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The DA/Cosatu fracas: Appreciating the moral high ground

In The Politics of Politics on May 25, 2012 at 2:30 pm

by Steven Friedman, Pambazuka

Even in a “class war”, taking the moral high ground is not a luxury – it is a vital weapon that can be the difference between winning and losing.
It is not hard to see why the DA march on Cosatu House angered the union federation’s activists enough to get them out on to the streets. Their claim that “class war” was being waged against them might be a little overstated, but there is more than a grain of truth in it.

The DA’s campaign against Cosatu, of which the march was part, is one example of a wider trend in this society – a sustained assault on trade unionism from a variety of sources.

“Labour consultants” feed a constant stream of “research” to the media, which is thinly disguised propaganda: somehow it always shows that unions are a problem and that we would be better off without them.

They are joined by pro-business economists who conduct “research studies” which always show, conveniently, that unions and their members are selfish and grasping. Neither ever find anything critical to say about business – only workers and unions are greedy, not chief executives, even when, as some do, they earn more than R50m a year.

The DA has been an enthusiastic part of this campaign. For some time, it has targeted unions as the cause of unemployment, poverty, low growth, indeed just about everything that is wrong with this economy. It now hopes to win votes by persuading the unemployed that their problem is not business or the suburban middle class but the trade union movement.

This attempt to turn the DA into a right-of-centre party with a significant base of black voters seems unlikely to succeed. There are several reasons but the most obvious is that it is not clear why millions of unemployed people should see trade unions as the cause of their problems when there are more obvious targets.

But Cosatu is right to see it as an assault on organised workers. You don’t have to endorse many of the stands that unions take to realise that to blame them for unemployment is to let some much better heeled sections of our society off the hook.

But the fact the unions are targets of an assault is not a good reason to stop those who attack them from marching. In fact, it is an excellent reason not to do that.

The DA march presented Cosatu with a golden opportunity to make the point that it was being singled out for an ideological attack.

Had it simply let the march go ahead, it could have turned the moral spotlight on to the DA. It could have asked why, of all the possible targets of outrage, the DA singles out unions.

It could have pointed out that the effect was not to give voice to the poor and the jobless but to those right-wing business people and politicians who have never got used to the idea that working people should be entitled to get together to challenge the decisions that are made about them.

It could have asked why the DA, which seldom chooses protest marches to express itself, made a rare foray into the streets not to target government or big business but the organised voice of workers. It could have asked whether that did not say something important about the DA’s priorities and whose interests it thinks are worth protecting.

But much of that was lost by the fact that its response was not a well-argued reply but a confrontation in the streets, which its leadership seems unwilling to condemn. In effect, the DA provoked Cosatu and the union federation took the bait. Instead of allowing the DA to be seen as the aggressor, it allowed itself to seem as confrontational and intolerant as the official opposition.

The effect was to portray unions not as a social movement, which was being selected for attack by the well off, but as a thin-skinned group willing to mix it with its opponents in the streets. Instead of being seen widely as the victim of intolerance, Cosatu has managed to portray itself as just another interest keen to protect its turf.

So why should this matter? Surely, many unionists would reply, unions are under attack because they threaten the power of businesses? And surely that means they will be able to defend their members only if they show that they too are powerful? Surely you don’t win a “class war” by showing how nice you are?

This sounds realistic but is actually entirely unrealistic. Organised workers are an important group but they are not the majority in any society. And so they can look after their interests only by linking up with others and persuading them to see the world as unions do.

Even if union members were in the majority, they would still have to work with others to achieve their goals because those others would have skills and abilities to make things happen, which unions need. And unions are far more likely to persuade others to work with them if they are seen as more moral than those who oppose them.

We also live in a democracy, a society in which public opinion matters because it affects what governments and interest groups do. Obviously, citizens are far more likely to support unions if worker organisations have the moral high ground.

Over the past few days, some citizens, who normally support the unions, have been put off by Cosatu’s response to the march and it will need to win them back.

The assault on unions is a moral attack, an attempt to make worker organisations seem greedy, selfish and uncaring. The only way to fight that is to convince most citizens that unions are more moral than their detractors.

But unions clearly cannot do that unless they appreciate how powerful a weapon the moral high ground is.

* Prof Steven Friedman is the director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Rhodes University and the University of Johannesburg

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