Building workers’ unity and workers’ power

In the late 1970s I joined the fledgling South African union movement as a volunteer. I stood outside factory gates and hostels housing migrant workers, discussing issues with exhausted men and women coming off their shifts. The backbone of the federation of unions that I helped found, Cosatu, was built on the struggles of these migrants. We had to guard vigilantly against police, management informers, and agents of the Apartheid state. I learnt the meaning of discipline and solidarity. Our guiding philosophy was, "an injury to one is an injury to all."

As Cosatu grew, we never flinched in the face of brutal repression from either the state or industry bosses. We organised not just on the shop floor, but created a force opposed to the repression and violence of Apartheid in alliance with civic, women's, youth, student and civil society organisations. Cosatu remained independent, determined never to be the conveyor belt of any political party, but because we were so united, our members were able to bring the Apartheid regime to its knees through strikes and work stoppages. Our mandate came from the factory floor. That independence was woven into the organisation's DNA.

We knew that our struggle was interconnected and global. Over the course of the 1980s, we met with worker leaders worldwide, and while we may have had our differences, what mattered was our profound solidarity on the core issues: worker and human rights. That political, moral and material support was the lifeblood of the global solidarity campaign against Apartheid, often meaning the difference between life and death for activists in the trenches.

We were a united force. We were unstoppable. Apartheid teetered and fell.

Flash forward 25 years. In South Africa, on 16 August, 2012, police shot 34 mine workers in what would become known as the Marikana massacre. The headlines screamed "The Killing Fields of Rustenburg". The bloodiest security operation since the end of Apartheid left us shocked and asking, "What went wrong?"

Many thousands of miles away, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on 24 April 2013, an eight-storey commercial building called Rana Plaza collapsed, killing 1,127 workers. When I visited the site of the deadliest garment factory tragedy in history, there was a gaping hole in the ground. The torn ramparts of neighbouring buildings hung listlessly like broken limbs. Again, we asked, "What went wrong?"

Simply put, after the world-changing events of the last decades of the 20th century, organised labour lost focus, lost momentum, and lost sight of the enemy. Today, nearly 21 million people work in forced labour conditions. Three out of every 1,000 people are 'modern slaves'. Union members in 28% of nations have reported physical violence to the ITUC (International Trade Union Congress). In the past 27 years, 2,942 trade unionists have been murdered in Colombia. In Guatemala, 73 trade unionists have been murdered since 2007. Union members in 53% of all nations have told the ITUC they suffer anti-union discrimination without effective recourse to justice. Almost 360,000 workers die in occupational accidents annually, and two million because of work-related diseases.

Across the global economy we see the determined efforts of governments and business to use the global economic crisis, itself a result of human greed and the excesses of a predatory elite, as a battering ram to roll back hard won workers' rights. The holy grail of our political and economic elites is austerity, not for the rich but for the working people and the poor. Dominant economic policies have exacerbated poverty and inequality while unsustainable methods of production, consumption and extraction of natural resources have harmed the Earth in alarming ways.

Many parts of the globe are plagued by violent conflict, which has caused suffering and rights abuses on a massive scale.

This is what the workers' movement now faces. It is an enemy of a whole different order. It has no name. It has no face; or none that we've defined. But make no mistake-this is a war on the poor. The enemy of our time is inequality.

We need to organise and galvanise globally in order to combat it. Unions can guide the way.

The labour movement has a deep-seated understanding of ground-up leadership. We understand building unity, and we understand negotiation. We understand that impossible can, through organisation, very quickly become possible.

The intellectual challenges facing the labour and civil society movements are enormous. We must debate the nature of economic growth, our consumption models and even the nature of work, livelihoods and income distribution.

For many years, I had the privilege of working closely with Nelson Mandela. He was a symbol of our brightest hopes. His life and values captured the social solidarity we knew as working people. He would say that "Overcoming poverty (joblessness and inequality) is not a task of charity; it is an act of justice. Like slavery and Apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made, and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings."

We are not looking for a new messiah. In a time where we desperately search for heroes and heroines, perhaps we have been searching in the wrong places. It is time to refocus our gaze and look to our own people, and we will find a legion of Mandelas who are working selflessly in a world that may otherwise seem to have stopped caring.

But we need to build a compelling narrative as to how we should think about the future in the way that connects the dots of justice and fairness in facing of challenges across the spectrum of human, worker, gender, climate, social-economic rights. The trade unions must unite with the struggles of slum dwellers, environmental and development NGOs and reclaim the inherent rights we vowed to protect so long ago.

Whatever our response, it cannot be derived from ivory towers, but needs frontline guidance of people's lived experiences.

Inequality is the evil of our time. The people in our ghettos and villages, the youth, educated or unskilled, who are today left with no jobs or the hope of decent work in their lifetimes, cry out for decisive leadership. You in the ITUC cannot disappoint them. It is time to go to battle once more for justice, human dignity and social solidarity.

Jay Naidoo was the founding General Secretary of Cosatu. This is a blog he wrote for the 176-million strong ITUC Berlin conference, which he addressed. It appeared on Daily Maverick.