Yesterday’s ‘constructive engagement’ between AMCU and the Registrar of Labour Relations over the union’s possible deregistration must lull no one into believing a crisis has passed. Quite the contrary. The AMCU incident signals a deepening of the state’s attack on trade unions, following the unprecedented 2018 legislative attack on unions’ ability to strike and picket. The Department of Labour’s threat to deregister AMCU is a continuation of that attack on worker organisations and must be resisted by all progressive forces.
The internal problems of trade unions must always only ever be the responsibility of their members to resolve. State interference must not be tolerated.
While it is clear that ANC-aligned unions like NUM will benefit from a deregistered AMCU, it would be shortsighted to view the threat as merely the action of a sectarian ANC government. The threatened action against AMCU – still not withdrawn even after the ‘constructive engagement’ – is part of a broader state attack on workers, their rights and their organisations. This renewed onslaught has come in many forms, including:
- The exclusion of the majority of workers from representation at the CCMA.
- The conversion of the Department of Labour and Labour Court into back offices of the bosses.
- The legislative attack on the right to strike and picket.
- A hollowed out National Minumum Wage that will not be enforced.
Generally, trade unions are no longer accountable to their members, are barely functional and are riddled with corruption. For these reasons many are not complying with their constitutions and LRA registration requirements like holding constitutional meetings or providing members with audited annual financial statements. While the attacks on trade unions must be resisted, it is even more necessary for workers to struggle for control over their organisations, to ensure accountability, democracy and the rooting out of corruption. In short, to turn trade unions into fighting formations once more. Fighting, functioning unions will at once also lessen the basis for state attacks.
The bosses will always prefer a situation of no unions even over sweetheart unions. Even weakened unions that propagate bosses’ interests are not enough for them. As the Marikana workers showed, sweetheart unions can’t guarantee they can control workers’ militancy. Unions that continue to lead militant struggles are obviously even less trustworthy. The South African state is currently on a path of destroying worker organisations in the interests of the bosses. This is the real meaning of the threat against AMCU. No trade union is safe from this attack, despite the celebrations that may be echoing in some union boardrooms. They may need reminding that the selfsame registrar has already placed the pro-ANC SAMWU under administration.
Despite the many problems trade unions have, it remains the responsibility of workers themselves to decide what happens inside and to their organisations, not the state. An active defense of trade unions against state attack is necessary, starting with AMCU, and the CWAO will be in contact in the near future with organisations willing to do this.