THETO MAHLAKOANA: Ramaphosa jeers exposed depth of cracks within Cosatu facade

JOHANNESBURG - The events in the lead-up to and following the moment when President Cyril Ramaphosa was booed off stage by workers affiliated with Cosatu have exposed the depths of the weaknesses within the country’s largest and once influential labour federation and the labour movement at large.

As per the norm, Ramaphosa was scheduled to address the annual rally that in South Africa celebrates workers’ rights and the critical role played by trade unions in the fight against apartheid.

But this year, instead of reflecting on the state of the working class, Ramaphosa was forced to retreat amid jeers and insults, registering his name as the second president in recent times to be rejected by workers just as former President Jacob Zuma was in 2017.

However, there are distinct differences in the intention behind the organised protests against Ramaphosa and Zuma by Cosatu members.

HISTORY REPEATING ITSELF…

In 2017, the relationship between Zuma and the labour movement had already soured, with Cosatu openly expressing its disdain for the then-leader of the country as revelations of corruption, state capture and other disturbing deeds emerged against him.

In essence, the disruption could be described as having been sanctioned by the federation’s leaders.

Fast forward to 2022. Cosatu insiders have told Eyewitness News that in the weeks leading up to the Worker’s Day rally held on Sunday at the Royal Bafokeng Stadium in Rustenburg, it was common knowledge in union ranks that members in Gauteng were planning to upstage Ramaphosa.

And they proceeded to do just that when the moment beckoned.

These were not only the angry mineworkers who have been on strike for almost three months over wage increases.
It was also public servants who are, in the main, affiliated with the National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu) and others belonging to the police union, Popcru.

IGNORANCE IS BLISS

Sources said that Cosatu leaders had been warned but chose the bliss of playing ignorant with the hope that they would be redeemed of having no hand in the action should the disruption go ahead.

They would also avoid the risk of appearing weak and lacking influence in the eyes of the world had the workers gone ahead despite their condemnation of the actions.

A stronger Cosatu of years gone by would have risen to the occasion, not only by managing to dissuade open discontent with a president that it will undoubtedly endorse for a second term but would have also managed to quell or resolve the tensions in collective bargaining, which gave rise to the workers’ unhappiness.

BACK TO BASICS

In the immediate aftermath of the event, Cosatu president Zingiswa Losi told journalists that the moment signified the need for the federation to “go back to the drawing board”. She insisted that the chaos was a testament to the anger that workers were feeling due to the governing ANC’s broken promises.

What Losi left out was that workers have generally been feeling helpless as their leaders continue to show a complete lack of tactical negotiation skills during wage talks, with the hope that Cosatu’s partnership with the governing ANC would deliver political settlements when shop stewards failed to secure favourable terms for workers.

Some in Cosatu have suggested that she had to choose her words correctly considering the federation’s September elective congress, albeit that this played no role in the events on Sunday.

BREAD AND BUTTER ISSUES

At the heart of the anger expressed at the May Day rally were two issues.

One was the government’s decision not to hike the salaries of public servants in the third year of the 2018 wage agreement, an action that has largely been described as an attack on collective bargaining.

Then, there are members of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) who, along with those belonging to the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu), have waged a strike against the country’s gold mining producers, which is about to enter a third month.

The core of both the disputes is bread and butter issues: workers who feel done in as they struggle to keep up with the high cost of living in the country. But they are also workers whose union leaders guaranteed that they could secure wage increases in the face of a weakened economy that has not seen real growth in over a decade.

Instead of being cognisant of the reality of the day and changing tact, the trade unions continue to apply methods used in the 1990s in an effort to corner employers into higher than inflation wage increases.

As industry leaders such as Sibanye-Stillwater refuse to budge, strikes drag on for months due to the short-sightedness of unions that play their strike hand too early, with the difference margins between demands and offers too wide, then the gaze turns to the government.

With no other tool left in their box of treasures as enshrined in the Labour Relations Act, NUM and Amcu with the assistance of Cosatu, requested intervention from the presidency.

The same unions and federation that had been crying foul about the watering down of collective bargaining turned to the leader of the country to interfere in employer-employee relations.

When the mineworkers at the stadium on Sunday chanted and jeered, they did so under the impression that their actions would provide Ramaphosa with the impetus required to tell mining bosses to fold.

At the fear of losing favour with members, union leaders deferred the responsibility to see the strike to its eventual end without securing the R1,000 increases being demanded to Ramaphosa. And that is how the president found himself at the receiving end of insults and jeers on Sunday.

It could have been any other president and the outcome would have been the same because the conditions were fertile for the blame to be placed squarely at their door.

"The moment you ask for government intervention, you are weak and you are non-existent. You are saying you can’t do anything," said one union leader.

PUBLIC SECTOR WAGE NEGOTIATION BITTERNESS…

And this has been the strategy of Cosatu unions for years now, more so in the public service. In desperation, unions in the private sector and outside the federation have followed the same route. The protracted dispute over the public sector wage increases spelled a new dawn for unions.

When Treasury said that it would not rearrange the fiscal policy and budget framework to find the money, it had already told unions it did not have to pay the 2020 wage increases and the Cabinet listened, public sector unions knew that they had lost an upper hand they overworked in the past.

They turned to the courts, with the matter finally concluded in favour of the government in the Constitutional Court, and even then, political solutions were nowhere to be found.

CLOVER STRIKE LESSONS

The Clover strike has demonstrated that workers’ battles are not a terrain of government.

Six months after the fatal strike started, hundreds of workers lost their jobs as plants shut down, while pleas for intervention to the government cannot bring the strike to an end as ultimately, the dispute is between workers and the employer.

Why should workers continue to trust trade unions with their hard-earned money and loyalty if their leaders look to the government to settle wage disputes for them?

If indeed the federation and labour movement broadly were to return to the drawing board as Losi suggested, the first step must be to capacitate its negotiators and leaders for wage negotiations in the 21st century. To be armed with facts and evidence as opposed to Marxist-Leninist quotes, populist figures, and demands that only leave the workers in peril while trade union leaders lead opulent lives, which in some cases put the capitalist bosses they love to berate to shame.

Militancy will not put food on the table of workers. Tactful and intelligent negotiation skills is needed with the wisdom to know when to pull out the ultimate weapon in the hands of workers - industrial action.