Trade unionism has lost its appeal and its future hangs by a thread

Trade unionism, and its viability or attractiveness  as a sought-after workers’ protective choice, hangs by a thread for a variety of reasons, one of which is the advent of the fourth industrial revolution.

The mindset of the working class on the shop floor in South Africa is undergoing a marked change. In the 1970s through to the 1990s, the fire for political change burnt in the belly.  There is no such fire that burns today among the working class.

Political change has come, but its dividends are shrouded in political crookedness. Job losses are a daily occurrence.

The very comrades who were agitating for the demise of the apartheid system are often implicated in corruption and bad governance. Millions of people stay at home; they cannot find a job, so trade unionism as an idea for change gets crowded out of the justice equation.

Today, 28 years after the attainment of political freedom, the need for trade unions to form alliances with political parties is diminishing.

Former trade unionist, political activist and editor of various publications including The Star and Sunday Times Mathatha Tsedu invokes memories of what used to characterise trade unionism in the 1980s into the early 1990s.

“Then there was a bigger cause, and that gave justification for the existence of trade unions. There was an injustice on the shop floor, which injustice coexisted within an unjust political system.

“Trade unions did not operate in a vacuum; if you were on the factory floor you were affected by apartheid and its injustice, and so to want to belong to a trade union came almost naturally.”

So Tsedu, who knows all too well what it means to be banned in the 1980s for challenging the oppressive system, also knows about the relevance and intersection between political activism and trade unionism, especially during the 1980s through to the early 1990s.

It became, as he recalls, a potent force to change the political trajectory of the country.

The tripartite alliance forged between Cosatu, civic organisations and the SACP overwhelmingly created a climate of  ungovernability that forced the minority government to crumble under the increasing weight of political resistance.

Outside of the congress movement, there were other forces, including labour unions affiliated to the National Council of Trade Unions (Nactu)  and the churches under the auspices of the South African Council of Churches that agitated for political change.

But what can be said about the cracks in trade unionism, as they manifest today? Trade unionism as we know it today, which owes its origin to Clemens Kadale in 1919, is  feeling the strain of disintegration. In that year Kadale helped, with his dock worker comrades, to form the Industrial and Commercial Union  to demand better working conditions and wages for workers.

A century later, the work of Kadale is beginning to falter. The new revolution of high technology threatens to erode the supply of jobs. What was previously produced by a large workforce is now, with greater precision and scale, produced by technological devices in a wink of an eye.

Added to the crisis, the allure to join labour unions is diminishing. Political freedom is no longer a push factor to recruit the working class. Cosatu, Nactu and other federations are becoming moribund.

In the media space in the 1980s and 1990s, the name of trade unions such the Media Workers Association of South Africa (Mwasa) became a proud badge to wear. Today in newsrooms the name Mwasa is hardly mentioned. The fervour is gone. The apartheid oppression is gone, and why should the name be worn as a badge of honour?

The spirit of Kadale is dead.

“When unions begin to use the boot of their cars as an office to transact the work of a trade union, we have to fear,” Tsedu says.


  • Mdhlela is a freelance journalist, Anglican priest, ex-trade unionist and former publications editor of the South African Human Rights Commission journals


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