- By Walton Pantland
Here are two stories with a resonance on two continents: two trade union leaders, both charged with corruption, both most likely the victims of political campaigns against them. These stories demonstrate the difficulty senior trade unionists face in balancing their relationships with governments and with their members. To deliver for their members, union leaders need to do deals with those in power – but in some cases, this can leave them compromised and exposed. When they are no longer useful to those in power, they are discarded.
In both these cases, charges of corruption seem to stem from political campaigns to get rid of union leaders who have become inconvenient for governments.
South Africa: “Voice of the Poor” targeted by Government supporters
In South Africa, Zwelinzima Vavi is general secretary of the largest union federation, Cosatu. Vavi is very popular among ordinary workers, rank-and-file trade unionists and the general public. As a fervent campaigner against corruption, Vavi made himself a lot of enemies among South Africa’s elite.
And now Vavi himself is charged with corruption – not by the government, but by enemies within Cosatu.
Cosatu is in a formal alliance with the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the ruling African National Congress (ANC). The SACP stands no election candidates, and backs the ANC at the polls. Despite winning large majorities at elections, there is growing concern in South Africa at the widening gulf between voters’ aspirations and government’s delivery. High profile cases of corruption and incompetence – such as the recent case of the government failing to deliver school textbooks – have heightened this tension.
Initially a supporter of President Zuma, who he hoped would be a Latin American-style populist like Chavez or Lula, Vavi has grown more critical. Vavi has strongly attacked the government on its plans to introduce a new e-tolling system on public roads, as well as on the Protection of State Information Bill - the secrecy bill – which would allow the state to prosecute journalists publishing details of corruption.
Vavi has criticised corruption in the ANC, saying that the party has come to stand for Absolutely No Consequences.
Because Cosatu is affiliated to the ANC, this tension runs through the unions too, between those who are loyal to the party, and those who put members first. It is this dynamic that has lead to splits in the miners’ union NUM, and the transport workers’ union SATAWU, and contributed to the violence at Marikana.
Vavi has strongly criticised these tendencies in Cosatu, and been very vocal about the need of the federation to put members first. And in doing so, he has angered a number of union leaders. At heart, the political division is over where power should lie – in parliament, or the shop floor? Do we change society from above or below?
There were attempts to oust Vavi at last year’s Cosatu congress. These were unsuccessful due to his rank-and-file popularity. Having failed to remove Vavi through democratic means, it seems that his enemies – mostly from NUM and the police and prisons union POPCRU – have resorted to allegations of corruption. He is also accused of siding with NGOs, social movements and opposition parties against the government.
His real crime seems to be that he puts workers’ interests before those of the party and government.
Corruption is a major problem in South Africa, and Vavi is a significant thorn in the side of those trying to turn South Africa into a kleptocrat’s paradise. If his enemies succeed, it will be a major retrograde step for the country.
Mexico: powerful union leader punished for “disloyalty”
In Mexico, the leader of the SNTE teachers’ union, Esther Gordillo, has been charged with fraud and organised crime. With 1.5 million members, her union is the biggest in Latin America, and she is a powerful political figure. She has been in position for 20 years, and there have been numerous fraud allegations against her during this period.
Gordillo and her union have always been allied to the nominally centre-left Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which has ruled Mexico since 1929, except for a brief recent period when power passed to the right-wing PAN. In 2006, after forming her own party, Gordillo put her union’s support into the alliance behind Felipe Calderon of the PAN, and the PAN narrowly won. Given her powerful voting block, Gordillo is probably responsible for the PAN victory, and many in the PRI saw her as a traitor.
At the last Mexican general election in 2012, the PRI were returned to power on a platform that included significant educational reforms, opposed by the unions. There is speculation that the charges against Gordillo are punishment for resisting the reforms, and for backing the PAN.
In Gordillo’s case, there seem to be grounds for the charges – she has lived a very lavish lifestyle for many years, and patronage is a major factor of Mexican political life.
Both of these cases go to the heart of how unions conduct their business in a hostile environment, and should have resonances in most countries. Do we rely on political parties to change things for us, or do we build union strength and power at the workplace, and through collective bargaining? Or do we do both? This is certainly a difficult balancing act that needs a tremendous amount of skill, integrity and strategy to carry out effectively.
In the UK, a new breed of trade union leaders, such as Unite’s Len McCluskey and Mark Serwotka of the PCS, seem to be managing this difficult balance brilliantly.
Mexico and South Africa are not the only countries were unions have had to do deals with political parties. However unpalatable realpolitik becomes, union activists need to ensure that workers’ needs are being put first.
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