By Walton Pantland
It’s been a momentus year for the South African labour movement. In March and April, the powerful Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) mobilised millions of South Africans from diverse backgrounds in opposition to e-tolling and labour brokering. Many of those who took part in Cosatu protests were not union members and had never taken part in a popular campaign before. By addressing issues with widespread public support, Cosatu greatly improved its prestige and reputation.
E-tolling is the creation of electronic toll roads in major cities, built and maintained by foreign companies, and amounts to effective privatisation of South Africa’s transport infrastructure. In a country suffering from severe urban sprawl and inadequate public transport, it adds a major expense to squeezed commuters already suffering from high inflation.
Labour brokering, a form of agency outsourcing practiced in South Africa, is deeply unpopular as it prevents vulnerable workers from enjoying full employment protection. As Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi said in the federation’s magazine, The Shopsteward (pdf)
“Labour brokers are the main drivers of the casualisation of labour. Their practices are the absolute contradiction to the principle of decent work. They have driven down workers’ wages and conditions of employment. They do not create any jobs but sponge off the labour of others and replace secure jobs with temporary and casual forms of employment.”
Cosatu’s actions were successful, with the implementation of e-tolling postponed, and labour brokers severely restricted. However much of this leverage is only possible because under South African law, unions are allowed to take industrial and protest action for political reasons, and not just around a trade dispute.
In May, Cosatu fought off an attempt by the South African government to limit the right to strike by introducing the requirement to ballot before industrial action.
This means that unlike unions in the UK and most developed countries, South African unions can declare a dispute without holding a formal ballot. Secondary action and political strikes are also legal, and Cosatu frequently acts as a focal point for protests by civil society and social movements. This union power has made a tremendous difference to the lives of millions of people. This is also why it has been so influential on the two issues mentioned above, as well HIV treatment access, democracy in Swaziland and Zimbabwe and a host of other issues over the past few years.
As Ferial Haffajee argues in the City Press, Cosatu has succeeded in creating a new social class in South Africa:
“Cosatu has created a middle class where one did not exist in the 18 years of democracy. That it is funded by the public purse (funded in turn by you and I, the taxpayers) is neither here nor there.
What is remarkable is how a federation that started as decidedly blue collar has altered the identity and social position of its members so quickly and so effectively that it could turn the public policy of tolling on its head.
With taxis stripped from the tax base, the impact would have been borne by middle-class commuters.
In addition, it shows how good union negotiations can have an effect on the income trajectory of an entire sector of workers. This fuelled a consumption boom and helped lift South Africa to become a middle-income nation.”
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