WSF (1998): “Union investment arms: A disaster in waiting”

WSF (1998): “Union investment arms: A disaster in waiting”

From Workers Solidarity, magazine of the Workers Solidarity Federation, volume 4, number 2, fourth quarter 1998. Complete PDF is here

While we should support the unions by all means, our support for the leadership should no be uncritical. The last time I checked unions were institutions that sought-after the best interest of workers. I wonder if that mission has had some alterations or has been totally changed over time. There is a fundamental shift in the use and focusing of the union resources in the past few years. Union money, which actually belongs to the workers, is being directed by union “bosses” into projects that are to the union and more especially workers’ detriment.

We as workers are destroying ourselves by allowing leaders to invest our money in the very institutions that exploit and dehumanise workers. Unions were not designed for profit-making but to protect the workers from greedy bosses. Therefore, unions should not engage themselves in any sort of business investment not only because it a fundamental organisational goal displacement but also because it is very anti-worker, reactionary and demobilises workers. It makes the unions reluctant to fight in case they harm investments; it makes the unions think that profit-making is good; it makes the union leaders forget about the workers; it makes the unions stand back from fighting privatisation. It is the reason why the union muscle of about two million members in COSATU alone is not being utilised.

Union resources should be channelled toward projects that benefit, not destroy, workers. The projects that I would suggest the union should direct funds in include among others the following:

* Worker education. Projects of such nature should help educate workers about their rights and inform them about the union policies. This I think is important because many the union members are not informed to a reasonable extent about the politics and policies of the union. In 1994, for example, a survey found that most COSATU members did not have a clear knowledge of the RDP (Reconstruction and Development Programme) was. Yet the RDP was developed by the unions, and adopted by the African National Congress (ANC) as its platform in the 1994 elections.

* Furthermore, a significant percentage of the union members are either illiterate or semi-illiterate. This in turn hampers their understanding of contracts and policies-a disadvantage that the company bosses will always exploit.

* Also it would be helpful to educate the workers because it will unburden the shop-stewards of the load they carry. The union will benefit in that it will be more democratic. The union officials will carry out the mandates they receive from workers themselves and not what a few of them in the national level have decided upon.

A central part of the battle between slavery and liberation is psychological- it is a struggle to free workers’ minds of the lies and propaganda that keep workers ignorant and passive. It is not just force by the government that keeps workers oppressed- it is also the hold over workers’ minds exercised by the bosses. These lies tell workers that they are not able to run society, that they are poor because they are uneducated, that the government will deliver. In a sense then by educating workers, the union would be liberating them.

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About Lucien van der Walt

I teach at Rhodes University, the Eastern Cape. I’m South African, born and bred. I am currently also involved in union education and have a background in social movement and left-wing activism, the Workers’ Library and Museum, the Anti-Privatisation Forum, and the National Health and Allied Workers Union (NEHAWU). I’ve presented papers at more than 120 conferences and workshops, published in key journals like 'Capital and Class' and 'Labor History', have co-edited 3 journal specials (these on global labour history, African labour, and unions in the Global South), and written well over 130 other articles, papers and entries. I was Southern Africa editor for the 2009 'International Encyclopaedia of Revolution and Protest' (Blackwell). My focus has been on South Africa, but I have also done research in Zambia and Zimbabwe. I won the 2008 international 'Labor History' thesis prize, and the 2008/2009 Council for the Development of Social Science Research prize for best African dissertation, for my PhD thesis on South African anarchism, syndicalism and black militants. I have several books, including 'Negro e Vermelho: anarquismo, sindicalismo revolucionário e pessoas de cor na África Meridional nas décadas de 1880-1920,' 'Anarchism and Syndicalism in the Colonial and Postcolonial World, 1880-1940: the praxis of national liberation, internationalism, and social revolution' (co-edited with Steve Hirsch, Brill, 2010/ 2014) and 'Black Flame: the revolutionary class politics of anarchism and syndicalism' (co-written with Michael Schmidt, AK Press 2009).