COSATU was launched in December 1985 after four years of unity talks between unions opposed to apartheid and committed to a non-racial, non-sexist and democratic South Africa. At our launch we represented less than half a million workers organised in 33 unions. We currently have more than two million workers, of whom at least 1.8 million are paid up. Even by international standards we have been among the fastest growing trade union movements in the world. Today when most trade unions are facing a decline in membership, we have continued to grow.
Our main broad strategic objectives have always been:
To improve material conditions of our members and of the working people as a whole.
To organise the unorganised To ensure worker participation in the struggle for peace and democracy Principles
From its inception, the federation is based on the following core principles:
Non-racialism – COSATU rejects apartheid and racism in all its forms. We believe that all workers, regardless of race, should organise and unite. Now more than ever before we need to bury the apartheid legacy.
Worker control – COSATU believes that workers must control the structures and committees of the federation. This approach aims to keep the organisation vibrant and dynamic, and to maintain close links with the shop floor. We have programmes to develop worker leadership, especially women, within the trade unions and the country as a whole. Through training we have been able to build and empower ordinary workers. We try to develop the skills and abilities of those most disadvantaged by apartheid. We want workers to be equipped to determine their own future in the country and in the economy. In a country where women have been highly oppressed, we are determined to strive for gender equality and women leadership.
Paid-up membership – COSATU and its affiliated unions strive for self sufficiency. This means that while we receive money for specific projects from other trade unions, we remain able to take our decisions without interference from funders. While it has not been easy, we remain committed to its full realisation.
One industry, one union – one country, one federation – In order to unite workers across sectors, we have grouped our unions into industries. Our 6th National Congress resolved to merge unions into cartels or broad sectors such as public sector and manufacturing (see list of unions). We also remain committed to unity with all unions and federations that are committed to, among others, these principles. At the same time, for as long as there is no single federation, we have no choice but to recruit even those workers who belong to other unions and federations.
International worker solidarity – International solidarity is the lifeblood of trade unionism – particularly in the era of multinational companies. COSATU maintains links with a range of national and international centres. We are committed to building links with unions in the newly industrialised countries. New international conditions open possibilities for a unified union movement.
Political Policy COSATU believes in a democratic society free of racism, sexism and the exploitation of the working class. We believe in a society where workers have full control over their lives. We are determined to work with other democratic forces to do away with all forms of oppression and exploitation.
From our inception, we have always believed in the need for broad fronts to achieve our political and socio-economic struggles. Together with the UDF and its affiliates we were involved in struggles that brought about the current dispensation.
When political organisations were unbanned, the ANC, SACP and COSATU agreed to work together as a Revolutionary Alliance (Tripartite Alliance, the Alliance). The Alliance is centered around short, medium to long terms goals of the National Democratic Revolution – the establishment of a democratic and non-racial South Africa, economic transformation and continued process of political and economic democratization.
The 6th National Congress resolved that the Alliance remains the only vehicle capable of bringing about fundamental transformation in South Africa. Despite difficulties and challenges of the transition including certain differences over approaches to macro- economic policies, we are working out a transformation programme for the Alliance, based on the RDP. These independent organisations also have separate but complementary programmes. COSATU and the SACP are also committed to the struggle for socialism.
Socio-economic Policy Our socio-economic policy is based on the need to eliminate economic inequities and poverty in society and in the workplace. Taking into account COSATU’s rejection of the government’s macro-economic framework, the Alliance agreed that we need a developmental, macro-economic policy, aligned to the needs of the country. Such a policy must evolve in line with these needs, while recognising the real constraints we face. No macro-economic policy is cast in stone and the Alliance needs to continue discussions on areas where there is disagreement. At the same time we should ensure that policies enhance job security and job creation rather than destroy jobs.
Some of the major campaigns of COSATU over the past decade include the following:
Living wage campaign – During 1987, Cosatu members were the only workers to win wage increases above inflation rate. This was not based on the goodwill of employers, but based on the struggles of our members. This campaign remains relevant as we attempt to eliminate the wage gap between senior management and workers, men and women, and between skilled and unskilled workers – the majority of whom are black or women.
LRA – In September 1987, PW Botha’s government, at the request of employers, proposed amendments to the then Labour Relations Act (LRA). The amendments sought to emasculate the growing union movement and undermine the gains made by workers since the 1970s. In 1988, millions of workers stayed away from work to press for the reversal of the changes despite the threat of dismissals by employers.
In the end we had the last laugh when the regime agreed to the proposed changes in 1990. Later in both the constitution and the LRA we secured more rights for workers. The constitution and the LRA which was piloted by the ANC and opposed by the NP, DP, IFP and the FF has been heralded as one of the most progressive in the world. The struggle for the new LRA saw President Mandela join thousands of workers in Johannesburg to press home the demands.
May Day is ours – On 1 May 1886, American workers organised by the International Workers of the World marched in support of an eight-hour day. This started an international tradition of observing a workers’ holiday that continues to this day. By 1986, the tradition had been observed for 100 years.
While COSATU was barely six months old, May Day celebrations in South Africa that year were the biggest ever, with huge rallies all over the country. South African workers had embraced the day as their own. The fact that it is today part of our public holidays, is due to COSATU members.
VAT – Cosatu’s anti-VAT campaign in 1991 had far-reaching effects. Apart from winning certain short-term demands, it established labour’s right to have a say on macro- economic issues. The campaign was a good example of the power and success of alliances on single issues. Groups as diverse as welfare organisations, doctors’ associations and small business organisations were galvanised into action by COSATU.
Constitution – COSATU has played a major role in South Africa’s transition to democracy. We were in the trenches as members of the ANC, SACP and civics to bring about the current dispensation. From the drawing up of the RDP to the adoption of the new Constitution, we have ensured that the interests of the working class are central to the broader development strategy. A major victory was won around the exclusion of the lock-out clause in the Constitution, after a hard battle led by COSATU. Despite employers’ attempt to get the Constitutional Court to reverse it, the court ruled that the right to strike is a fundamental human right while the lock-out is not.
Basic Conditions of Employment Act – This Act is a major victory for the South African working class particularly the most vulnerable – women, domestic and farmworkers. There are numerous areas where the lives of workers will fundamentally improve, including working hours, maternity leave, child labour etc. These successes were again in large part due to the systematic campaign run by COSATU as well as the Alliance resolve to bring about real changes in the workplace.
Leadership Based on the principle of worker control, the COSATU leadership is drawn from the shopfloor. While the General Secretary and Deputy General Secretary are full time officials of the federation, the worker leaders are full time shopstewards.
For an overview of the first decade of COSATU (1985 – 1995) see the 10th anniversary issue of the Shopsteward.