Role of Trade Unions in South Africa

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The essence of the discussion is to outline the role of trade unions from its traditional role as compared to its role now in contemporary times most notably in post-Apartheid South Africa. One aims to look at how trade unions have coped with the changing nature of work as the traditional role of the worker has evolved over time, as there is an influx of more casualized labour. The impact of globalization on trade unions also has to be examined and how it has affected their traditional role .The question this piece tries to answer henceforth is whether Trade unions have forgotten the interests of the workers and have these interests been undertaken by social movements.

To start the debate one would have to first understand the role of trade unions. Trade unions are essentially organizations that are formed by workers in the workplace to advance their collective interests (Webster et al 2003). The basis of trade unions is to regulate the inequality of power relations in the work place amongst employers and employees. The sociological role of trade unions according to Webster is to regulate workplace relations in a manner that is beneficial to its members. Webster goes on to say that regulating workplace struggles does not take the defensive dimension only but it also takes a radical one (Webster et al 2003). A radical change is of importance here as it seeks to change the balance of power in favour of the workers. The radical change would also highlight that a further role of Trade Unions is in politics or political movements. In South Africa trade unions have played a key role in the democratization process of the country as this affords them a mass following and a political clout (G Wood 2002). It is generally recognized that Cosatu adopted a social movement role by combining workplace organization with the methods and wider aims of a social movement (G Wood 2002).

Closely linked to the role of the of trade unions one has to understand the ideology which was present in Cosatu as this would help answer the question whether they still hold this position today.Cosatu explicitly understood the existence of classes and the need for strong independent organisations for the working class (Baskin; 1991; 95).Cosatu saw multiclass alliances, under working class leadership as the requirement for advancing to socialism. Jay Naidoo explained the political policy in a speech when he said that: “We are not fighting for a freedom which sees the bulk of our workers continuing to suffer as they do today. We therefore see it as our duty to promote working-class politics. A politics where the interests of the worker are paramount in the struggle…” (Baskin, 1991, 95) This attestation was a halfway measure adopted by Cosatu in light of two contesting ideologies. The populists saw racial oppression as the central contradiction within society and all its efforts were to defeat apartheid then all was going to be well. The problem with this ideology was that it failed to account for the day when the enemy was defeated then the role of the trade union would have to change in light of a democratically appointed government. The workerists saw apartheid as only concealing the real problem which was capitalist exploitation. To harmonise the differing ideologies Cosatu formed an alliance with ANC and South African Communist Party and this was seen by many as a socialist project that would bring national liberation (Wood 2002). However others argued that socialism should be the primary goal and that any compromise would betray the working class character of the union (Wood 2002).

The ideology of trade unions is for the working class and their interests the problem then arises when one considers the dynamics of the working class have evolved over time. In contemporary times the nature of work and the worker has changed and the question is how the union’s best can serve the interests of these people. There are groups of workers that do not have...
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