Is Bigger Necessarily Better? South Africa's Experience of 'One Industry, One Union'

February 2003

The Congress of South African Trade Unions--the largest labor federation in South Africa -- was launched in 1985 at the height of a "state of emergency" imposed by the apartheid government. One of its founding principles was "One Industry, One Union" -- that unions should be organized to cover an entire industry and should not compete with each other.

Earlier, the African workers who were the vast majority of workers in South Africa had had almost no union rights. This changed dramatically in 1973, when illegal strikes broke out in Durban. Those strikes gave birth to unions that were black, anti-apartheid, and opposed to the sweetheart deals of a white federation called the Trade Union Council of South Africa (TUCSA), which included some skilled "Coloured" workers.

The apartheid government's response to the first wave of black independent unions was to reform labor laws but to limit the possibilities for national unions. Factory-based structures called liaison committees were legislated, as an alternative to unions.

Workers, of course, wanted "real trade unions," not talk shops, and they emphasized national unions rather than local liaison committees. This concern with unity, with "big unions," was to be an important weapon of survival in the repressive years.

Today there are signs that the South African labor movement, after periods of massive growth in members and influence in the 1980s and 1990s--peaking at a union density of 34%--is facing structural problems associated with "big unionism," as workers' experiences change in the early 21st century.


COSATU was formed after four years of talks between three union groupings: the Federation of South African Trade Unions (FOSATU), which emphasized workers' control and independence not only from the government but also from the exiled African National Congress, which was leading the fight against apartheid; the general unions, which included workers from a variety of industries and were politically aligned to the ANC; and the black consciousness unions.

The FOSATU model of separate industrial unions won the day, and the principle of "One Industry, One Union" largely saw the ANC-aligned general unions break up and their industry sectors merge with the FOSATU unions. The black consciousness unions left the unity talks and formed their own federation.

This painful process of setting up the One Industry, One Union model therefore came at a price, but for much of the 1980s it seemed a price worth paying.


By merging different unions in the same industry, the COSATU unions were able to win de facto recognition from employers, even where apartheid did not allow for such bargaining rights. With the COSATU unions able to grow, unions in TUCSA began to lose members.

Some TUCSA unions applied to join COSATU even where they had members in the same industry as a COSATU union. The threat of members deserting and COSATU's insistence on its policy were a powerful means to force unity. From about 1 million members in 1985, COSATU grew to nearly 3 million in 1998.

Mergers did win benefits for some workers, particularly where there were Industrial Councils. These were institutions, set up since 1924, in which white unions and employers negotiated for an entire industry. The Councils then had powers by statute to enforce minimum wage schedules throughout an industry, thus ensuring that victories won by the organized were spread to the unorganized.

The more militant COSATU unions, such as metal and textile, gained entry to the Industrial Councils and extended their gains to all workers in their industries.


On the other hand, mergers also acted as a brake on worker activity, as the process of uniting sometimes proved to be debilitating. Negotiating to put together unions with different traditions and organizing methods was difficult. When mergers involved the old TUCSA unions, which owned property and operated pension funds, complicated property and pension fund laws came into play.

Disputes raged on salary levels for staff; political deals were struck. Pacts among bureaucrats to share leadership posts were a constant threat. In the most extreme case, merger talks between the public sector unions were abandoned after many years, despite the requirement in COSATU's constitution.

Workers found their own participation in union decision-making increasingly distant. In the case of the formation of the major commercial union, the pacts were so fragile that the union temporarily imploded in 1987.


At its 2000 Congress COSATU floated a plan of "super-unionism," intending to consolidate from 19 unions to 6. Despite this discussion, the federation now has 20 affiliates and union duplication in the same sector.

Why the breakdown of such a grand plan? The political context has changed fundamentally. In 1985 unions were prepared to make enormous sacrifices to fight apartheid, and workers were eager to join a mass movement. In a period of militancy, mergers and restructuring were part of a larger campaign to win rights, gain recognition, and fight apartheid. Today, at a time of job losses and bleeding membership, unions are reluctant to go the route of tortuous mergers.

Particularly since 1996, the government's conservative, free-market economic policies have led to some 500,000 job losses (in a country with some 40% unemployment) and increased casualization and cuts in social services. These events have weakened COSATU; its membership has declined to 2.5 million and is now dominated by public sector workers. And they have also caused the growth of hundreds of small unions.

Some of these are little more than fly-by-night operations of labor consultants, but others are initiatives by workers themselves, alienated from the centralized operations of distant big unions. Some of them are in areas where workers have never been organized or where outsourcing and industry restructuring simply exclude workers from collective agreements.

This in turn has spawned conservative impulses among permanent unionized workers. Some unions are seeking to raise the thresholds for membership in the Bargaining Councils (the new name for the Industrial Councils), which favor big unions, to "keep out" the threat of the new unions.

In this context, super-unionism has been put on the back burner. At its 2002 Central Committee, COSATU called for a campaign to recruit "vulnerable" workers--farmworkers, dockworkers, casuals, women, and informal sector workers.

Is bigger necessarily better? It depends. From the COSATU experience there was much to be gained by the principles adopted in 1985 and the upsurge in mass activity of the 1980s. But in the context of a downturn in worker militancy and participation, there are dangers that big top-down mergers can stifle workers' initiative.

Lenny Gentle is a researcher for the International Labour Resource and Information Group in South Africa.

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