, where workers aren’t required to pay dues to unions which represent them. This weakens unions and reflects the region’s long-standing hostility to worker organisation. This is an antagonism that the labour movement has tried to overcome, but never succeeded.
While Alabama has slightly higher union density than many other Southern states, that is an exceedingly low bar. In the United States as a whole, only 10.8 percent of workers are unionised. In the private sector, it’s a measly 6.3 percent.
Bessemer’s union history The residents of Bessemer have a storied industrial history. The small city, located near Birmingham, is named after Henry Bessemer, a British inventor and engineer who helped revolutionise the steel-making process. The region’s natural resources made it an ideal location for steel mills
With the rise of industry came worker organisation. Bessemer’s coal and iron-ore miners frequently went on strike. Communists in the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers (Mine-Mill) organised multiracial union locals. They argued that the Southern workers’ movement needed to confront white supremacy if it wanted to defeat the bosses’ strategy of divide and rule. As historian Robin D. G. Kelley said of Mine- Mill, “the prevalence of Black workers and the union’s egalitarian goals gave the movement an air of civil rights activism.” The resulting militancy enabled workers to fight back even in the face of at times deadly repression, as the ruling class and the likes of the Ku Klux Klan tried to terrorise workers into submission.
Yet what the workers’ opponents could not achieve in the short term ultimately came to pass. The jobs in mines
and mills were engineered out of existence. Low-wage work now predominates in the Bessemer area, as in much of the country. Much of it is in the service sector; little of it is unionised. Poverty is high. This is the context into which Amazon entered.
Enter Amazon The company was greeted with near- universal fanfare by local elected officials. Amazon pays below the prevailing wage in its industry and has been shown to lower wages at nearby warehouses. But the mega-corporation’s PR operation, combined with the unconscionably low federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour (a number that has not been raised since 2009), allows the tech behemoth to present itself as a good opportunity.
But it didn’t take long for workers at the new warehouse in Bessemer to grow agitated. The company’s algorithmic despotism, its tracking of their movements down to the second and firing of those deemed insufficiently productive, led them to reach out to a union. They called the Retail, Warehouse, and Department Store Workers’ Union (RWDSU), which represents thousands of local poultry- processing plant workers and has recently tried to organise Amazon warehouse workers in New York City. By November of 2020, less than a year after the facility opened, the union drive went public, with
workers filing a petition with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the agency that oversees union elections.
Amazon’s campaign against the union Amazon wasted no time trying to destroy, dismantle, and demonise the campaign. It held “captive audience meetings”. In these, the employer requires workers to attend sessions in which management lies, fear-mongers, and testifies against unionising. Yes, a company that infamously does not allow workers adequate time to use the restroom miraculously found hours in their schedule to attend such meetings. Amazon deployed the finest lawyers money can buy to stall the union election process; delaying always helps the boss, as it extends the time he has to try to flip pro-union workers to opposing the union.
These lawyers were also determined to expand the size of the bargaining unit, and in this aim, they succeeded magnificently: while the union had filed for a 1,500-person unit, the NLRB ultimately agreed with the company that the correct number was 5,800. That gave the union the task of tracking down thousands more workers, including temporary and seasonal workers, and persuading them to back the organising drive.
Amazon wages war against unions By Alex Press
The Bessemer warehouse – Amazon calls these facilities “fulfilment centers” - initially planned to hire 1,500 workers. As the pandemic drove up sales numbers for Amazon, the workforce here ballooned to nearly 6,000 people.
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Other highlights of Amazon’s anti-union campaign (an effort that, it should be noted, likely cost the company millions of dollars) include papering the warehouse’s bathroom stalls with anti- union propaganda and having workers who were ineligible to be in the union wear “Vote No” badges on the shop floor.
The vote and its aftermath Fear, exhaustion, confusion, resentment: whip these bad feelings up and tie them to the union, that’s the boss’s strategy. Employers do it because it works. When the NLRB counted the vote in late March of 2021, after an extended mail-in balloting period, the result was 738 for the union, and 1,798 against. Amazon challenged 400 ballots: the union’s president, Stuart Appelbaum, told me the company challenged every ballot cast on the final day of voting, when the union had the momentum. Accounting for the challenges,
they say roughly 1,100 workers voted union. As of this writing, the two sides are
testifying before the NLRB. The union alleges that Amazon broke the law, which the company naturally denies. Among the allegations are that Amazon had keys to a ballot-filled mailbox it demanded the United States Post Office (USPS) install outside of the warehouse. That seems to be a direct violation of the NLRB’s decision that the company could not have a dropbox for ballots. If the evidence is sustained, the NLRB will likely order a rerun of the union election.
Whatever the outcome at the NLRB, the thing to keep in mind is that in the
United States a company doesn’t have to break the law to infringe on workers’ rights to self-determination, democracy, free speech, and assembly. Captive audience meetings are legal. Determining the scope of a bargaining unit, as Amazon did in this case, is legal. Even when employers are found to have violated the law, the punishment is effectively nonexistent.
Workers must organise globally Amazon operates globally, and it is at that level that our organising must take place. The company builds redundancies into its network of warehouses so it can reroute goods around any facility where workers are restive. For instance, German Amazon workers have gone on strike several times, and the company responded by building facilities in Poland, where workers receive lower wages. Rather than accede to these
national divisions, or allow resentment to fester, German and Polish Amazon workers began organising together in 2015 under the banner of Amazon Workers International. UNI Global Union likewise helps coordinate across the different unions representing workers at Amazon facilities across Europe. This is the scale at which organising must operate if it hopes to evade Amazon’s efforts to crush it.
Where Amazon does not yet operate, it will soon. The company is dedicated to expanding until it becomes the infrastructure of our daily routines. Usually, Amazon’s strategy when entering new markets is to throw money at the
operation so it can quickly bury itself into the life of a country’s residents, leapfrogging past domestic competitors and generating momentum before unions, regulators, or any other opponents can mobilise against it. By the time its presence registers, it has burrowed too deep. Workers need to be ready before the threat emerges, with a clear strategy for stopping the company from entering, subverting, and undermining existing labour standards and regulations.
Workers around the world can take note of Amazon’s actions in Bessemer and draw inspiration from the workers’ efforts to wrest power away from the company. The result was a setback, but a union in the United States has finally taken on the challenge of organising an Amazon facility in a serious way. It is not only here that the labour movement is weak; workers are undergoing casualisation, fragmentation, and disorganisation around
the globe. It will require unions to take risks to overcome this. When they lose workers, they should metabolise what worked and what didn’t, incorporating that knowledge into future organising strategy.
Amazon has global ambitions, and it will take a global effort to stop it. What was already one of the world’s most powerful corporations has been
supercharged by the events of the past year. As one Wall Street analyst put it, the pandemic has “injected Amazon with a growth hormone.” The company, always trying to grow fast, has ballooned, hiring hundreds of thousands of people just in the United States alone.
Yet by swallowing the world, it also brings us together inside of its empire, connecting forces that can destroy it. We know what Amazon’s vision for the coming years looks like; it’s up to us to struggle for a different future, and to win.
Alex Press is a staff writer at Jacobin magazine.
It didn’t take long for workers at the new warehouse in Bessemer to grow agitated. The company’s algorithmic despotism, its tracking of their movements down to the second and firing of those deemed insufficiently productive, led them to reach out to a union.
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the state of the workers’ movement
When it comes to organising workers, what is the strategic thinking? What do you want to achieve?
WE DON’T HAVE A strategy really. What we have done is to consciously structure what was before very chaotic work when people could walk into any EFF offices, and we didn’t have processes. But also, this led to people abusing EFF’s name without the organisation being aware. Normally, we wait for a particular worker or a group of workers in a specific institution to say, “Please come and help us here, we have a case of unfair dismissal or unfair treatment, or there is racism.”
We are not a labour union, and employers use that quite often to prevent us. So the first thing that we do, we call them, “My name is Hlengiwe Mkaliphi;
I am head of EFF Labour Desk; we have received a complaint in regards to unfair treatment of workers in your organisation. Can we meet and sit down?”
That’s all. Some just reply through lawyers, “If you are not going to stop, we will take you to court, blah, blah.” We will be patient with them. We reply again, “Yes, we are not a labour union, we understand that. But we have an interest because this case has been reported to us.” If they still insist they don’t want us to meet, we organise to go and picket outside their premises.
Other employers get scared. They call us, “No, let us meet, let us resolve it. What is it that you want to achieve?” And we reply, “No we don’t want to achieve anything. We want you to address what is raised here. In the first letter, we have given to you exactly what the workers are raising. So if we can meet and resolve those cases one by one.”
So that’s what we normally do. If
an organisation doesn’t want to resolve workers’ concerns, we also advise our workers to go to CCMA. There is a new amendment in the BCEA, section 73(a). If a worker is owed money, the CCMA can deal with it instead of the Labour Court. And you know it would be very expensive for just an ordinary person to go to a labour court.
We have established a very good relationship with the CCMA, although we are not allowed to represent workers there. What we normally do is we prepare the workers. We call them in the office, and we tell them, “We are not going to be with you there, but we will be there inside observing. So these are the points.” So now there’s an improvement because before workers, especially the vulnerable workers, would keep quiet there. And those commissioners, because they also want to finish their cases in front of them, will not help workers.
EFF organises and represents workers Hlengiwe Mkhaliphi, Head of EFF Labour Desk, interviewed by Mazibuko Jara
“If companies still insist they don’t want us to meet, we organise to go and picket outside their premises.”
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the state of the workers’ movement
You mention preparing your labour desk members, activists. I guess you take them through labour law training?
YES, NORMALLY WE ASK THE CCMA, “Come guys, come and give us the training”. I have 10 activists here who have matric, others who don’t have matric. But when we recruit, we also emphasise that: please can we have activists who have clarity in terms of the labour laws.
But I also conduct classes myself as well. I listen to them, “What are the challenges? How did you resolve them?”. They say, “No, no, no, we still have a problem, I don’t know this LRA.” And I say, “No, you must go with your conscious. Don’t just concentrate on labour laws. Be an activist. Those things you’ll get inside when you fight. And if you get stuck, you must call a person with labour law skills”.
So that’s how we tackle our cases. Also, in our HQ we have lawyers on standby who advise daily.
I guess you also have comrades on the ground who are EFF members but have trade union experience.
YOU KNOW, SINCE WE STARTED THE labour desk, there’s a mushrooming of unions. That’s why I’m also very, very strict in terms of the coordination of the labour desk. We are saying this thing must
be decentralised so that if there is a case at Mnquma Local Municipality in one village, you must not wait until you go to East London. So when you coordinate your Labour Desk in the Eastern Cape, you must go down as far as your sub-region.
What they normally do these comrades, if they see there is no proper monitoring, they go to a particular company. They see an opportunity, and they go to register a union. Then they go back to those workers to say, “Now there is an EFF union that will help you”. Workers will be very interested, “Yeah, I am resigning from my old union. EFF has a union”. Later on, when they get stuck because they don’t know even the labour laws, they come back and say, “Labour desk, please help us”.
We are not a union as a labour desk, and at some point when we want to go inside to talk to employers, they normally tell us no, we’ve got nothing to do with political parties.
We ask workers who have invited us into a company, “Do you have a union?” “Yes, we have a union.” “How is your relationship with your union? Are you still happy with your union?”. “No, we are still happy”. “Ok, let’s work with them, just for us to gain entrance.” Once we go inside with the union, then we’ll be fighting that company together with the union.
We have won so many cases. I think when we started the labour desk in
September, we had a system whereby we said people must call in or send WhatsApp messages. On one single day, it was 10,000 messages. The next day we received 18,000 messages. In the third day, messaging were increasing and the system crashed. And then the President called me on the third day to say, “What is the strategy? How are you going to do this?” And I said, “What I’m going to do is to activate provincial labour desks.”
So we called the deputy chairpersons of the EFF in the provinces. We said, “You are going to be the head of the labour desk in your provinces. Go and set up your structure in the regions”.
At a national level, we have a coordinator and six volunteers. We put our WhatsApp numbers on Twitter and Facebook. When they call us, we disseminate their info to provinces, and we encourage them to go to offices of the EFF across the country.
So far, according to our records, what we have received, the number is 37 076, and out of that 37,000, we have resolved 22,866.
And how are the older unions responding, not the new ones?
AH, THE UNIONS ARE VERY MUCH against it. Let me give one example. I called the CEO of Sun International after I got the news that he has retrenched 2,400 black
North-West EFF lead a march to Sun City. “I called the CEO of Sun International after I got the news that he has retrenched 2,400 black workers in Sun City. Let me understand why only black people have been retrenched.”
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workers in Sun City. And then I called him, “Let us meet chief. Let me understand why only black people have been retrenched”.
He agreed to the meeting, and then toward the meeting date, he said, no, Saccawu is telling him not to accept me to sit down with him. I said, “No, I’m not accountable to Saccawu. I’m coming to you, you agreed.” Then he asks, “Are you coming as MP or as EFF Labour Desk, because I have nothing to do with a political party?” And I say, “Do you want me to come naked? I must not come with my EFF thingies. I’ll come naked, but I’m coming”.
When we sat down,