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COSATU Congress Countdown article for Sowetan

By Zwelinzima Vavi, COSATU General Secretary

The COSATU National Congress, from 17-20 September 2012, is the last such national gathering before 2015, when we shall have to assess whether we reached the targets and objectives we set ourselves in our ambitious 2015 Plan, adopted in 2003.

This year we shall be celebrating yet another record level of membership, but we must not be complacent or shirk from checking if we are on course to meet the 2015 goals. We must assess and confront our challenges and weaknesses, which all organisations have but which COSATU will never hide but confronted them before they undermine the strength of the workers.

In particular we will have to discuss how to defeat the current attempt by bogus breakaway ‘unions` to divide and weaken the workers - like NATAWU, a splinter from SATAWU, and AMCU, formed by former NUM members.

We strongly suspect that this trend is part of a co-ordinated strategy by right-wing elements to divide and cripple the trade union movement in general and COSATU in particular.

The same opposition party politicians who have been condemning workers for being too militant and a greedy ‘elite` of employed workers, who use their unions to protect their ‘privileges` - have now discovered, in the wake of the Marikana tragedy that the workers are exploited and underpaid. All sorts of political opportunists are suddenly shocked at the pathetic salaries earned by mineworkers in general and rock drillers in particular.

COSATU, which the DA in particular have slated for being too powerful, and its affiliate, the NUM, which has done much over 30 years to raise the pay and improve the conditions of the workers, are suddenly  being blamed for ‘weakness` and inability to defend the poor workers of Lonmin.

We urge workers not to be fooled. The real motives of the political and financial forces who are hypocritically backing these splinter ‘unions` is to divide and weaken the workers` fortress, and leave all workers in even greater danger of being exploited and suffering even lower wages and worse conditions.

Splinter unions, which offer the world but can deliver nothing, are inherently reactionary because they undermine the need for maximum unity and strength. “United we stand - Divided we Fall” is not empty rhetoric, but the key to transforming workers` lives, and building a prosperous and peaceful world.

But it would be a serious error for Congress not also to reassess the role of COSATU and its affiliates themselves, and make sure that we are operating in a way that will cut the ground from beneath bogus breakaway ‘unions`. We have to do everything possible to streamline and improve the service we provide to our members.

This brings us back to the 2015 Plan, which set a target for increasing membership by 10% every year, up to 4 million in 2009. Today it stands at 2,191,016. Although still behind the target, this nevertheless represents a growth of 230,000 since 2009, the highest growth - 11.7% - between Congresses since 1997.

But we are not close to the 10% a year target. This is critical, because our ability to impact on society depends on the strength and depth of our organisation.

The impressive growth in membership since 2003 is however a result of a general membership increase, rather than a systematic, co-ordinated recruitment campaign.

So we need to revive this strategy and set clear targets per sector. A general target of 10% a year may not be realistic in sectors where union density is particularly high, such as mining, the public sector and clothing. Conversely, certain sectors where union density is low, such as retail, services, construction, agriculture, and domestic work, and many jobs are atypical and vulnerable, require particular targeted strategies.

The 2015 Plan also has proposals for improving the quality of our organisation - increased democratic participation, education and providing better service and benefits to members.  It calls for a comprehensive programme of organisational renewal.

We must question whether the current reality on the ground reflects this proposed shift. There are pockets of organisational excellence, but some worrying trends emerging which need to be seriously examined and addressed, even if these are exceptions:

  • Growing social distance between union leaders and members. Different lifestyles and material realities are creating a leadership not fully in tune with what members are facing. Crises faced by working class communities in dysfunctional hospitals, the textbooks saga, the winter electricity cut-offs, pre-paid water cut-offs etc, do not appear to be taken up by our unions in those sectors with the same vigour as if there had been a problem with wages. If they were, we could expect strikes, or high profile campaigns, around some of these crises.
  • Focus on the traditional organisation-building culture of the Federation is diminishing; only a quarter of union members in the 2012 workers survey had participated in a union educational programme. Just over half had attended a union meeting in the past year.
  • Distance of leaders from the membership is graphically illustrated in the Survey by the fact that only 6% of the members knew who their union General Secretary or President was.

The labour movement is weakest where the working class has been most restructured, through casualisation and labour broking. The 2015 plan calls for focus on developing targeted strategies to address the needs of specific layers and sectors of workers, including youth, women, atypical workers, migrants, vulnerable and unorganised workers.

Some work has been done by affiliates to focus on young workers, labour broker employees, etc. But the Federation still needs to draft overall organising strategies, for these and other groupings of vulnerable workers.

Other important organisational issues raised by the 2015 Plan which need serious attention from the Federation include:

  • The need for a closer relationship between Locals and community structures, which can also help to give leadership to emerging community struggles - similar to the relationship which developed in the 1980s between COSATU Locals and the organs of people`s power.
  • The ongoing question of trade union unity, progress in unifying the Federations, and the consolidation of unions into single industrial or sectoral structures.

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