Cold war echoes and trade union reform

| Terry Bell
Terry Bell.

Both the Cold War and the bitter battles between communists and social democrats in
Germany of the Thirties found an echo at the 11th Cosatu national congress in
Midrand last week; an echo that is now being assessed by labour organisations and
activists around the world.

It came in speeches and in often angry comments from delegates in debates about international affiliation.

Although the Cosatu secretariat report stated that the debate was “probably one of the most important discussions that we have had in many years”, the issue was largely ignored by the media. But it was — and is — certainly being taken seriously, not only by labour, but also by governments and international institutions.

As a result, the discussions and the decision eventually taken by Cosatu may have wide-ranging implications, especially for the trade union movement in South Africa. There is even the probably remote prospect of Cosatu, the country’s major union federation, being expelled by the world’s largest labour organisation, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).

The issue of expulsion was raised from the congress floor last week in a bellicose statement from the National Education Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu) that, along with three other Cosatu unions, has unilaterally affiliated to the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU). According to Nehawu, ITUC had threatened to expel unions affiliating to the WFTU and this, again according to Nehawu, was sufficient grounds for leaving ITUC.

This intervention from the floor was part of a drive spearheaded by Nehawu and police and prisons union, Popcru, backed by metalworkers’ union, Numsa and pulp and paper union, Ceppwawu to tie Cosatu solely to the WFTU. It failed. Instead, amid professions of the need for international unity, a compromise was agreed: Cosatu would maintain affiliation to ITUC while also joining the WFTU.

The drive to change international affiliation is solely on the basis of ideology, the WFTU proclaiming itself to be a revolutionary, anti-imperialist and socialist organisation. However, as the Cosatu secretariat report acknowledged, its claimed 80 million members in 35 countries cannot be verified, whereas ITUC has a verifiable 175 million members in 153 countries.

Although it was not raised publicly, a number of delegates and unions at the Cosatu congress are concerned about some of the known WFTU affiliates, such as the government-sponsored labour federation of North Korea. Given this concern it was obvious that a compromise would be sought.

But the compromise came in the face of the announcement that the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) had also decided to join the WFTU. Based on membership figures listed on the Cosatu website, 858 016 of the federation’s claimed membership of 2 million have now tied themselves to the WFTU.

The NUM decision was taken at that union’s congress in May, although it was not broadcast locally. It came after an address to the NUM congress by Swadesh Dev Roye, of the WFTU-affiliated Centre of Indian Trade Unions that is politically attached to the Communist Party of India (Marxist).

The public notification of the NUM affiliation came from WFTU general secretary George Mavrikos when he addressed the Cosatu congress. Mavrikos, who is also a communist party member in the Greek parliament spoke from the podium the day after his ITUC counterpart, Sharan Burrow.

Burrow’s speech was generally conciliatory, but subtly critical of the WFTU. She noted that there were “fundamental differences” between the two international bodies although “my door remains open [to the WFTU]”.

Burrow insisted that the differences were not “communism or socialism”, but the approach to defending “workers who want the right to elect a democratic government and form free trade unions”. This was a barely veiled reference to the fact that progovernment trade union federations in countries such as Syria and Egypt are WFTU affiliates.

Mavrikos was more scathing and there were disturbing echoes of the divisive tragedy of 1930s Germany when communists attacked social democrats as “social fascists”. He castigated “the class of the capitalists with its agents in social-democracy and in the trade unions” who had “disarmed” the workers.

As this column pointed out in February, these ideological divisions are hangovers of the Cold War and a far cry from labour’s shared call for workers of all countries to unite. During that earlier era, the argument was generally portrayed as Capitalism versus Communism.

It was a case, the Cosatu secretariat report noted, of being in “a Cold War bunker”. That bunker is now in the process of being reconstructed, with the remnants of the formerly pro-Soviet WFTU gaining apparent strength in the face of the ongoing global economic crisis.

In the Cold War years, the WFTU was aligned with the Soviet bloc, while the ICFTU, predecessor of ITUC, with what was broadly known as the “West”. The organisational model for WFTU unions was what existed in the Soviet Union where unions were mere adjuncts of the party and state.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the WFTU all but collapsed amid free market triumphalism. As the Cosatu secretariat notes: “Is it any wonder that the WFTU imploded when the rule of the Party did?”

But many social democratic and labour parties or other political parties supported by ITUC-affiliated trade unions — including the ANC — later adopted liberal economic policies that are now widely discredited. And so an either/or situation has emerged within several Cosatu unions: either support the “pro capitalist” ITUC or the “pro communist” WFTU.

The Cosatu secretariat maintains that both international bodies are in need of reform. And an indication of what form that reform should take has been presented quite dramatically in recent weeks, especially at Marikana. There, many workers turned their backs on established unions, came together as a collective and elected spokesmen answerable to the collective.

It was messy, but gave a hint of the egalitarian and democratic manner in which trade unions first came into being. This, rather than Cold War examples, may be where positive lessons could, perhaps, be learned.

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