Comrade, President Andrew Chirwa,
National Office Bearers,
Members of the Central Executive Committee one and all,
I am very pleased to be able to address the Collective Bargaining Congress of the mighty NUMSA (National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa), and to share with you a number of observations about the context we find ourselves in, and especially from a working class perspective at this time. I hope this will add to your appreciation of the challenges that we face and how they impact on the bargaining environment at this time.
First let me say from the outset that NUMSA continues to be an inspiration to workers far and wide. Its internal democratic regime, as illustrated by this powerful gathering today, and its ability to put into practice our hallowed principles of worker control and independence provide a living example of what it takes to be a serious change agent in our society. Thank you for inviting me to be part of this important event.
Comrades we find ourselves at a very interesting stage in the development of our country. The critique of Alliance politics that NUMSA developed at its historic Congress in December 2013 is as relevant today as it was then, in fact more so. The big difference between then and now is that the analysis that you made then, and for which you were severely criticised, is no longer considered to be abnormal, or ultra left, or crazy, but is now considered to be common sense!
Your critique involved making a serious examination of the policies of the Alliance and the ANC Government, and despite the denialism that blinded many others, NUMSA was courageous enough to tell the truth. NUMSA said that the policies being pursued by the ANC Government were increasing poverty, increasing unemployment, increasing de-industrialisation, increasing inequalities and increasing opportunities for corruption. You stated that a democratic South Africa had been stolen by business interests, who were delighted to see the poor get poorer, and themselves richer.
You also provided a critique of the so-called vanguard of the working class, the SACP, who have sold their once admired heritage for pieces of gold. The fateful strategy of the SACP, to occupy key positions in the State and in Government, and to wage the class struggle within the boardrooms of Parliament and State Institutions is now exposed as nothing more than chronic class collaboration.
How can leading members of a revolutionary vanguard organisation provide cover for a President who has stolen from the public purse and who is a refugee from justice? How can a revolutionary vanguard organisation stand idly by as workers are retrenched, and whole communities are on the edge of absolute despair?
How can a revolutionary vanguard organisation vote in Parliament to protect a President who has walked all over the Constitution of the country? The only sensible answer to this is that the so-called revolutionary vanguard organisation no longer exists. It has been bought, and it has sold out. It has abandoned being part of the solution, and is now part of the problem. The ZANC itself has lost its historic moral position as a leader of society.
All of these matters were analysed and articulated many years ago by NUMSA, but your views are no longer those of the minority, they have grown in stature and have become the language of the majority. What you said years ago is now being articulated by the likes of Kgalema Motlanthe, Mavuso Msimang, Ahmed Kathrada, Dennis Goldberg, etc. Telling the truth to our members and to the public at large always pays off in the long run.
This must be one of the key lessons that NUMSA draws from events in the last few years since the December 2013 Congress. When we analyse society we start from an informed understanding of the needs of our class, as expressed by the working class. We do not deviate from that in order to protect an individual or a Party or even our own Union.
That’s why workers control in our unions is not just a historic decoration, or a hangover from another era. Workers control makes sure that the strategy and direction of the Union is aligned to meeting the needs of workers first and foremost. Once you compromise on addressing the real needs of the working class you are on the slippery slope of class collaboration and betrayal. This is what caused the paralysis in COSATU, and allowed it to become little more than an ornament in the Alliance shop window!
I could of course say a lot more about the crisis in our society, but NUMSA comrades do not need to be reminded of the evils of capitalism, and so instead I would like to use the few minutes available to me to reflect on your prime purpose today, to make sure you have a coherent and effective bargaining strategy.
The Bargaining Environment
Let us now look at the bargaining environment that you face at this time. It is clear that the global capitalist crisis is resulting in a massive shift of power away from the working class into the hands of the bourgeoisie. In just about every corner of the world, the crisis of capitalism is being resolved through mass unemployment, starvation wages, a rapid decline of social spending and all manner of hand-outs to the rich. When the Banks experienced a global crisis of their own making a few years ago, they were bailed out by the very same Governments who said that spending on social services for the poor had to be reduced.
NUMSA members will know what it means to be in a capitalist crisis. There is an all-out assault on jobs in the manufacturing sector as business interests relocate to areas where exploitation can become super exploitation. There is a decisive shift away from investing in longer term industrialisation and in upgrading current industrial infrastructure in favour of taking resources into the cut throat world of financial speculation, where billions are gambled on the stock exchanges of the world, ably assisted by off shore banking companies in places like in Panama.
Protecting jobs, and creating more employment is increasingly seen as the responsibility of the private sector, with Governments role reduced to that of a passive bystander, fiddling with the small details rather than taking bold measures to control and direct investment to more socially acceptable areas which can serve our people and deliver goods that our people can afford.
Instead, even our own Government panders to the wealthy and the blood thirsty who make their money from waging wars and arming undemocratic regimes. The recent revelations of the Guptas being at the forefront of establishing an agency via Denel to sell arms in Asia is a case in point, and was almost overshadowed by the President promoting arm sales and production in Saudi Arabia, one of the most barbaric regimes in the world, and who incidentally are in the forefront of fighting the war against terrorism on behalf of US imperialism. I have a simple question on this matter. What happened to the ANC of Nelson Mandela, Chief Luthuli and Oliver Tambo? Why ANC is led government a friend of the rogue states that have no history of human rights. Who gave the President the permission to sell arms to an oppressive regime, and is selling arms to such a regime good or bad for the security of the South African people?
The ruling class are well and truly in control at this point in time, even as capitalism is experiencing a massive crisis of legitimacy and when billions can be wiped out on the stock exchange. The shocking truth is that most governments, including our own, now allow themselves to be pushed around and dictated to by agencies that give profitability ratings. Our country spends a small fortune sending the Finance Minister overseas, not to tackle rogue investors that rip off the economy and then secretly place their ill-gotten gains into tax free shore off-accounts, but to go instead, cap in hand to the ratings agencies whose job is simply to assessing the rate of profit that can be extracted by investors. Not surprising, the new COSATU forms part of these delegations in the name of patriotism. In all of this, there is no criticism whatsoever of those who are deliberately exploiting our workers, our natural resources, our children’s future. Instead there is a campaign to persuade those who give advice to investors to promote South Africa as a place where exploitation will not be restricted! It is a bit like inviting an alcoholic to look after the brewery!
If you want to see how far we have degenerated as an economy and society you need look no further than one of the most recent reports of Stats SA which was released last week. The report was about unemployment amongst our young black African people, aged between 25 and 34. What was uncovered made for very bitter reading. After extensive research it revealed that these young people, twenty one years after the birth of our new democracy, are in fact less skilled than their parents who were mostly raised under apartheid. Not only were they less skilled than their parents, but less skilled than any other race or age group.
For those of you who have studied a little history through the writings of Marx and Engels you will know that this is a classic case of maintaining a ‘reserve army of labour’ on a mass scale. A reserve army of labour that will work for absolute peanuts to escape poverty. That will join in the dog eat dog divisiveness so beloved of capitalism, and worse, will have nothing to do with collectivism or working with others to improve society. This is a very dangerous feature of our society, especially when our young people are bombarded every day by advertising and music videos that equate wealth and bling with success. We are witnessing a crude social engineering of our society to produce workers who will take anything that is thrown at them by the employers, even if it means that you trample on your sister and brother in the process.
I don’t need to repeat the facts and figures of poverty and inequality in our society. They are well known and all you have to do is look out of the taxi window when you pass between the neighbourhoods of Alex and Sandton to see how entrenched inequality has become. To our own eternal shame, and those of the great leaders, SA today, more than two decades after the formal ending of apartheid is the most unequal country in the world.
But for those of you involved in bargaining the attacks are not just about the external factors in the labour market or the rate of exploitation that employers are enjoying. It is also about the attacks on the structures and ideas that underpin collective bargaining itself. The crisis that is currently threatening the effectiveness of the Metal Industries Bargaining Council is a case in point. The bosses are refusing to put resources into the infrastructure of the Bargaining Council rendering it almost unworkable with layoffs of staff being threatened.
Centralised collective bargaining has been a long standing demand for the workers movement, and not least because it provides the basis for building a united working class, and maximises our power especially when bargaining can be complemented by industrial action and other tactics. It also makes sure that the weakest are supported by the strongest, and when advances in terms and conditions are secured, they can be enjoyed by all those covered by the Bargaining Council.
To allow the Bargaining Council to fall into disrepair through underfunding is a little like allowing public services to be run down so that they deliberately underperform in order to justify privatisation. Allowing bargaining structures to be run down allows the employers to say they no longer fulfil their purpose and instead try and reintroduce the more fragmented plant based bargaining. So NUMSA is absolutely correct to defend what it has been able to establish over the years, and not allow the employers to return to a free for all, and especially at this time when many workers are anxious about their job security. But there is no room for complacency.
The Quarterly Labour Force survey conducted by Stats SA for the third quarter of 2015 has revealed some very interesting statistics on how wages are determined even if the findings are based on self-reporting mechanisms. For example:
- 20.6% of wages are set by union and employer negotiations at company level
- Only 8.1% of wages are set by bargaining councils
- A staggering 56% of wages are set by the employer only
- And 5.3% of workers receive no regular increase.
This means that only 28.7% of wages are set by the intervention of a union! What we have to ask ourselves is, what about the other 61.3%? This is an issue that I hope this bargaining conference will be able to address.
There is no doubt in my mind that NUMSA has a crucial role to play in sharing its experiences of bargaining within the new Federation. They will be working alongside a range of unions who have not been able to establish strong and effective bargaining structures, or who have not been able to utilise research, and a comprehensive understanding of the sectors they cover.
NUMSA can also play a very important role in pointing out the necessity to ensure that centralised collective bargaining does not become bureaucratised and dilute or undermine the need for democratic mandating. This is a crucial point that I know NUMSA comrades care about deeply, and rightly so.
We cannot allow our bargaining processes to be the preserve of a select few, who somehow become almost professional negotiators detached from the very members they are supposed to represent. In some countries, bargaining units have almost become an elite guard within the trade union movement, who instead of receiving and responding to mandates, actually do the reverse, and determine outcomes without any reference to the membership.
It is heartening to see that NUMSA is not about to fall into this trap, but it is important to be aware of the dangers, and at every stage to ensure that there are democratic worker controls embedded in all our processes.
NUMSA has also been in the forefront of thinking through the implications of the structural changes that have taken place as a result of globalisation, and the increasing concentration of capital that is occurring worldwide. There are those with their heads in the sand, like ostriches, who believe that the old ways of organising and representing workers are sufficient regardless of the way that capital is re-structuring itself.
Those unions who so readily attacked NUMSA in COSATU for so-called poaching are indeed the ostriches in this case. Rather than see that dramatic changes were taking place in their sectors that required new forms of organisation and representation, they instead acted as if their sectors were their own personal fiefdoms! No wonder workers have increasingly deserted them.
The point here is to remember that bargaining is supposed to be about advancing the terms and conditions of workers, so that they not only have improved standards of living, but also help to build worker power, to enhance class consciousness, combativity, militancy and embed a willingness to act collectively.
Those union leaderships that refuse to accept the implications of the radical restructuring of the economy need to be reminded of this, and be persuaded that although they might represent workers in a particular sector, they cannot put workers in a silo as they used to do, to be untouched by any other union even when they are crisscrossed by multiple value chains and spreading patterns of ownership. NUMSA can also play a vital role in the new Federation in sharing their understanding of these fundamental changes, and what it means for effective representation.
One of the areas that we must come to terms with as a result of these forms of capital restructuring is the importance of solidarity within and across the new value chains regardless of what union workers belong to. This is the meaning of putting the needs of the working class first, and not behind the needs of detached bureaucratic leaderships who regard members as their private property!
There is no doubt that this bargaining conference will be examining a range of challenges, and I hope that time is made available to discuss how bargaining strategies can be developed to take account of the widening inequalities that are dividing the working class. We have to break the habit of simply agreeing percentage increases that do not address the wage gap between the low paid, and the better off. We inherited shocking inequalities from the past, and sadly, under the yoke of neo-liberalism, the wage gap is once again reasserting itself.
Every shop steward knows that percentage wage claims provide disproportionate increases, and in fact widen existing wage gaps. This does not help to either address inequalities, or build unity in the workplace. This is why the concept of the living wage is such a critical one, and why we must engage in the discussions that are unfolding on the national minimum wage to counter both an undervaluing of equal pay for work of equal value, and the widening wage gaps that threaten our unity and cohesion.
Finally comrades, as we enter into what could be a new era in South African trade unionism with the upcoming Workers Summit, and the May Day on the 30th April and 1st of May respectively, can I share with you some of the possibilities that are emerging.
I am sure comrades will be very pleased to hear that this week we have secured the full support of our friends in NACTU for the Workers Summit and May Day. AMCU, which now stands at over 180,000 members, has also made a commitment to be with us on this journey towards an independent, democratic and militant trade union movement.
We have just completed a series of meetings with these comrades, and they are now fully on board. In addition, we have approached even more independent unions who want to be part of this new initiative, including the National Teachers Union (NATU), which is a very significant player in the education field.
We have also been approached by a range of unions in the informal sector who have asked for representation at the summit, meaning that we now have the possibility of having unions representing over one million workers at the Workers Summit next week-end. Our NUMSA comrades must be ready to deploy their 528 delegates to the Workers Summit, and to send thousands more to the May Day Rally in Tembisa. We need you there. You must be there for the good of our class.
There are those who are cynical about this development, and who remain pessimistic about the possibilities of building a new trade union federation but they should be reminded that we are now presented with a golden opportunity to make a real difference, and it would be a tragedy if we let this slip through our fingers because they believe there to be imperfections.
The road ahead is not going to be smooth or without its pitfalls. That is the nature of the class struggle, there are advances, there are setbacks, there are moments when we think we can relax and rest a while, but one thing that we must never forget is that a vacuum does not stay empty for long.
Our historic task, as revolutionaries, as socialists, as militant trade unionists is to seize the opportunity to provide a vibrant leadership that is capable of reaching out to the 7.4m workers in the formal sector who remain unorganised. We have to reach out to the unemployed and give them hope and organisation through the United Front and other means by making sure the Jobs Campaign to be launched on May Day is a success.
We have to reach out to the millions of workers involved in the informal sector, and provide support and encouragement to build their collective power. We have to reach out to young workers, especially those who have been written off as a reserve army of labour, and also to migrant workers who have had to leave their countries in order to support their families.
Comrades, there is much to be done. We cannot do it without NUMSA. I know we can depend on you. Thank you for listening to me.
This article originally appeared on Politicsweb.co.za.