Like the ANC, its alliance partner Cosatu is on the decline and is facing some of its worst challenges. And like the ruling party, the once mighty trade union federation’s nightmares are self-inflicted.
Instead of advancing the interests of the workers, Cosatu and its affiliates turned themselves into a political party, captured by the ruling elite.
This is one of the reasons why Cosatu-affiliated unions are losing membership at an alarming rate to rivals such as the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu). So severe is the loss of membership that Amcu has toppled Cosatu’s National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) as the majority union at platinum mine Lonmin.
Many disgruntled members who dumped their unions for others, such as Amcu, have voiced their dissatisfaction with the union leaders, accusing them of being too close to management and too willing to compromise on workers’ demands. Members have attributed this to the close ties their unions have with the ruling party, which they say compromises unions’ independence.
Adding to Cosatu’s woes, was the loss of its biggest affiliate, the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa), a bitter split which cost the labour federation more than 300 000 Numsa members and about R1 million a month in affiliation fees. Now another union, the Food and Allied Workers’ Union (Fawu), has filed divorce papers with Cosatu.
Fawu – along with eight other unions – had opposed the 2014 expulsion of Numsa and was widely expected to join an alternative federation still in the pipeline.
The chickens are coming home to roost now for the once-feared Cosatu as it pays the penalty for allowing itself to be hijacked by the ruling elite. The involvement of unions in the factional politics of the ruling party has let down workers as the unions have for years neglected their plight.
It can’t be denied that labour played an important role in bringing democracy to SA. But unions have to concentrate on labour-related matters and leave politics to political parties.