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Shopsteward Volume 27: Special Bulletin

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  |  COSATU Speeches

Zwelinzima Vavi`s address to the National General Council of the Public and Allied Workers Union of South Africa

3 May 2013

National Office Bearers of PAWUSA
Delegates, comrades and friends

Thank you for inviting me to speak at PAWUSA, one of our oldest trade unions, formed on 23rd November 1967 in Cape Town, as the Public Service League (PSL), when access to racially segregated unions was prohibited, and changed its name to the Public and Allied Workers Union of South Africa in 1995 after the advent of our new democracy.

It is a union which, as you say on your website, has “a rich history of proud members united in the struggle for the rights and freedoms of workers”.

There is much to discuss, but I feel I must begin by reminding you that on Sunday we shall be marking the tenth anniversary of the passing of one of the colossal giants of our liberation struggle - Walter Sisulu. This follows closely on the month of heroes when we commemorating the twentieth anniversary of the passing of both equally towering leaders - Chris Hani and OR Tambo.

We must never forget these, and hundreds of other struggle leaders, especially those who sacrificed their lives so that we could enjoy 19 years of peace, freedom and democracy.

I would like as well to say a few words about what is on everyone’s lips – what is now becoming known as ‘Guptagate’. I have struggled to find words to express my shock when I heard the news about a private wedding party being allowed to land their jet plane on an SANDF air force base and then getting a police escort to Sun City.

We still await any proper explanation or justification for the decision to allow this invasion of a national security key-point by a bunch of private individuals. Imagine if your union asked for permission to stage a picket even outside the Waterkloof base. I bet the response would be ‘No! National key point! Permission refused!’

We must demand the fullest possible investigation into the whole incident and the real culprits exposed – not scapegoats from among the officials, who surely could not have taken such an obviously politically sensitive decision.

Comrade delegates

It is less than two months since we held our brilliant Collective Bargaining, Organising and Campaigns Conference. The delegates in Boksburg demolished the misguided view that our unions are no longer bothered about the workers’ everyday concerns.

On the contrary, they emphatically told us that their main enemies remain the same: super-exploitation, poverty wages, unfair retrenchments, labour brokers, outrageous inequality and arrogant bosses.

There was a steely determination to crush the attacks on collective bargaining and the right to strike, to struggle against the apartheid wage structure and to fight for measures to increase the living standards and quality of life of our members.

But all these demands in no way contradict the delegates’ equally emphatic restatement that we urgently require a complete restructuring of the economy and the labour relations regime to shift power and redistribute wealth from the capitalists to the workers.

The conference pledged its backing for what our ANC allies have dubbed “the Second Phase of the Transition” - to confront the triple crisis of poverty, unemployment and inequality and build a society that puts people first. This is what the Freedom Charter promised and what the founding principles of both the ANC and COSATU commit us to fight for.

In many areas we have already begun to transform the lives of workers. We have created a democracy, adopted a constitution and laws which guarantee human rights and granted social benefits to hundreds more poor South Africans. For all this we give full credit to the ANC government, and the part played by its allies in COSATU and the SACP.

In the economic arena however it is a difference story. We are still very far from achieving the economic demands in the Freedom Charter that:

“The people shall share in the country’s wealth; The national wealth of our country, the heritage of South Africans, shall be restored to the people; The mineral wealth beneath the soil, the banks and monopoly industry shall be transferred to the ownership of the people as a whole; All other industry and trade shall be controlled to assist the wellbeing of the people.”

That is why we have submitted a Section 77 notice, as mandated by the 11th National Congress, to force a debate on our central demand for strong state intervention in strategic sectors of the economy, to reduce unemployment through the creation of decent work, end poverty, a 40-hour working week, banning of labour broking and access to free quality education and healthcare.

Central to this is the radical restructuring of our economy, to escape from the over-reliance on the export of our raw materials to an economy founded on modern manufacturing industry.

Many of the right policies are already in place. If fully implemented, the Industrial Policy Action Plan, the infrastructure development programme and at least part of the new growth path would take us down the road to the second phase of our transition. But the Section 77 Notice makes clear that we want urgent action and not words on paper.

Another burning issue which hit the headlines just before the Bargaining Conference was the attack on centralised bargaining by the Free Market Foundation (FMF), which we resolved to fight to the death – through Nedlac, the courts and the streets.

The FMF want to wreck collective bargaining by allowing employers who do not sign sectoral agreements to opt out of complying with them. They could then pay lower wages and undercut their rivals who sign and implement the agreement, which would then become a dead letter. It would lead to a ‘race to the bottom’, with each firm struggling to cut wages and worsen working conditions in order to compete with its competitors and stay in business.

This would make collective agreements worthless and undermine the whole basis of collective negotiations. A stark warning of the ultimate consequences of such a ‘race to the bottom’ is provided by the tragedy in Bangladesh, which has claimed the lives of over 350 textile workers - amongst the lowest-paid workers in the world, producing goods for rich and powerful multi-national clothing chains.

They were forced to work, under the threat of dismissal, in an illegally constructed building which collapsed around them.

Such inhuman treatment of workers in South Africa must never be accepted. Both workers and conscientious employers share a common interest in agreeing to basic national minimum wages and working conditions, so that workers get a decent reward for their labour and employers know that their competitors cannot legally pay below the minimum levels.

While the debate on the National Development Plan (NDP) continues within the federation, the bargaining conference expressed great concern that it envisages jobs being created via a deregulated labour market and lower entry wages for young workers, below the poverty wages which most workers currently receive.

We shall oppose the NDP’s major labour market proposals, which aim to entrench and further promote a multi-tier labour market and the downward variation of minimum standards of employment.

Comrade delegates

Another Freedom Charter pledge is that there shall be a national minimum wage, which the conference enthusiastically endorsed. Speakers provided clear evidence that discredit the false arguments by bourgeois ‘experts’ that minimum wages lead to more unemployment, since many firms will not be able to pay them and so will retrench workers or close down. International experience discredits these claims for what they are: propaganda and a denial of reality.

As the experience of Brazil under President Lula proved, increased minimum wages and social grants – and incentives to small businesses – create demand for goods and services and lead to faster growth, more jobs and lower inflation.

The average minimum wage in South Africa was R3 336 in 2010. Minimum wages, according to the 2011 Labour Research Service Report on Bargaining Indicators were 19% below the living wage level of R4 105. Therefore the Freedom Charter’s call for a national minimum wage is yet to be realised for at least 44% of workers.

A national minimum wage would be a significant first step towards greater equality and start to drag millions of poor, overwhelmingly black, workers out of poverty.

On its own it would not alone address poverty and inequalities; it would have to be an integral part of a coherent incomes policy, including a basic income grant to provide all South Africans, employed and unemployed, with an income.

Nor would it replace collective bargaining between employers and labour, but complement it, so that unions in the different sectors would still be free to negotiate higher wages and better conditions for their members.

Comrade delegates

On the right to strike, we are going to campaign for two basic changes to the law, firstly on the question of the widespread use of scabs, which, in the context of our outrageous levels of unemployment, is often a root cause of violence in strikes.

Secondly we want to change the law on the liability for damage, on which the current laws are inconsistent and illogical and must be amended. We cannot allow unions to be bankrupted as a result of damage, or - as in the recent case of the basic education minister’s underwear – offence, caused by individuals who ignore our clear instructions that demonstrations must be peaceful and disciplined and free from personalised attacks.

The national campaign for banning labour brokers continues to be crucial. Such super-exploitation and human trafficking must be outlawed! We shall continue to engage the ANC to ensure that the agreements that we reached with them are taken forward in Parliament, and that we resolve the only remaining area of disagreement.

The ANC unfortunately envisages some role for labour brokers in the first six months of employment, which we believe will open the system up to major abuse, as has happened internationally, where employers continuously rotate labour broker workers to maximise exploitation. No labour broker must be allowed from day one of employment. Six months is 182 days too long!

Comrade delegates

In discussing wages, we must never leave out the social wage. Workers’ living standards are not determined only by the size of their wage packet, but also by the quality and affordability of public services like education, healthcare and transport.

We can celebrate the advances we have made in delivering basic service. For instance, the General Household Survey of 2009 reports that the “percentage of households who receive piped water supplies from their local municipalities increased from 74,5% in 2007 to 83,3% in 2009”. Households without a toilet or who use the bucket system declined from 8% to 6% between 2007 and 2010.

Despite such progress, however, communities face serious challenges, and the wave of service delivery protests continues. We need to link the workplace and community struggles into a single working class offensive to improve services.

We must transform our scandalous two-tier service provision. A still mainly white, rich minority can pay for top-class private services, while the overwhelmingly black, poor majority have to struggle with inefficient, under-resourced facilities.

On education we have made some progress to take forward the Freedom Charter vision - that “the doors of learning and culture shall be opened”, and that “education shall be free, compulsory, universal and equal for all children”.

But we still need to work with the Alliance and progressive civil society, in particular COSAS and SASCO, to address the horrific conditions under which most educators and learners function, including the lack of the most basic infrastructure, sanitation, computers, access to libraries and broadband. The whole education system must be better resourced and staffed and we must wage war on corruption and waste.

We must ensure that the National Health Insurance pilot projects succeed, with the full support of all our people, while keeping up the fight for the full roll-out of the NHI, and to address the current dysfunctionality of our hospitals and the whole system.

We will step up our campaign for better, safer, more reliable and more affordable public transport. Now that the government and Sanral have confirmed that e-tolling will be rolled out all over the country, we hope that our campaign of mass action against this privatisation of our public highways will spread to all provinces. We are determined to make e-tolls unworkable!

We face a deepening crisis of the abuse of women and children. In February we convened an emergency meeting of organisations from all sectors of society to address gender-based violence, a meeting precipitated by the recent spate of brutal cases, highlighted in particular by the brutal rape and murder of Anene Booysen.

We have to embark on a serious campaign in our communities to stop violence in general, particularly against women and children. We have to fight patriarchy and put the working class at the forefront of the fight to protect the rights and dignity of all, particularly the most vulnerable.

Comrade delegates

We will however achieve none of these demands unless we transform our own organisations, in which we face some very serious challenges - both internal and external - some self-inflicted, and some directed by our class enemies, who are trying to divide and ultimately fatally weaken us.

Our biggest problem is that two out of every three workers are not organised in trade unions. So this month of May – the workers’ month - we are having a recruitment drive to reach out to small and big workplaces, aiming to achieve our aim to be 100% representative instead of just gunning for a 50+1% representation.

This will be followed by campaigns in June and August to target recruitment of youth and women respectively, and the establishment of youth and women’s forums.

It will make no sense however to recruit workers to join our unions only to fail to provide them with the service they need. Our members have told us the most important reason for joining a COSATU union was protection against dismissal and unfair discipline (38% of our members), followed by improving wages, benefits and working conditions (33% of our members).

And yet the statistics we have from the CCMA show us that only 46% of cases referred by COSATU affiliates to arbitration were won in favour of workers. This tells us that we have to put our efforts first and foremost into successfully defending workers in disciplinary cases, as well as wage bargaining.

Our members are telling us is in plain language that we have to pull up our socks in all areas of service. We must to more to address these weaknesses.

We have to organise education programmes to empower our leaders, shop stewards, organisers and other cadres of the movement, and bring about a mindset change, so as to ensure that our structures are more responsive to our members’ expectations, and our structures and leadership are more accountable.

We have committed ourselves to prevent the creation of a social distance amongst shop stewards, between shop stewards and workers, between leaders and their base, as well as a distance between the trade union movement and the most vulnerable and marginalised within the working class.

Finally we must confront the burning question of workers’ unity. South Africa hase 193 registered unions. This is far too many! We need to enforce the principle of ‘one-union/one-industry’ – and that includes the public service! It is particularly bad when COSATU unions poach each other’s members when only one in every three workers belongs to no union at all.

Our Federation has come under immense attack from our class enemies including through turning workers against workers. We are dedicated to fostering a spirit of solidarity and cooperation amongst all COSATU unions and ensuring that the current tensions that exist as a result of poaching are addressed through the process the CEC is already embarking upon.

We have developed detailed programmes to support the NUM, SATAWU and CWU, who have come under a systematic attack in the recent past – An injury to one is an injury to all!

I wish you a highly successful meeting.

Forward with the unity or our great workers movement!

Forward to the programme of radical economic transformation!

Patrick Craven (National Spokesperson)
Congress of South African Trade Unions
110 Jorissen Cnr Simmonds Street

P.O.Box 1019
South Africa

Tel: +27 11 339-4911 or Direct: +27 10 219-1339
Mobile: +27 82 821 7456
E-Mail: patrick@cosatu.org.za