An old man lay dying. He called his seven sons. He wanted to give them his last words.
“Bring me seven sticks,” he said. His sons did what he asked.
The old man tied the sticks into a bundle. Then he tried to break them. But the sticks were too strong.
Then he picked up one stick at a time. And he broke them one by one.
He sat up and said: “The sticks are strong together. I cannot break them. You must also stand together. Then nobody can hurt you. But if you don’t stand together, you will break into little pieces – one by one.’
This is an old Setswana story. The story shows how people and organizations are strong when they stand together. When organizations stand together, we say they are united. We say they have unity.
In April this year 11 trade unions went to a very important meeting in Cape Town. The unions came together to talk about the unity of workers in South Africa.
The unions came from all over the country – the Transvaal, Natal, the Eastern Cape and the Western Cape. All the people at the meeting agreed about one thing. They agreed that workers must stand together. They agreed the unions must unite.
But people had different ideas on how the workers must unite. Some unions wanted to make a federation of trade unions. Others wanted the unions to work with each other in solidarity committees.
After the meeting Learn and Teach spoke to some of the unions. They told us about their ideas on unity.
“A federation brings unions together under the roof of one organization,” says a worker leader. “This keeps unions united at all times. A federation allows unions to fight battles together. And in these struggles the unions will be loyal to each other just like a man and a woman who get married !”
Another union explained what solidarity committees are. They said workers can start these committees in different parts of the country. Workers from different factories and from different unions can join the solidarity committees. In the committees they can meet each other. They can talk about the problems the workers have. Then they can decide how to fight together for these things.
Some unions said the workers were not ready for a federation. They say workers must first build up unity in solidarity committees.
“In this way the workers will get to know each other. They will discuss many things about worker organization. In struggle they will grow to trust each other. Then they will be ready to build a stronger unity,” a trade unionist told Learn and Teach.
Other unions said their workers want a federation. They said these workers are ready for a federation now.
“A federation will allow unions from all over the country to work together all the time,” says a trade union man from the Cape. “The bosses meet together from all over the country. We must do the same. Already we work with unions from the Transvaal. We are ready to join with them so we can work together – day by day.
THE MEETING DECIDES
At the meeting the unions talked about these things for a long time. They spoke for two days. At the end of the second day most unions agreed to start a new federation.
T.hen people at the meeting spoke about how the new federation will work. They made a smaller committee to talk about plans ‘for a new federation. The smaller committee is called the ‘Feasability Committee’.
Seven unions decided to send people to talk for them on the feasability committee. Each union must have five people in the feasability committee. Three of these people must be workers. Two of them can be trade union officials.
The unions that decided to form a new federation at the meeting are:
General Workers Union (GWU)
South African Allied Workers Union (SAAWU)
General and Allied Workers Union (GAWU)
Cape Town Municipal Workers Association (CTMWA)
Commercial Catering and Allied Workers Union (CCAWUSA)
Food and Canning Workers Union and African Food and Canning Workers Union (FCWU and AFCWU)
Federation of South African Trade Unions (FOSATU)
SAAWU and GAWU said they want a federation. But they will still work with unions in solidarity committees.
A few unions said they must first talk to their members. Then they will decide if they want to join the new federation. These unions are:
Municipal and General Workers Union (MGWUSA), Council of Unions of South Africa (CUSA), Engineering and Allied Workers Union (EAWU), Motor Assembly and Component Workers Union of South Africa (MACWUSA) and General Workers Union of South Africa (GWUSA).
The Orange Vaal General Workers Union (OVGWU) decided not to join the federation. The members of OVGWU want to work for unity through solidarity committees. CUSA later agreed to join the feasability committee.
THE NEXT STEP
The feasability committee will meet soon. The five people from each union will say how their union wants the federation to work. Then the committee will make plans for the new federation.
Soon the unions will have another big meeting. They will discuss the plans of the feasability committee. Then they will decide how the new federation will work.
In Cape Town the unions took one step along the path to workers’ unity. The path is long and hard. But the workers know they must finish the journey .
WHY IS WORKER UNITY SO IMPORTANT?
Learn and Teach spoke to people from different trade unions. They explained why trade union unity is so important in South Africa.
Most workers in South Africa are not members of trade unions. Thousands of these workers work for the government, the railways, the mines and for white farmers. But the bosses of these workers do not like trade unions. They give trade union members a tough time. The unions want to organize these thousands of workers. “But a small union cannot fight for the rights of these workers alone. We will only organize these workers if we unite and help each other,” says a worker leader.
Sometimes the trade unions fight each other. They try to get members from the same factories. For example: In Vereeniging three unions are organizing metal workers. In the Eastern Cape many unions organize motor car workers. The bosses like this. They use one union against the other. This divides the workers. Unions must unite and share the factories among themselves. Then they will stop fighting each other.
The unions say the police give them a hard time. Many trade union leaders are arrested. “When we hear a knock at the door we think its the cops,” says a trade unionist. “But if we stand together they will not break us.”
The unions also believe the government is making laws that will harm the workers. “Look at the new pass laws” says a worker leader. “These laws will make it hard for rural workers to get jobs in the city. The government knows that rural and city workers are uniting in trade unions. They are afraid of this. The government wants the pass laws to divide city workers from rural workers. The unions must fight these laws. But how can we fight if we stand alone? “.