WSF (1999): “One Big Union! South Africa’s New Giants of Labour”

WSF (1999): “One Big Union! South Africa’s New Giants of Labour”

From Workers Solidarity, magazine of the Workers Solidarity Federation, volume 5, number 1, second quarter 1999. Complete PDF is here

FEBRUARY 24, 1999, was a red-letter day for the labour movement in the sub-continent, when two of the largest and most militant trade unions joined hands to form a new mega-union, the Chemical, Energy, Paper, Printing, Wood and Allied Workers’ Union (CEPPWAWU). Mega-unions, that is, industrial unions based on a single sector, were one of the recommendations of COSATU’S September 1997 national congress. Formed from the ranks of two powerful COSATU affiliates, the Chemical Workers Industrial Union (CWIU) and the SA Paper, Printing, Wood and Allied Workers’ Union (PPWAWU), the new giant pools the muscle and minds of 92,000 workers into a force to be reckoned with. The CWIU embarked on one of the most militant strikes over wages last year, with more than 47 000 workers (more than 20 000 of them CWIU members) downing tools at nearly 300 plants and blockading oil refineries in Western Cape, Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal. Newly appointed CEPPWAWU general secretary, Muzi Buthelezi, the former CWIU general secretary said the new union would have greater resources and its sheer size would force employers to show it respect.


SA Communist Party (SACP) general secretary, Blade Nzimande, is CEPPWAWU’s new honorary president. Whether this move could be an indicator of the future formation of a communist-labour political party to the left of the ANC remains to be seen.

But workers must not put their faith in this. Remember that political parties, even left-wing ones, continue to exploit the working class because they don’t abolish the exploitation of the working majority by a small elite, even if it is an elite of “comrades”.

And remember also, that the sheer size of a union means nothing to the workers – unless it is internally democratic. Unless the entire membership has direct control over the mega-union, instead of it being controlled by its own elite class of paid bureaucrats, it will never be an effective fighting force for the members and the working class as a whole. COSATU president, John Gomomo, himself warned of this, saying: “We must get back to the basics of trade unionism and prioritise the basic servicing of our members”. He also said labour would wage “a bitter offensive” against the ANC’s anti-worker GEAR economic policy.

Sadly, CEPPWAWU has also indicated it will establish an investment arm to raise funds. The danger of investing in capitalist firms is that workers may one day find themselves prevented by union leadership from striking because the union has investments in the company the workers are fighting.

Buthelezi warned that if CEPPWAWU ever decided to strike, it would “stop the whole country”. “We know that employers are panicking,” he smiled, recalling that in recent years, CWIU had forced chemicals company, AECI and fuel processor, Sasol, to pay millions of Rands into social funds to protect workers who were retrenched. He said this was necessary because about 400 workers a month were being laid off in the sector covered by the new union: chemical, petroleum, packaging, glass and printing. Buthelezi estimated that the CEPPWAWU had the potential to grow to about 150 000 members. He said potential leadership problems had been avoided by having the two founder unions split leadership posts equally between them. Whether this will strengthen the left or the right in the union is not clear. PPWAWU was more conservative and ANC-linked than CWIU.


In December 1998, three unions at the Transnet parastatal combined, in line with COSATU’s call for unions to consolidate in order to boost their bargaining power, to form the SA Transport and Allied Workers’ Union (SATAWU), bringing together 47 000 workers. The unions which joined were the SA Railways and Harbours Workers’ Union (SARHWU), the Black Transnet Allied Trade Union (BLATU), and the Transnet Allied Trade Union. The interesting thing is that SARHWU was a COSATU affiliate, BLATU was a NACTU affiliate and Transnet Allied was an independent union. It is the first time in years that COSATU and NACTU have combined forces, so perhaps we are starting to see a move towards a merging of union federations plus unaligned unions. In June, the new SATAWU mega-union is set to merge with the militant Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU) to form another giant, this time with 100, 000 members.


Another merger in the pipeline is between the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union (NEHAWU) and the SA Public Servants Union. The Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union (POPCRU) is also expected to participate in talks aimed at forging a public sector mega-union. And the 139 000-member Food and Allied Workers’ Union (FAWU) which conducted an eight-week strike last year, has indicated it wants to merge with the SA Commercial, Catering and Allied Workers’ Union (SACCAWU) which split from it several years ago. Herbert Mkhize, SACCAWU assistant secretary-general and one of those who drew up a COSATU report on mergers, correctly said that mega-unions would be able to call strikes that would shut down the bosses’ entire production line, from factory floor to retail store.


Instead of unions being hopelessly fragmented, so that you find as many as 15 unions in some workplaces, some independent, others affiliated to different federations and some even in bitter rivalry with each other, all unions in a single workplace should be joined into a single fighting organisation. Of course cleaners have different problems to clerks, but why should cleaners be in one union and clerks in another? It is foolish and divides us against ourselves. Unity is strength. South Africa’s major labour federations (COSATU, NACTU and FEDUSA) come together for meetings with the bosses in NEDLAC, but it is time that they join forces as workers and as unionists, to weld themselves into one giant federation. Only then can the workers negotiate with the bosses from a position of unchallenged strength, force those in government to stay true to democracy and move towards our real revolutionary goal: ending oppression, exploitation and economic inequality and putting real power in the hands of all our people.