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Shopsteward Volume 27: Special Bulletin

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Media Centre  |  COSATU Press Statements


1 December 1995

On December 2 this year, thousands of workers will gather in Durban, the birth place of COSATU, to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Federation. This will be an occasion of celebration not only for COSATU members, but for all working people in the country. Ten years ago, when COSATU was launched, few could have predicted that it would become a giant which has today become a household word, respected by friend and foe alike.

Ten years of workers unity and struggle

COSATU was given a baptism of fire. It was launched into a state of emergency. The entire democratic movement was under vicious attack. Worker leaders were detained and harassed. Strikes were brutally attacked. Employers, behind this wall of repression, unleashed their own attacks on workers, including mass dismissal of striking workers, and collaboration with security force action. The regime at the same time embarked on a programme of anti-union legislation, to destroy the emerging power of organised workers.

But none of these forces had reckoned with the spirit of unity and resistance which was unleashed on that day in Durban 1985. COSATU was launched at a period of unprecedented mobilisation of the country against the apartheid regime. The power of organised workers, under the banner of COSATU, was to become the backbone of the movement for democracy in the year to follow.

COSATU was founded by 33 trade unions representing approximately 460 000 workers, after exhaustive unity talks which had taken over 4 years. These unions came from varying organisational and political traditions. COSATU set itself the task of consolidating these unions into industrial unions, in line with its founding slogan of "One union one industry! One federation one country!". This was largely accomplished in the space of a few years, an achievement virtually unprecedented in the international trade union movement.

COSATU also became the fastest growing trade union movement in the world. This was particularly notable, at a time of deep recession, and mass retrenchments of workers. COSATU has in its short history grown nearly four times, from 460 000 to over 1,6 million members today, organised into 19 affiliates.

COSATU committed itself to the unification of all trade unions in the country into one trade union federation. This was particularly ambitious in the light of apartheid-sponsored unions aimed to divide the working class; together with the emergence of trade union federations which espoused principles opposing those underlying COSATU's formation. Nevertheless significant progress was made in rallying other unions around campaigns for workers rights, as well as the convening of workers summits to formulate a common platform. In addition numerous unions from outside COSATU, particularly in recent years, have approached the Federation for affiliation. One of the founding principles of COSATU was non-racialism- to unite workers where apartheid had succeeded in dividing them.This was particularly difficult in the light of the segmented labour market, and the racially divisive practices used by government and employers. COSATU has reached a situation today where it is not only by far the biggest federation in the country, but also the only one to broadly represent a cross-section of working people, regardless of race or occupational strata. Recent years have seen large numbers of white workers, as well as professional and other white collar workers streaming in to the Federation. If COSATU initially had the image of being an exclusively blue collar Federation, with mainly African workers, it is now increasingly seen as being a home for all workers regardless of their occupation or background. COSATU has also become internationally renowned for its approach to workers control and union democracy. While the trend in many countries had been towards bureaucratisation of trade unions, and the disempowering of workers, the Federation developed a militant tradition of worker control and democracy. As the Federation has grown, and engaged itself in increasingly complex negotiations, on a shifting political and economic terrain, it has had to constantly address ways to ensure that workers continue to drive the organisation.

COSATU Political Policy

Initial reluctance in some quarters of COSATU to become involved in broader political struggle and political alliances, soon gave way to the realisation that the advancement of workers rights and the struggle for democracy were inseparable. Trade union leaders and structures became increasingly involved in democratic structures and campaigns at local level. At national level, COSATU together with the UDF, spearheaded an alliance of mass-based organisations which came to be known as the MDM. With the unbanning of organisations, a formal alliance was entered into with the ANC and SACP. COSATU took this decision, not out of a romantic attachment to the liberation movement, but in the belief that the tripartite alliance was the only force which could spearhead the advent of democracy, and advance the interests of working people. COSATU always retained a clear understanding of its independence within the alliance - that it would retain strong independent structures, as well as policies and programmes. This understanding was shared by the other parties to the alliance.

It is accepted by most today that the negotiations process would not have succeeded without the programme of mass action and mobilisation driven by the alliance. Further that organised workers under the banner of COSATU played a critical role in keeping the democratic process on track.

COSATU also played a decisive role in the overwhelming election victory by the ANC. COSATU's campaign for an ANC victory was based on a platform which was jointly hammered out by the alliance. COSATU's Special Congress in 1993 had adopted a proposed programme for the reconstruction of our court. This was to become the basis for the RDP, ultimately adopted as official policy by the GNU. COSATU therefore made an important breakthrough, together with our alliance partners, in ensuring that the policies of the government are essentially worker-friendly in character. At the same time these policies, and the RDP itself have been the site of major contest by various anti-worker forces, at home and internationally. COSATU now faces the challenge of engaging effectively, on a new terrain to ensure that the policies of the RDP are implemented, despite these attempts to derail it.

Despite the attempts by some in the business press to label us as an 'elite', COSATU has as a result of the particular brand of unionism it has adopted, become seen by workers and the poor as not only representing our own members, but as a movement of working people. Millions of unorganised workers, unemployed and rural poor, look to COSATU to advance their interests. Campaigns around VAT, job creation and otination of not only our members, but their communities as well.

The ten years of COSATU has seen us move from a situation of worker repression, anti-union laws, and hostile economic policies. Today the democratic government has, as a result of workers struggle, introduced one of the most progressive pieces of labour legislation in the world. A forum has been created where workers for the first time have a say in the formulation of economic policy, and unilateral economic decision-making can be blocked. Progressive health and safety, training and education, job creation, and other legislation and programmes are in the pipeline. Workers are for the first time in a position to systematically influence decision-making in the country.