Vavi’s comeuppance

It is comforting to boil political developments in SA down to simple ANC factional politics. Reality tends to be more nuanced.  One example is the rush to a “not guilty” judgement by a mainstream media confounded by the internal revolt against Congress of SA Trade Unions (Cosatu) general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi. The unionist is accused of corruption, abuse of power and useless leadership. Whatever comes of this, his time at the helm has certainly seen the federation sailing towards rocks.

Back in the Eighties, Cosatu was the most effective platform for the advancement of black interests in the absence of formal politics. Foremost in pushing successfully for real betterment in wages and working conditions was Cyril Ramaphosa’s National Union of Mineworkers. Nowadays the NUM is on the skids, and Vavi and his top lieutenants have done little to change this.

Most unionised workers are now found in the public sector, a reversal of the picture of 20 years ago. One in three formally employed people are now temps, often the product of labour brokers in an economy fast moving away from its rigid formalities of yesteryear. Registered trade union membership has fallen from 31% of the employed in 1994 to 23% today (with only 14% in Cosatu), an elite of the overall workforce.

While more than half of Cosatu’s members earn upwards of R5000 a month, only 22% of other workers do. The federation’s reliance on centralised bargaining to ensure that wage agreements reached between its unions and large businesses are applied across the board to small business and non-unionised workers is under strain. Bargaining councils to enforce these agreements had fallen from 77 in 1996 to just 47 by 2011.

Meanwhile, in a first for the Department of Public Service and Administration, and for the SA Local Government Association, public sector unions were pushed into a three-year wage agreement of CPI plus 1% last year. This follows similar three-year agreements reached in especially mining.

In this, Cosatu’s teeth have been pulled as wage disputes are far and away the biggest cause of labour unrest (triggering 98% of strikes in 2011 compared to only 34% back in Cosatu’s heyday in 1987).
Not all workers have bought into a federation increasingly public sector based, enmeshed in empowerment deals and investment arms, and seemingly devoted to national politics. Biggest loser so far has been the venerable NUM, supplanted on the platinum belt by former BHP Billiton employees (themselves forced out of Cosatu by ANC machinations) whose Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union is forcing recognition agreements and rejecting NUM’s cosy three-year wage deals. Last week saw Anglo American Platinum reluctantly accept the new reality and closing NUM’s on-site offices.

All of this happens as government withdraws proposals to ban labour broking, and has introduced legislation to make picketing by non-unionists illegal, force strike ballots before industrial actions are launched, and to allow the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration to declare smaller unions (likely the upstarts challenging Vavi’s federation) as “sufficiently representative” to enjoy the benefits of the formal bargaining process.
Pro-Zuma or not, these should be reason enough for worried shop stewards to kick Vavi out of Cosatu House, but they may be too late to stop the federation’s eclipse.

– Paul Pereira (First published in The Citizen, 5 March 2013).