Cosatu president Zingiswa Losi, President Cyril Ramaphosa and SACP general secretary Blade Nzimande at the Workers' Day celebration in Durban at Sugar Ray Xulu Stadium in Clermont. Picture: THULI DLAMINI
Cosatu president Zingiswa Losi, President Cyril Ramaphosa and SACP general secretary Blade Nzimande at the Workers' Day celebration in Durban at Sugar Ray Xulu Stadium in Clermont. Picture: THULI DLAMINI

The race for the working-class vote has become decidedly more competitive since the 2014 national elections. Prior to that, the ANC tended to have this sector of electoral support sewn up. But both the broad ANC alliance and the labour movement have slowly fractured over the past 25 years, and today the democratic space is decidedly less homogeneous than it was at the dawn of democracy in SA.

This week’s May Day rallies were part of political parties’ final push as they vie for workers’ votes ahead of elections in a week’s time.

Support from the unions has historically benefited the ANC, with labour federation Cosatu in an official alliance with the governing party.

Cosatu is a major political player, with a fair amount of weight when it comes to determining who is elected ANC president. This was evident in 2007, ahead of the party’s electoral conference in Polokwane, where Cosatu threw its weight behind Jacob Zuma. And it was clear again when that particular relationship soured, and the labour federation called on Zuma to resign. He was even booed at the 2017 May Day rally in Bloemfontein, mere months after Cosatu became the first of the ANC-aligned structures to endorse Cyril Ramaphosa as president of the party.

Cosatu put its weight behind Ramaphosa, a founding member of the National Union of Mineworkers, as Zuma’s successor, believing he would be the right person to unite the ANC.

Cosatu has since emphasised that it has not given Ramaphosa a blank cheque. It has expressed its displeasure at his pick of Tito Mboweni as finance minister, and at the inclusion of compromised candidates such as Bathabile Dlamini on the ANC’s lists. But the party, and Ramaphosa, can nonetheless bank on its political support ahead of the May polls.

This solid support has been emphasised by Cosatu general secretary Bheki Ntshalintshali who, in an interview with Bloomberg, said the federation would oppose any attempt to remove Ramaphosa from power.

It is clear that Cosatu’s power is still significant for the ANC and its election machinery, even though its numbers have dwindled in recent years.

If it is to maintain its apolitical character, Saftu will have to distance itself from the SRWP — something it has not done"

Cosatu’s alliance with the ANC is the most direct endorsement of a party by a labour organisation. Then there’s the SA Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu), a supposedly apolitical organisation. Its largest affiliate is the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) — which last year formed its own party, the Socialist Revolutionary Workers Party (SRWP), to contest the 2019 elections.

The face of Numsa general secretary Irvin Jim is prominent on the party’s election posters, which sell the Marxist-Leninist party as the political home of the working class.

On top of that Saftu, Numsa and the SRWP were all set for joint May Day rallies across the country this week.

Vuyolwethu Toli, the SRWP’s acting spokesperson, says the party expects to garner votes from all working-class formations come May 8.

"We call on federations of trade unions such as Saftu, Cosatu, [the National Council of Trade Unions], [the Federation of Unions of SA] and others to vote for the SRWP, as it is the only genuine party whose historic mission is to defeat imperialism and capitalism and to establish a socialist SA, Africa, and world, as a prelude to advancing to a truly free and classless society," Toli says. "As a socialist-orientated federation it is only logical that Saftu votes for SRWP as it is the vehicle towards establishing a socialist SA."

It is, he adds, the only political force "capable of driving the working-class struggle to its logical conclusion".

However, the SRWP has placed Saftu in an interesting — and difficult — position. If it is to maintain its apolitical character, it will have to distance itself from the SRWP — something it has not done.

Failing that, it will be seen as a de facto supporter of the party, pushing it quite clearly out of its apolitical realm. This could adversely affect its member unions.

The EFF was also set to rally support on May Day. The party has positioned itself as the leftist vanguard for the poor, with its pro-poor, pro-worker politics in play.

What it means

Union support has traditionally benefited the ANC. But rivals are trying to muscle in on the market

Though the party is not aligned to any trade union federation, it effectively fishes in the same pond for votes — which has upped the ante when it comes to securing workers’ support.

Even the DA, which does not play in the realm of worker-centric socialist politics, was planning a May Day rally in the Western Cape, where it was expected to campaign on the back of its job-creation success in the province.

Saftu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi describes the period running up to elections, for unions, as a time of "madness" in which one "can’t even hope to have a rational discussion" on workers’ issues. It’s a fractious environment, and the politicking can push actual workers’ issues to the sidelines.

Independent labour consultant Tony Healy, for example, says that the politics surrounding elections can affect the collective bargaining process around wage negotiations.

But the focus on unionised workers is shortsighted in a country in which unemployment is at a record high. Though the challenges facing organised labour are vast and difficult, the real problem lies with those who are unemployed. Workers have the luxury of being involved in politics through organised labour, but in the end those who are unemployed make up a substantial pool of voters — one that is largely unprotected and voiceless. Until election time.