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INSIDE LABOUR | SA's newest union held its first protest. It ended in tragedy

Publication: News 24
Author: Terry Bell

Saturday was the first protest by the SWF as a union recognised as such by the 21 June ruling of Judge André van Niekerk. But then five people got shot, writes Terry Bell.

Gunmen, usually - and sometimes almost flatteringly - referred to as iinkabi, a Zulu term meaning 'young bulls full of strength and action ', have been accused of opening fire on a trade union gathering last Saturday afternoon near the centre of Germiston.

According to Nhlanhla Makhaula of the local Casual Workers Advice Office, two union members, an official of the CWAO and two bystanders were wounded. One of the apparently wounded bystanders fled the scene when others were taken to hospital. Some 50 trade unionists and their supporters had allegedly been marching to a bakery in support of a delegation that delivered a protest to management about labour conditions and victimisation when the shots rang out and the crowd scattered, leaving five people on the ground.

Several workers interviewed after the shooting said they believed the iinkabi to be "unofficial security" paid for by a number of businesses in the downtown area of Germiston.

"We know who they are and so do the police, but nobody does anything, " said one of the protesting workers. She is a member of the Simunye Workers' Forum (SWF), the country 's newest trade union. After years of argument, the labour court last week overturned a decision by the registrar of trade unions that rejected the SWF' s application to register as a trade union.

Saturday was the first protest by the SWF as a union recognised as such by the 21 June ruling of Judge André van Niekerk. He found that the intensely democratic structure of the SWF, featuring rotating rather than fixed office bearers, did not preclude formal registration. The fact that the SWF had emerged with the assistance of the CWAO was also no bar: several unions that are part of South Africa's modern labour movement also owe their origins to the assistance of advice centres.

However, while now attracting interest from workers in permanent employment, the SWF is a response to the increasing casualisation of the labour market. Precarious work in the "gig economy", combined with the ongoing reliance on workers provided by labour brokers, has left many workers isolated. It has also helped undermine and weaken traditional trade union organisation. Globally, increasing numbers of workers registered by official statistics as being "employed" are, in fact, part of the growing army of women and men in part-time work.

As I have pointed out in the past, one has only to carry out one hour of labour in the week surveyed by Stats SA to be listed officially as "employed".

Established unions, many increasingly bureaucratic, and, in several cases, more reliant on investment income than on the subscriptions of members, have become effectively absorbed into the exploitative economic system. They focus on workers in permanent jobs, often in the public sector, and frequently mimic corporate structures, with shop stewards becoming, in effect, the line managers for the enterprises in which they are employed.

In some ways this is a case of once potent structures that, if they fail to adapt, may move blindly toward the cusp of extinction. The result is that many workers have abandoned - or been abandoned by - this traditional union movement which their predecessors built. So some have started to build anew.

But what they seem to be building, in Europe, the US and in that one-time mining centre and railway hub of Germiston in Gauteng is not new. It is a variation on a long established theme: a strong current of democracy has always underlain the fundamentally protective nature of trade unions, making them both a threat and a takeover target for economic and political hierarchies as well as revolutionaries. The route to recognition, sometimes to end in absorption into the established order, has been bloody and littered with tragedy extending over more than a century, the classic example being the Industrial (also referred to as International) Workers of the World. Founded in Chicago in 1905, the IWW became a target for bosses, the state and the formally established unions.

One of the most famous IWW members, Eugene Debs, was three times put up as a socialist candidate for the US presidency, the last time in 1920 when he was serving a 10-year sentence for sedition for opposing World War 1. He received almost 1 million votes.

After decades in the doldrums, there are, for example, now signs of the IWW stirring again in countries such as Britain and the US. Like groups such as the SWF they are gaining support because of the ongoing economic crisis, increasing job insecurity and the inability of traditional unions to adapt in a rapidly changing work environment. So, as far as many of the SWF members are concerned, they are part of building for the future and Saturday's bloodshed will not deter them. "What happened made us all very frightened, but it will strengthen us," noted Vuyelwa, a worker at the local Simba factory.

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