As COSATU we are glad to have been invited to come and address this meeting at a time when our revolution is being tested to the limit.
Let me state upfront that COSATU is going through challenges and sometimes the description of these challenges gets deliberately exaggerated to create a picture of an organisation that is dying if not dead already.
Perhaps it will help to provide a historical perspective to these challenges, especially because we are at the beginning of December, a month which marks exactly 29 years since COSATU was born.
Please allow me to briefly reflect on the history of the federation and as part of that I would like to summon from the grave comrade Karl Marx who in 1852 wrote in the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte that ldquomen make their own history, but they do not make it as they please they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like an Alp on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honoured disguise and borrowed language.rdquo-
Before COSATU came into existence there were other federations which existed and it is important to surface a few historical and relevant issues which led to the formation, popularity and relevance of these formations to the workers.
It is also important to learn from the reasons which occasioned the demise of these trade union formations which like COSATU had been formed through the sweat of toiling masses.
This may help to provide a prism through which we are able to properly understand the current challenges and how best to confront them by learning from our forbearers.
As Marx said ldquoThe tradition of all dead generations weighs like an Alp on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honoured disguise and borrowed language.rdquo-
Almost all the trade union federations which came before COSATU became relevant and supported by workers on the bases of their militancy in forcing employers to accede on workers’ demands to improve their working conditions. Many of these trade union formations understood both theoretically and in practice the interconnectedness between the core trade union workplace struggles and their role in the national liberation struggle as led by political formations such as the ANC and the SACP who had also played a role in the formation of these trade union federations.
Common amongst the reasons which led to the demise of these trade union formations was the inability to strike a balance between their core trade union role and their political responsibility which came with their inevitable role in the national liberation struggle.
Please travel with me down memory lane!
The Industrial and Commercial Union – ICU
The Industrial and Commercial Union was formed in 1919 at the Cape under the leadership of Clement Kadalie. In the period 1927-1928 the ICU claimed more than 150 000 members. It started off as an effective militant and reliable representative of workers but later in its life the ICU failed to provide effective activist leadership.
On amongst others it failed to develop strategy and tactics on how it was to proceed towards the realization of its socio-economic demands. It also failed to promote strike action where it was clearly warranted. For an example when spontaneous strikes took place at the Witwatersrand and in Durban in 1927, the organization was unable to lend support and provide leadership.
Development of Factions within the ICU leading to the disintegration of ICU
With all the attendant challenges, two factions developed within the ICU constituted in the main by those who supported more militant action, and those who aocated moderation. This, together with financial problems, was largely responsible for the gradual decline of the ICU. After Kadalie resigned in January 1929 and Natal banished Champion for three years in 1930, the ICU disintegrated and died out in the early 1930s.
Nonetheless, even though the ICU disintegrated, it remains a point of historical reference in the emergence of militant trade unionism in South Africa because it helped to make blacks more aware of their exploitation. In addition, it cut across traditional loyalties in its attempt to unite black people as workers.
The decline and disappearance of the ICU did not mark the end of the organized black trade union movement or joint workers’ action in industry, and various black trade unions followed in its wake. A contributory factor was the introduction of a Wage Board, to which organized labour could make representations on matters concerning wages and working conditions.
The Council of Non-European Trade Unions
In November 1941 African workers (after the death of the ICU) continued to maximize their efforts to consolidate and bring together African trade unions to form a federation to be called the Council of Non-European Trade Unions (CNETU). However, these trade unions were not recognized by the South African government or the employers.
Two groups of trade unions joined to form the CNETU and this became South Africa’s largest trade union federation at the time. The first group, the Joint Committee of African Trade Unions was under the leadership of Max Gordon, the secretary of the Laundry Workers Union. The second group, the Coordinating Committee of African Trade Unions, was led by Gana Makabeni. He was the leader of the ICU and later secretary of the African Clothing Workers Union.
Moses Kotane, (as comrade Cyril Ramaphosa did towards the formations of COSATU) a member of the ANC and SACP presided over the inaugural conference. The conference resolved that if the working conditions of the African workers were to be properly addressed and improved, g black trade unions had to be set up and guided by the coordinating body. As a result, CNETU was formed to address the poor working conditions of African workers.
After its inception CNETU also developed g working ties with the ANC and the SACP. Though it was formed to address the issues affecting workers, CNETU had limited participation in political activities of the 1950s. It openly threw its support behind the demonstrations and stay-aways that were called by the liberation movements.
Realizing that their struggle in isolation would not bring forth the anticipated results in South Africa, CNETU joined unions around the world in establishing the first progressive International Trade Union Centre (ITUC). The ITUC claimed to represent workers throughout the world. CNETU was again part of history when the World Federation of Trade Unions was launched in London in 1945.
Formation of factions leading to the Collapse of the CNETU
CNETU subsequently experienced problems that culminated in its collapse. Four years after its formation it showed signs of decline and its membership began to dwindle. There were a number of reasons for this. Among others were the following:
The appointment of J.B Marks as president in 1945, in the place of Gana Makabeni. At the time comrade J.B. Marks was the chairman of the African Mine Workers Union. Makabeni also lost the support of the most progressive elements within the Council as a result of the disappointing reformist policies he adopted. One of these was to work together with the Department of Labour officials. After he had been replaced, Makabeni tried to form a splinter group called the Council of African Trade Unions (CATU) with limited success.
In 1946 CNETU participated in a potentially crippling strike called by the African Mineworkers Union (AMU). The Union demanded a minimum wage of ten shillings a day, family housing, paid leave and other improvements failing which a general strike would be their last resort. In June CNETU emerged to announce its support for a strike by mineworkers. On 12 August 1946 about 60 000 to 70 000 miners stayed away from work. CNETU decided to fulfill its pledge and called a sympathetic general strike the following day. The government dealt harshly with the strikers. The police were deployed in townships, at stations and at bus terminals.
The strike destroyed AMU and seriously crippled CNETU. In the following year CNETU lost 22 affiliates.
There were internal structural problems in CNETU the federation was built on a shaky foundation. Most of the trade unions affiliated to CNETU failed to organize themselves properly, with members changing their jobs from one factory to another over a short period of time.
Another internal problem was caused by CNETU’s political position. The leadership was divided into three basic political orientations.
The first camp supported the South African Communist Party while the second camp supported the Trotskyites. Another group supported the African National Congress. Does this sound familiar?
This division was centered on what method to apply when waging a strike. Daniel Koza from the Trotskyite camp and leader of the Commercial and Distributive Workers Union favored militant action.
Koza and his group deepened the division when they formed the Progressive Trade Union Group within CNETU. This group attempted to take over the leadership of the federation during its 1945 annual conference but was subsequently expelled after its failure.
The final reason that contributed to the decline of CNETU was the legislation implemented by the government to regulate liberation movements and African trade unions. The first government measure that weakened the CNETU was the Suppression of Communism Act of 1950. Most of the leaders of the trade unions were arrested in terms of this act. Trade unions were also banned. CNETU’s final blow from the government was the introduction of the Native Labour Act.
This Act made provision for the establishment of separate conciliation machinery for Africans in which workers would be represented by the workers committees operating under the guidance of the Bantu Labour Officers. This structure excluded union representatives. After the introduction of the Native Labour Act, CNETU split up and trade unions were left leaderless.
The South African Congress of Trade Unions – SACTU
With the introduction of apartheid laws, such laws as the Suppression of Communism Act it hit unions hard. Black workers left the Trades amp Labour Council to join the Trade Union Council of South Africa (TUCSA), which had an ambivalent relation to Black unions, often excluding them or keeping them in check in favour of its white members.
In 1955 the more progressive members of TUCSA formed an alliance with CNETU to establish the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU), which was founded on the 5th March 1955 at a Conference in Johannesburg with a declaration titled ldquoOrganize or Starverdquo and concluded with a resolve that ldquothis body shall determinedly seek to further and protect the interests of all workers, and that its guiding motto shall be the universal slogan of working class solidarity: ‘AN INJURY TO ONE IS AN INJURY TO ALL! ‘
Like the Council of Non-European Trade Union (CNETU) before and even more so because of its non-racial theory and practice, SACTU directly challenged the economic base of Apartheid – the cheap labour system. The entire political superstructure that rests upon that base of exploitation was similarly threatened as a result.
By 1959 SACTU had a membership of 46,000 in 35 affiliates. After the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960, the ANC and SACP jointly formed uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK) in 1961, and most of SACTU’s leaders, who were also members of the ANC, joined the underground military organisation. But state repression saw many SACTU leaders and members arrested during the early 1960s, and by 1965 SACTU was decimated, leading to frenetic debates about the relationship between unions and the liberation movements. Does this sound familiar?
The Federation of South African Trade Unions – FOSATU
It was the spontaneous wave of strikes, which was started by dockworkers in Durban in 1973, which led to the renewal of union activity in the country.
The state was unable to stem this renewal, and indeed it conceded that Black unions were there to stay when it implemented the recommendations of the Wiehahn Commission, allowing Black unions to become registered for the first time since 1956.
The years from 1973 to 1985 saw a surge of unionism unprecedented in South African history. The launch of Metal and Allied Workers Union (MAWU) in 1973 was followed in 1974 by that of the Chemical Workers Industrial Union (CWIU) and the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU).
The formation of the Federation of South African Trade Unions (FOSATU) in 1979 brought another dimension to the union movement: while unions had always been part of the political project to achieve political rights for Blacks, questions about the relationship between unions and the liberation movements abounded ever since the demise of SACTU, and FOSATU saw its mission as the development of an independent union movement that would be more strategic in political engagement. Does this sound familiar?
FOSATU was able to build the shop-floor capacity of all its unions, to the point that the union movement was able to bring the country to a standstill at crucial moments. But by the early to mid-1980s, unions were beginning to question FOSATU’s arms-length relation to politics.
Emergence of Factions within FOSATU
There were huge differences between the various competing blocs in the union movement, and the divisions were based on a series of issues: whether unions should be general unions or more focused industrial unions whether they should register whether they should include white workers whether they should engage in community politics and whether they should have direct links to the liberation organisations such as the United Democratic Front (UDF), Azanian People’s Organisation ( AZAPO) and others.
The union landscape was populated by a range of blocs: there was FOSATU there was CUSA, the Black Consciousness-aligned federation and there were Coloured unions that had on-and-off relations to TUCSA, among others. There was a clear recognition that unions would be more effective if they were united and this recognition led to the process of the dissolution of FOSATU and unity talks began as early as 1979, and accelerated from 1981 to 1985 towards the formation of a new federation.
Formation of COSATU
It is these above mentioned unity talks which led to the launch of COSATU in 1985 in Durban.
Amongst the initial engagements were the deliberations which took place at the Langa Summit in 8 August 1981, where 100 representatives from 29 unions met to discuss a united response to the newly introduced labour laws which were the attempts to divide unions and tame them into its sweetheart unions. Even these early discussions were not without challenges where unions got divided around the question of being registered or not being registered.
There were Congress-aligned unions which rejected registration and the FOSATU and CUSA-aligned unions who were eager to use the space opened up by registration.
In April 1982 a Second union summit on unity was convened in Wilgespruit and it resolved to work towards a new, all-inclusive labour federation.
A third summit, held in July 1982 in Port Elizabeth, saw bitter divisions over a range of issues, and failed to move towards agreement for the basis of a broad federation. During this Summit there had emerged a grouping of some seven community based unions who tabled 7 non- negotiable principles at the Summit and were referred to as to as the Magnificent 7, who at some stage walked out leading to the collapse of the Summit.
A fourth summit was convened in Athlone in April 1983 where it was agreed that the proposed federation could embrace unions with different policies, and a feasibility committee was set up to look at the issues. By that time the Magnificent Seven had compromised from their non negotiable seven demands.
Some of the differences were between the unions who were aligned with the principles of the Freedom Charter and affiliated to the UDF and those from the Federation of South African Trade Unions (FOSATU), who remained largely ‘workerist’, arguing for autonomy from political interests. FOSATU also emphasised the central role of the shop stewards in bargaining and negotiating structures.
On 8th and 9th June, 1985, a fifth and which became a final summit was held at Ipeleng in Soweto, where a wide range of unions brought their national executive committees to deliberate on the way forward. Unions aligned to the UDF, Black Consciousness, and representing various positions on the nature of the federation, were represented by 400 delegates. The meeting was chaired by comrade Cyril Ramaphosa (who is also presiding in this process of preserving the integrity of the unity of workers under COSATU) who was then the General Secretary of the NUM which had broken away from CUSA.
This Summit proposed a tight federation and set out its five founding principle as non-racialism, lsquoone union one industry’, worker control, representation on the basis of paid-up membership, and co-operation at national and international level.
These are the principles we continue to defend up to this day and they are currently under threat.
Source : Congress of South African Trade Unions