COSATU celebrates 35 years of struggle

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Banner of the South African Democratic Teachers Union on a demonstration – the union has taken the South African government to court demanding that their wage agreement is upheld

THE CONGRESS of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) is celebrating 35 years of existence – and relentless struggle – since it was formed on the 1st of December 1985 in Durban.

‘The Federation plans to roll out a campaign that celebrates this important milestone for the next twelve months,’ it says in its latest statement. ‘This is important because it will allow the federation to reflect on its achievements without masking the setbacks.
‘As we mark this milestone, we acknowledge the contributions of countless martyrs and members that built this organisation.
‘Since the federation was formed three decades ago, it has managed to make its presence felt on a wide range of workplace, policy, legislative and political issues. During this period, workers have achieved concrete victories, partial gains and although there have been some setbacks, interventions by the federation have disrupted the progress that has been made by anti-worker reactionary forces.
‘All of this has happened in a rapidly changing, and constantly evolving environment, and the federation has had to learn to adapt to different terrains to advance its positions. These include, advocacy, negotiation, engagement through political processes, as well as mass mobilisation.
‘While this is a time of reflection and appreciation of the strides we have made in the last 35 years, we also note that we celebrate this anniversary in the midst of a pandemic and both the global capitalist crisis and Covid-19 have exposed the crisis of capitalism.
‘We also note that the capitalist system has now reached its limits in that it is now experiencing all three interrelated crises: namely a crisis of sustainability, a systemic crisis, and a structural crisis. The structural crisis is shown in the movement of industrial production away from the rich countries in the West to regions of the world, where there is cheap labour.
‘A crisis of sustainability related to its impact on the environment and climate. A systemic crisis relates to the nature of the system itself, whereby the rich are forcing the poor to keep their wage levels low, combined with worsening levels of unemployment. This has seen the emergence of narrow nationalism, xenophobia, and protectionism in the West.
‘Therefore, our task is to strengthen COSATU at all levels so that we are ready to navigate the challenges ahead. Our organisational machinery must be adapted to the new realities and new forms of organising. The aim is not only to build a strong organisation but to ensure the maximum unity of the working class.
‘Acknowledging that members are the lifeblood of the federation; therefore, the federation cannot successfully operate without a mass-line, an integral programme that places our recruitment and listening campaign at the centre of our work. This is going to be part of the mainstream of the work of all our structures. ‘The CEC resolved to declare the Year 2021, as the “Year of the Local” that will focus on building the organisation at a workplace level.
‘We shall use our ongoing recruitment campaign to anchor this enormous task of building the organisation on the ground. We shall be waging real struggles at the workplace level. We shall be focused on rebuilding our locals to reflect the structural economic changes associated with the changing workplace organisation and mode of work.
‘The Federation will also be preparing for its Central Committee which will be convened next year and will adopt general and specific policy measures which further the aims and objectives of the Federation. The purpose, powers and duties of the Central Committee include but not limited to assessing resolutions; implement resolutions that have been adopted and draft resolutions on urgent matters.
‘In the prevailing political context, the mass-line is not an option but a must. The collective bargaining round that is currently unfolding in the public service is going to put us to test on this question of the mass-line, as it is clear that government expect our members to make sacrifices because of an economic crisis that has been compounded by the looting and mismanagement. A failure to defend the interests of our members in the face of this offensive would be unforgivable.
‘The crisis engulfing our movement is primarily an ideological crisis. Even corruption, nepotism, only becomes stand-alone entities, if the analysis is bereft of a scientific outlook in approaching the South African revolution. Only a mass return (to) ideological training can help us provide solutions to the ideological crisis in our movement.
‘The Federation plans to introduce a systematic programme on ideological and organisational education and training. We will also develop a mass mobilisation programme geared at responding to the unfolding socio-economic crisis involving progressive mass-based organisations in particular and progressive civil society structures in general.
‘We also have a clear programme of maintaining COSATU’s influence internationally. We commit to building a strong, vibrant, and influential COSATU on international affairs, including a strong campaigning influence, especially in the continent. This includes mapping a clear strategy for our international work, identifying modern challenges and implementing our solidarity work.
‘In the last 35 years, COSATU has shown a remarkable resilience and capacity to analyse and evolve with the changing times. We remain the best organised and class-conscious labour federation of the South African workers. It is within this spirit and commitment, to remain a fighting, militant and campaigning federation of workers that we will approach our work going forward.’

  • The government has failed to present ‘exhaustive evidence’ to show it cannot afford wage increases for its employees; lawyers for three COSATU-affiliated public-sector unions are arguing in papers before the Labour Appeal Court.

The South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (SADTU), the Democratic Nursing Association of South Africa (DENOSA) and the Police and Prison Civil Rights Union (POPCRU), as well as other unions, are engaged in a legal battle with the government to compel it to carry out the final phase of a three-year collective wage agreement.
The matter is set to be heard at the Labour Appeal Court on Wednesday, 2 December 2020. In heads of argument, lawyers for the three unions state that the collective agreement, reached in January 2018 and concluded in May of that year, is binding.
At issue is the Agreement’s Clause 3.3, which refers to the salary increases for state employees for the financial year 2020/2021. Notably, clauses 3.1 and 3.2 dealing with the previous two financial years, are not in dispute. The implementation of the full wage deal would have cost the government an additional R30.2 billion.
The lawyers agree that when the agreement was concluded in 2018 it was unforeseen that the government’s position might change for the worse as a result of Covid-19. ‘The government may not, however, seek to escape its obligations by relying on the change of circumstances.
‘The government’s grounds for being unable to afford the increases are primarily a result of events that occurred after the collective agreement was concluded and are therefore irrelevant,’ they argue.
‘The state was fully aware that it would have to lawfully find a source for the R30.2 billion and opted to conclude the collective agreement for self-serving reasons.’
They concede, however, that the government may ‘seek some relaxation regarding the time for compliance but not complete exoneration’. In arguing that the collective agreement is binding, the lawyers point out that the state’s representative in the Public Service Co-ordinating Bargaining Council was authorised to conclude the agreement.
‘We submit that the submissions that the Department of Public Service and Administration exceeded its mandate when it concluded the agreement are untenable,’ they argue.
They ask how the government can argue that clause 3.3 is unlawful on the grounds that the collective agreement was concluded by a person other than the Minister of Public Service and Administration while still acknowledging that the two preceding clauses related to the 2018/2019 and 2019/2020 financial years are lawful.
In addition, the lawyers argued that the state’s reliance on regulations 78 and 79 of the Public Service Regulations to challenge the agreement is ‘misconceived’. Regulation 78 specifies the jurisdictional factors that must exist before a collective agreement is concluded while regulation 79 covers financial factors, such as when Treasury approval is required. The government is arguing that clause 3.3 has not been approved by the Treasury.
They argue that by virtue of the fact that the Minister of Finance is a member of the Cabinet and that the Cabinet approved the offer in January 2018, National Treasury had granted its approval. Constitutionally, they argue the Minister of Finance is not permitted to renege on a Cabinet decision.
They argue that the only reasonable inference to draw from the facts is that ‘Cabinet considered and complied with regulation 79 when it decided to present the January 2018 offer to the unions’. They continue: ‘It is significant that when the state implemented the collective agreement over the two years no issue was raised regarding compliance with regulations 78 and 79.’
The lawyers allege that by attempting to have the agreement declared invalid, the state is violating its employees’ rights to fair labour practices, and their constitutional right to engage in collective bargaining. They highlight a Constitutional Court finding that ‘the enforcement of these collective agreements is vital to industrial peace and it is indeed crucial to the achievement of fair labour practices which is constitutionally entrenched’.
The lawyers argue that the state’s counter application asking that the enforcement of the collective agreement be declared invalid is ill-founded and unsustainable. Firstly, the counter application was made two years after the collective agreement was signed, which the lawyers argue is not a reasonable timeframe. Secondly, the lawyers argue the collective agreement was concluded ‘in accordance with the applicable legal framework’.
Thirdly, the state’s attempt to renege on its obligation in terms of clause 3.3 ‘is an unjustifiable and unreasonable violation of the state employees’ constitutional rights to fair labour practices including the right to engage in collective bargaining and to have those agreements enforced’.
Finally, ‘there was no tacit or implied term or agreement between the state and the unions that the agreement would be unenforcable in the event was unable to afford the salary increases or cost-cutting measures were not successfully implemented’.
‘We submit that permitting the state to withdraw from the collective agreement on the grounds that it is not affordable in light of events that occurred after the agreement was concluded would be against public policy. The sanctity of the contract has to be respected and upheld.’
The unions further argue that even if the agreement is found invalid, the court is obliged to determine ‘a just and equitable remedy’, stipulating that the government should be ordered to meet its obligations in a ‘staggered or phased-in manner’. This would validate the state employees’ constitutional right to bargain, they say.