As COSATU flirts with the Communist World Federation of Trade Unions, there are fears that sectarian tensions might split the fragile labour movement.

Terry Bell Africa, South Africa,
A WFTU rally in Moscow, celebrating the federation's 70th anniversary

A WFTU rally in Moscow, celebrating the federation’s 70th anniversary. Photo: WFTU

In the face of the ongoing global economic crisis, with massive unemployment and a wage and welfare gap continuing to grow, the remnants of communist parties around the world see a chance of again becoming major, even leading, political forces. And the prime vehicle toward this goal is the trade union movement.

It is this that lies behind the decision of the Cosatu leadership to host the 17th congress of the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU). Until this week, none of the other South African trade union federations nor the major international body, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) were aware of this decision.

ITUC general secretary, Sharan Burrow has now sent a formal request to Cosatu to confirm whether the federation intends to host the WFTU congress. In previous statements, ITUC has made clear that it does not consider the WFTU to be a “genuine trade union organisation” since it includes among its affiliates the state-sponsored unions of countries such as North Korea and Syria.

However, formal affiliation to the WFTU and closer links with that body have been on the cards for Cosatu for more than three years. In the wake of May Day rallies in 2012, SA Communist Party (SACP) general secretary, Blade Nzimande urged Cosatu to affiliate to the WFTU, led by George Mavrikos, a former Greek Communist Party MP. Nzimande maintained this would “advance the cause of national liberation and socialism in the world today”.

At the Cosatu congress later that year, several affiliates called for affiliation to the WFTU as an “anti-imperialist, class-based federation”. Significantly, one of the leading supporters of this position was the National Union of Metalworkers (Numsa) that was subsequently expelled from Cosatu.

The move to now host the WFTU congress brings to the fore again the ideological fragmentation that existed after World War II where the WFTU became, to a large extent, the agent of Soviet foreign policy throughout the Cold War period. The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (now ITUC), was the largely United States and British-inspired response.

With the disintegration of the Soviet Union and its satellites in 1990, the WFTU all but collapsed. This was a time of triumphalism for one side in a politically bipolar world; the private enterprise West had apparently finally dominated the state-centred East and these models were portrayed as the only alternatives available. Yet, on an economic level, both functioned on the same principle: competition. And this meant the accumulation of profit in order better to compete.

On the one side was the fusion of government and business — of state and capital — on the other, the economy was privately controlled with the government at apparent arm’s length. In the East the trade unions became merely conveyor belts for party and state, in the West, they were, to varying degrees, independent of party, state and business, although wooed and put under pressure by all.

But the concept of freedom of association, of the right of workers to independently form and manage unions remains the ITUC cornerstone, and sets it apart from the WFTU that accepts that “worker states” should be supported by their trade unions.

These ideological differences that erupted after World War II saw, especially in Europe, the trade union movement split along political and even religious lines, with Christian, Communist, Social Democrat and other federations coming into being. This is the antithesis of the principle that trade unions should unite workers internationally, irrespective of ethnic, gender, political or religious differences.

This principled view sees trade unions as the vast reserve army of the sellers of labour, providing primarily protection against the ravages of the free market while also supplying the volunteers to political parties wishing to reform or completely change the system.

The debate has now been reopened with the South African labour movement facing the prospect of being dragged back into the rigid sectarianism of the Cold War.

Will sense prevail or will the already weakened and fragmented movement continue to lose ground?

  • Originally published on Terry Bell’s website

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Terry Bell

Cape Town, South Africa-based journalist commentator and author specialising in political and economic analysis and labour matters.

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