If we want to know why economic change will work only if it is negotiated, the state of the trade union movement gives the answer. It is a sign of the unions’ woes that it takes a national Cosatu congress to draw public attention to the labour movement. But the focus on Cosatu that has come with this week’s congress is not flattering. It has lost 600,000 members in five years. While this reflects splits in the movement or changes in the economy more than workers ditching unions, its influence and ability to mobilise support have also dwindled. Its chief rival, the SA Federation of Trade Unions, may be in better shape but it too has yet to show the strength unions once enjoyed. The unions’ chief problem is that they have become part of what they are meant to fight — an economy divided between insiders and outsiders. This does not mean their members are fat cats who prosper at the expense of the jobless. Wages are spread among jobless dependants, so the unemployed benefit from unionis...

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