In last week’s column I tackled some of the challenges that confront Namibia’s trade unions today.
These include redefining their role in the face of huge socio-economic inequalities, conservative economic policies and a shrinking base of permanent workers in the formal sector of the economy.
A central theme for trade unions since their inception was the question of engagement with politics.
This is by no means merely a Namibian issue and there are many examples of union interventions in politics around the world.
These range from the formation of the Labour Party in the UK to the Workers Party in Brazil (from which the country’s last 2 presidents hail) and trade unions playing a central role in challenging and deposing the Kaunda government in Zambia.
Many trade unions in Africa have played a prominent role during the liberation struggle as a leading force in mobilizing large numbers of people against colonial rule.
Their ability to take action on the economic front coupled with organizational structures across workplaces has placed them in a powerful position, feared by colonial regimes. Namibia’s trade unions, especially those organised under the umbrella of the National Union of Namibian Workers (NUNW) like their counterparts in the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) have played precisely such a role before independence.
There is no doubt that the argument advanced to support the unions’ involvement in politics, namely that racism and exploitation could not be ended under colonial conditions was very powerful.
Workers thus expected that the achievement of independence would automatically lead to greater equality and end of oppression and social justice.
The struggle against colonialism was seen as largely identical with the struggle against economic exploitation and unions enjoyed respect and support beyond their own membership.
However, the question of unions and politics looks different today, 23 years after independence.
Workers and their trade unions had to realize that the changes after independence did not lead to the expected fundamental socio-economic transformation. The question of how best unions should engage and influence politics today therefore poses a fresh challenge.
The Namibian labour movement is deeply divided over that questions with the NUNW defending its continued affiliation to SWAPO by pointing out that this was a historical link which still helps the NUNW to influence government policies today.
The Trade Union Congress of Namibia (TUCNA) on the other hand believes that trade unions should be independent of political parties and determine their own agenda without outside interference.
These differences of opinion have resulted in the two federations operating as rivals to each other, almost incapable of agreeing even on issues where workers have common interests.
Similarly, in South Africa, the issue of politics is threatening to divide COSATU into one faction that supports the ANC government and President Zuma (no matter how detrimental some of the government policies are to the working class) and another faction that believes that COSATU should promote a stronger working class agenda beyond workplace issues.
Further examples could be added from other countries across the continent to show how the legacies of liberation politics linger on and continue to shape the relations between unions and politics today.
We can essentially distinguish three fundamental positions that are now held by different unionists.
The first group believes that the alliances of the national liberation struggle are still critical today and that the party still has to play the leading role with unions holding a subordinate position.
National liberation is seen as the overall aim while the class struggle is seen as less important.
This group sometimes expresses radical nationalism and liberation slogans , for example on the land issue, but then also accepts neo-liberalism as the dominant ideology of the “free market”.
A second group argues for “non-political” trade union independence and does not want any links with political parties. They believe that the union’s role is essentially at the workplace without engaging in the broader struggles in the political arena.
The third group regards a focus on inequalities and class contradictions as the key focus of unions today and argues that unions should operate like social movements addressing exploitation at the workplace as well as socio-economic inequalities in broader society at the same time.
These fundamental differences are hardly debated in union structures and many workers prefer to remain silent for fear of being labelled and treated with suspicion.
This will have to change as trade unions cannot avoid an open debate about their role in society. Instead of shying away from uncomfortable debates, unions should strengthen their internal capacity to engage in economic, political and ideological struggles.
They must free themselves from the influence of personal interests of individual union leaders and explore possibilities of forming alliances with progressive organisations that represent the interests of socially disadvantaged groups.
Trade unions’ ability to rise to these challenges will determine to a large extent which role they will be able to play in the years to come.