Donning one’s deerstalker hat, putting on a dressing-gown and taking a pipeful of strong tobacco out of the toe of one’s Persian slipper, it is time to settle down and investigate the Curious Case of the Trade Union Federation in the Dark.
What has led COSATU to expel NUMSA? It has certainly not been an easy road, and has taken a good deal of time. The given reasons for expelling NUMSA are that NUMSA has been poaching other union members, and that NUMSA has been criticising the ANC (to the point of talking about setting up an alternative political party, but not actually doing so), and criticising COSATU for being unduly sympathetic to the ANC.
This is not, however, new stuff. NUMSA, like other unions within COSATU, has criticised the ANC intermittently for twenty years or so. COSATU as an entity was severely critical of the ANC’s economic and social policies. What is new, therefore, is that this has led to a political conflict within COSATU, between those unions wishing to go on with this criticism and those unions wishing to abandon essentially all criticism of the ANC — the latter unions particularly represented by NEHAWU and NUM.
Why not, then, just agree to disagree? There were doubtless trade unions which felt that GEAR could be given a try, and trade unions which felt that denouncing the government as a pack of AIDS denialists was a bit over the top, but they did not go running around denouncing those who said these things, and they did not find themselves getting kicked out of the federation. One can make a strong case that attacking the ANC, while fun, does little real harm so long as it is accommodated within the framework of the “Tripartite Alliance”. In other words, NUMSA’s behaviour can be considered more as political theatre than as anything concrete. Up until now it was also possible to believe that COSATU’s leadership’s attacks on NUMSA were also political theatre.
But the expulsion of a union is not theatre; it’s solid fact. It goes along with the attempt to fire Zwelenzima Vavi for immoral behaviour. Therefore it appears that if this was posturing before, it has now turned into something real — and extremely destructive. Why?
For one thing, where the issues of GEAR and AIDS were — in a sense — peripheral to a trade union’s core business, the current problems which the union movement has with the ANC are far more fundamental. This is not so much because there have been dramatic changes in ANC policies, as because the ongoing failure of those policies are becoming extreme enough to affect the average worker. Salaries are falling relative to real experienced inflation, and the call is going out from government and business to make this situation worse. Service delivery is deteriorating in much of the country, and the call is going out from government and business to reduce public spending on service delivery. Unemployment, meanwhile, is rising. So workers are under pressure, and are looking to their union leaders to do something about this.
The logical response to this would be to power up unionization; to expand the unions, to become more militantly anti-employer, to criticise those government members who are promoting the policies which are stifling growth and encouraging unemployment, and to strive towards alternative policies. Of course this means attacking the ANC’s policies and some of its leadership, but this does not, actually, mean an attack on the idea of the ANC running the country. It simply means that the ANC is to be portrayed as having strayed off the paths of righteousness and needing to be guided back. In a sense it means reviving political and economic debate.
Obviously, this isn’t happening. COSATU trade unions are not expanding; with the exception of NUMSA, they are shrinking, sometimes quite calamitously so. Strikes are certainly taking place, but in general they are ending with big concessions to the employers and wage settlements which are below the rate of real experienced inflation. Unions outside COSATU are largely devoid of militancy (with the ostensible exception of AMCU, although this may also be more theatre than reality, painful as it has been for AMCU’s members). It seems, then, that far from trying to remedy the situation, the organised working class is losing ground and lacking leadership.
Given that there is a crisis, COSATU’s leadership must resolve it. However, they enjoy the support and patronage of the ANC’s leadership, and the ANC’s leadership enjoy the support and patronage of the business caste. As such, then, the ANC leadership has a strong motive to veto any aggressive action on the part of the unions, and COSATU’s leadership has a strong motive to accept such a veto. In effect, NUMSA’s accusation that the ANC wished to turn COSATU into the ANC’s “labour desk” is far too mild; the ANC actually seemingly wishes COSATU to be an organisation which does nothing for labour at all, but instead simply milks the workers of their dues and makes ritual obeisance to the ANC at election time. This does not seem to be wholly opposed to the agenda of many union leaders.
The alternative to resolving the crisis is to deny that it exists. The standard method of denial employed by the Zuma administration of the ANC is to accuse anyone who says there is a crisis, or who dissents from received policy, of factionalism, and thus getting rid of them. This method builds unity among those who are not dissenters, though at the price of losing not only the dissenters, but others who dislike such spurious accusations. This is obviously the method which is being used against NUMSA; eliminate the people who say there is a problem, and the problem ceases to be one which needs to be addressed. Business can continue as usual — which is to say, doing nothing.
The obvious problem with applying this method is that it allows those who are kicked out freedom of action, and it expands and legitimates their position among those who dissent. The steady draining of support from the ANC since Zuma took over has been largely a product of the attack on Mbeki’s supporters, which produced CoPe, and then on Malema and his supporters, which produced the EFF. The calculated risk for the ANC — losing support — is balanced against the greater unity and the superior status of party leadership among those remaining behind. Thus far the loss of support has been manageable.
The problem for COSATU is that it is not the ANC. It is instead a federation of unions, some of which support NUMSA (as the expulsion vote showed, more than a third of the federation’s executive supported NUMSA even though the executive has been relentlessly purged of NUMSA supporters over the last few years). Therefore, the danger is that these unions might decide that membership of COSATU was no longer a benefit to them and might hive off and perhaps link up with NUMSA and its allies. Also, individual members of unions might decide that they no longer trust their unions, in which case COSATU unions might split, anti-COSATU members forming alternative unions which could align themselves with NUMSA.
All this has a great deal of potential to benefit the ruling class, of course. Splintering unions and factionalism within union federations is something which bosses can take advantage of, as they did during the NUM-AMCU conflict. On the other hand, if COSATU were to end up a small rump of ANC-supporting unions with limited membership, and NUMSA were able to unite a large number of dissident unions into a militant federation following a more drastic anti-neoliberal, anti-corporate line than COSATU is capable of, then this would not be such good news for the bosses. It’s difficult to predict how this will turn out.
One thing which seems clear, however, is that NUMSA has been angling for expulsion. This is because simply walking out of the federation which you helped form, and which you have belonged to for thirty years, is unlikely to be automatically supported by your membership however much they might like your policies. Also, doing this out of antipathy to the ANC means turning your back on the party which you have supported for the same length of time, and effectively giving support to the enemies of that party, many of whom are neoliberals and white supremacists. That’s a difficult change to make for the rank and file of the union.
But expulsion — that’s different. Provided that you are not being expelled for anything particularly wrong, provided that you can convince your members that it’s a stitch-up by a kangaroo court (which it obviously is in this case) then the immediate response for the union member is that the union comes first, and if the federation and the party don’t like that, tough. NUMSA has not lost membership as a result of its leaders’ critical stance on the ANC and COSATU; instead its membership has been increasing. Hence it is quite unlikely that a lot of members are going to leave following this expulsion. Instead, the members will be angry; they’ll want to punish COSATU and the ANC for ill-treating them, and they’ll consider their leaders vindicated by the whole affair. As a result, the alternative metalworkers’ union set up by COSATU’s leadership to serve as a vehicle for NUMSA members to flee to, is probably not going to do very well.
This set of circumstances has been obvious for some time. COSATU’s leadership must have known that it was the case. Therefore, why did COSATU choose to expel NUMSA now? Why not wait until December, when NUMSA’s “United Front” would be nominally launched, or March, when the “United Front” is supposed to go into full operation? Obviously a union which had set up an anti-ANC party would be ripe for expulsion from a pro-ANC federation, and with such solid grounds for attacking NUMSA the expulsion might have been more damaging for the union — especially if the ANC and COSATU spent a few months condemning the “United Front”, and especially if the “United Front” fails to get much traction in the community (which seems lamentably likely given its actual nature as a cabal of Trotskyites).
One possibility is that COSATU’s leadership is stupid and has not thought through these issues even though they have had plenty of time to do so. Another possibility is that the ANC, which has been trying to distance itself from action taken against NUMSA, is actually putting pressure on COSATU, behind the scenes, to expel NUMSA. If NUMSA were indeed expelled for setting up a party in competition with the ANC, then the political significance of the expulsion would be obvious, and perhaps the ANC does not want to be too directly involved.
In either case, however, the ANC and COSATU have probably done precisely the wrong thing from their own perspective. The question now is simply whether NUMSA will be able to walk the walk, after talking the talk for so long. Will it be able to simultaneously set up a counter-COSATU and a counter-ANC? It would actually be better advised to work in the former than the latter, for the “United Front” is not going to be a success in the short term. But we shall have to wait and see whether NUMSA does anything at all, or whether, like so many radical movements before it, it proves to be all hat and no cattle, all mouth and trousers.