The launch of the South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu) was seamless — the constitution adopted, the politics referred to a commission and the office bearers elected. Two years of painstaking unity talks became cemented in a labour marriage of many new and some old unions. Everyone went home happy, a "historic milestone" achieved, said countless delegates.

Yet despite this impressive show of unity, most among the seasoned leadership know an arduous road lies ahead. The big-data picture of organised labour shows that unionisation rates are declining in SA and across the world. Moreover, the labour movement in SA is more divided than before. The nature of work and labour contracting has changed significantly. For those lucky enough to have work, every employment contract is far more precarious than before.

Employers are shedding or outsourcing jobs. Bargaining council agreement exceptions, off-shoring, subcontracting, labour broking and casualisation are the order of the day. The workforce is younger, the worker debt burden more suffocating and the burden of worker dependants is expanding under the pressure of a growing pool of unemployed. Union rivalry is at its greatest, while real union influence on political outcomes has waned significantly.

These are tough times for labour and the burden of leadership weighs heavy on the shoulders of the new Saftu office bearers.

POLITICAL INDEPENDENCE

The starting point for Saftu has been to craft its identity as the red federation on the left flank of the labour movement, committed to reigniting the founding principles of worker democracy and control that drove Cosatu in its heyday.

To this, Saftu adds its mantra of being independent from all political parties, adding this should not be construed to constitute a nonpolitical stance. Saftu raises its banner as the independent and socialist-oriented alternative for the working class.

But the devil is in the detail of the bridge between today’s issues and the vision of a workers’ paradise in the socialist future. And the surest bridge to that future is the one that offers the best possible service to ordinary union members in today’s harsh economic and social conditions.

Therein lies the first significant challenge, because workers know they don’t eat politics alone. They eat bread. Political orientation may be necessary and attractive, but in the messy world of union rivalry on the shop floor, member service delivery and active presence on the shop floor will increasingly trump politics.

So far, Saftu has not said how its organising and service strategies will unite its member affiliates and help distinguish it from its rival federations and unions. This is no surprise since Saftu is a combination of some very big and many very small unions in the private and public sectors. Members span the spectrum of unions with stable membership and employment conditions and precarious, seasonal and contract member unions.

Saftu is in effect a 700,000-member embryo of the deep diversity of employment conditions and contracts: from the old-order industrywide dominance to the re-emergence of new unionism in pockets of newly organised or reorganised workplaces. There are countless overlaps in union organising scopes and a wide diversity in bargaining strategies between Saftu affiliates. It is a hard ask for Saftu leaders to unite this team around a shared set of organising and collective-bargaining strategies.

For now, Saftu repeats the age-old, catch-all call that it seeks to organise the unorganised, be they "captured" members in the Cosatu fold or the three-quarters of the workforce that is nonunionised and often most precarious. It says it wants to unite big and small unions, employed and unemployed and formally and informally employed workers. It holds the door open to plant and industry bargaining, committing to neither overtly yet. It dodges the thorny issues of unions poaching from one another by saying in its constitutional principles "unions must organise in the most effective manner to represent and serve their members".

It seeks to "close the gap" and eliminate the "social distance" between leaders and members, to re-energise the shop floor to combat the historical pitfalls of union leaders being seen by workers as materially benefiting from their status and being increasingly removed from the life experience of the rank and file. All well and good on paper. But herein lies the rub: the emergence of leadership aristocracy and shop steward privilege was intimately bound with union majoritarianism for collective bargaining, partnership and participation in the labour relations machinery at plant and industry level, pay and benefit rewards for full-time shop stewards and countless other privileges for serving the union.

So much so that unions leaders scarcely visit workplaces to have an ordinary general meeting with members to discuss everyday problems, unless they are mobilising for, or are in, strike mode. They spend most of their time navigating meetings of labour market institutions — from boardrooms and the offices of the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration or the Bargaining Council to the Skills Education Training Authorities, retirement funds or investment companies and the government. So, to truly "close the gap" and prioritise service to ordinary members once more may require a complete overhaul of not only union values and culture, but also the very industrial relations empire that has been built around big labour post-democracy.

TWO DIFFERENT TRADITIONS

This is a hard call in a culture of "leaders take all" — a call made harder by the reality that the tiny minority of Saftu members, but the vast bulk of Saftu affiliates, do not share this big-labour experience as they are start-ups struggling for early-stage recognition as the legitimate and permanent representation authority of their members.

Marrying these two traditions, identities and cultures and finding a Saftu organisational identity will be a huge mountain to climb. Saftu will need to navigate the politics and find its identity between national industry and local company unionism, between industrial and general unionism, between the boardroom labour aristocrats and start-up labour shop-floor activists. In this ego-fraught world, Saftu leaders face some hard talk to hammer out an organising and collective-bargaining vision for the future if it is to emerge as a worker-attractor with a service offering substantively different from all its rivals.

As if this is not enough, Saftu unions face these challenges in a macroeconomic landscape of neoliberal policies that drive ever deepening inequality, unemployment and poverty. Unlocking the clogged veins of the economic heartlands and fighting to secure jobs and bring labour vision to how best to grow and share the economy demands innovative thinking. Yet Saftu faces that in an environment where all unions feel under permanent attack, where union rivalry is at its greatest, where union ability to develop flexible forms of organisation to accommodate the outsourced, precarious contract worker, is even more challenging.

How to engage in the national debate while simultaneously developing organising tactics that can truly rebuild the confidence of ordinary workers at factory and local level and deliver practical solidarity and support for factory struggles and community service protests remains an elusive goal for Saftu. To date, Saftu unions, like most others, are focused on the centre, the national, the top and the big political picture. They are politically top-heavy and organisationally bottom-lean. It’s a long way to climb to truly reorientate to the bottom while not disappearing from the macro stakeholder debate at the top.

Saftu faces these organisational and economic strategy challenges in an environment in which affiliate unity on political identity is yet to be forged, where union influence on the political and economic landscape in general is declining, where Saftu-specific influence on the governing party is negligible at best, where employer interests relative to organised labour are growing more powerful, and where the government rules with increasing unilateralism and impunity. Saftu has few friends out there.

If it is to emerge as the true home for organised workers in future, a set of hard choices awaits its leaders. At the centre of these is how to truly place members first, deliver service excellence, fashion new organising and bargaining strategies, act with humility, listen hard, compromise and innovate. These may well be the most valuable attributes all leaders will need to find one another at the table.

• Hartford is a labour analyst and stakeholder strategy specialist.

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