In an employment relationship, labour is fragile in relation to the owner. The owner sees labour as an instrument of production and of generating wealth for itself. The owner’s aim is to receive as much as possible from labour and pay a wage that is as little as possible in return. It is this method that makes inequality called the surplus value to emerge. Surplus value comes as a result of exploitation of labour and profits get maximized. Greed for more and more profits translates into lower wages and dehumanizing conditions for labour but better conditions for owners.
When labour understands and experiences this situation, it becomes class conscious and search for solutions. A trade union becomes the solution to the problem of this unequal relationship. A trade union is an organization of labour seeking to unite it and make it a strong vehicle that can speak to the owner. A trade union also aims to bring regulation in employment relations. They create an institutional framework for engagement. Therefore trade unions are an intervention in the inherent contradictions in employment relations.
The primary responsibility of a trade union, therefore, is to represent labour in day-to-day encounters with owners. It must take up the day-to-day bread and butter issues of labour. This role of the trade union is the lifeblood of any working class revolution. It is this responsibility that keeps the working class mobilized.
When labour goes home after work, it becomes a member of the household family and a member of the community. Here labour now becomes a community builder that is actively involved in our democracy. Here the aim is to shape the course of a democracy biased to the working class both in society and in the workplace. This is what COSATU stands for today.
Therefore, the recent developments in COSATU today are in no way making the federation stronger qualitatively and quantitatively. The indifferences amongst the leadership are in no way of positive contribution to COSATU. I do not understand how it is revolutionary to expel an entire union but still convince yourself that you are building and defending the unity of workers. Nothing is more important than the unity of workers regardless. Anything that divides the working class is a gain to capital as labour is already weak when waged against capital.
Not only will these divisions weaken labour against capital, but they will also weaken the influence of the working class on community struggles and the state. All over the world, trade unions play a vital role in the struggle for democracy and broadening democratic space. Liberal democracies have inherent limitations and society cannot rely on political parties only to deepen democracy, particularly to realise the vision of a participatory democracy. Power in a class-based society is uneven, even if people have the vote. If ordinary people do not organise – if workers in particular do not organise to engage on key strategic issues – the democratic space would be monopolised by the rich and wealthy. In the absence of trade unions the political space inevitably will be dominated by those with money and consequently access to media. Ruling ideas will forever become ideas of the ruling class.
In short, trade unions are important in a functional democracy because they give workers a voice. Workers and trade unions have a stake in the shape and direction of society, especially one as unequal as that of South Africa. A revolutionary trade union movement also has interest in deepening and opening the democratic space as a means to counter the hegemony of capitalism. This reality forms the background for COSATU’s role and its contribution in South Africa today.
Those who must lead government are those who are elected into office by the majority. In as much as that is the case, such a government must favour workers on policy and its program of action. This means COSATU must have vested interest on how government is structured and what policies it is implementing. A weak and a divided COSATU will not be able to do that and it will also be unable to analyse the class contradictions taking place within the contested multi-class terrain of the congress movement. It will fail to see that perhaps maybe their own challenges as COSATU are a result of their terrain being contested for selfish upward political mobility and enrichment by others at the detriment of the unity of the federation.
Workers are going to suffer without COSATU. This is not the COSATU we know that is a product of the 1973 Durban strikes. We come from a long way. Workers must rescue their shield and their federation. Workers must unite for they have nothing to lose but their chains!