The split in Cosatu a few years ago was the biggest setback the labour movement has experienced in this country, seriously weakening it.

Gone are the heady days of the 1980s, when Cosatu in particular was so powerful that the National Party bombed its head office in Johannesburg. It was once the fastest-growing trade union federation in the world.   

Among several factors, the decline reflects the effect of the shifts in labour production as a result of technological changes over the past three decades, which have led to huge job losses that affected trade union membership. Even when the unions were much stronger and better led, they could not escape the effect of technological change.

The critical question now is what is going to happen to SA’s trade unions, in their weakened state, when the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) rolls over them in the coming years?

So vitally important is this question that I believe it will dwarf all the other contentious issues, except perhaps the climate crisis, that are confronting unions. Where are the unions themselves in this looming technological revolution, which is in fact already under way in some sectors?

I have yet to read anything anywhere in which a trade union leader deals with these questions comprehensively. This is a clear reflection of the spectacular decline of unions over the past decade. Yet it is not only a serious problem for the trade unions but for society as a whole — including for business, because it is through companies that the 4IR will take effect.

The unions are so lethargic that I wouldn’t be surprised if most of them have not even called for meetings with company owners and management to discuss the implications of the 4IR for their particular industry. Yet if unions do not discuss and debate these issues with companies before they happen, so as to be better prepared for the descent of the 4IR on our shores, the negative effect — in so far as the defence of jobs and wages is concerned — could  be extremely destructive. This perspective is simultaneously related to that alongside the 4IR is the worsening climate crisis, which may also lead to job losses.

Imparting an ominous element to this situation is that several interrelated crises are striking simultaneously, which characterises the present period and somewhat distinguishes it from the past. There must be no doubt that the convulsive period humanity at large faces is going to demand new approaches by government, capital and civil society, especially organised labour.

But by remaining silent and inactive when the technological hurricane of the 4IR is already on the horizon, trade unions are deserting workers at a time of their greatest need, especially those in sectors that are most technologically vulnerable and therefore require greater attention and preparation now.

In many respects the climate crisis, by its sheer scale and gravity, is likely to take precedence over any other single issue, including the 4IR.

As an example: we had on our doorstep the sheer devastation wrought by the furious floods that hit parts of KwaZulu-Natal in March, which especially affected the poorest rural areas. The devastation of the climate crisis across the world shows that it is working-class communities with poor or negligible infrastructure that are going to be hardest hit.

If the trade unions do not immediately wake up to the gravity of the technological storm that is looming on the horizon these workers are going to be far more vulnerable and compromised than would be the case if they began seriously engaging with both the opportunities and threats posed by the 4IR. That said, I am sceptical about those who emphasise the opportunities and downplay the risks of the 4IR.

A big part of the problems facing the unions is that compared to the calibre of leadership we had in the 1980s, who against great odds were seriously committed to the interests of their members, the current generation leaves much to be desired. In this regard, an issue that had a debilitating effect on the unions was the investment companies they formed in the 1990s, which soon became the source of rampant corruption.

Coming on top of declining memberships, the looting of union investment companies has had a devastating effect on members. There cannot be a bigger betrayal of workers than the theft of their funds by their own representatives. But that is water under the bridge.

It is to the looming 4IR that workers must demand their leaders turn their attention to with the greatest urgency.  

• Harvey is a former Cosatu trade unionist, political writer and analyst

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