The marriage of trade unions and equity investments has al ways been problematic. But, throughout the relative boom years from the time of the 1994 transition, this linkage of the two seemed, if not happy, at least prosperous; a steady flow of dividend income kept muttered protests to the margins.

The criticism — some of it reflected in this column – tended to concentrate on the contradiction between an organisation of workers relying on income from the labour of other workers; the exploited becoming, in part, exploiters.

Such notions were pooh-poohed by the likes of long-time SA Clothing and Textile Workers Union (Sactwu) general secretary Ebrahim Patel, now the Minister of Economic Development.

Patel had reason at the time to dismiss the criticism because he and his predecessor, John Copelyn, had set up what soon became the biggest trade union investment company in the country. Copelyn, together with former National Union of Mmeworkers deputy general secretary Marcel Golding, established Hoskin Consolidated Investments (HCI) as a vehicle to manage trade union funds. In the process, both became billionaires, to the chagrin of the critics.

Sactwu controls about 40 percent of HCI that has investments in a range of sectors, including a 71 percent holding in major garment manufacturer, Seardel. Controversially, Seardel has a Lesothobased subsidiary NyeNye Clothing, that pays wages described by Sactwu’s Free State regional secretary Sam Mashininl as “pitiable”.

Seardel, headed by Copelyn, is also in a parlous state and has shed more than 30 percent of its labour force in recent years. It was only saved from almost certain closure last year by a R250 million capital injection from Sactwu.

— However, the income generated over the past decade and more by the union’s investments not only enabled Sactwu to ball out Seardel, it made possible the provision of an extremely impressive range of benefits, not only to members, but to the broader society. And it was these that tended to be stressed when the union concluded its triennial conference last week.

Meeting in the cavernous Cape Town International Convention Centre, Sactwu general secretary Andre Kriel, announced with justifiable pride that the union’s non- refundable bursary fund had produced 283 degree and diploma graduates since 2007. It had also paid out about R10m to almost 3000 students over three years.

Sactwu admitted to a gloomy economic environment, but the conference ended on an upbeat note, with stress on various positive statistics.

Among the “worker graduates” are 20 accountants, five lawyers, eight engineers and four medical doctors. They were rightly hailed as a working class contribution to the country’s desperate skills shortage.

In the period since the last conference, the union has also paid out R19.lm in funeral and retirement fund benefits to its members and their dependents, along with almost R600 000 in sick fund payouts to members in the leather sector. Even more impressive are the amounts paid out for funeral and retirement benefits and the RiOm allocated to a benevolent fund for members suffering from Aids.

Virtually unknown to the broader public is the fact that Sactwu is also responsible for a literacy and numeracy skills programme. This, the conference was told, had assisted 35000 pre and primary school learners in more than 1 000 schools.

The admission that the sector had lost about 45000 jobs over the past three years was somewhat downplayed: it was pointed out that this was 10 percent fewer than the delegates at the last conference had feared. Sactwu membership had also not declined dramatically; a concerted membership drive signed up 38 000 formerly nonunionised workers. Looked at in purely membership terms, this is undoubtedly beneficial and it enables the union to still claim a membership of more than 80 000. But the simple fact is that, overall, the number of jobs throughout the country has declined massively – and the pressure for further job losses contmues to grow.

This is unsurprising since the textile, garment arid leather industry is the sector perhaps most battered by what is arguably a looming global economic depression. According to International Trade Union Confederation general secretary Sharan Burrows the crisis has so far meant 34 million jobs overall destroyed worldwide, with “64 million people pushed into extreme poverty”.

But, while the Sactwu leadership admits to a generally gloomy economic environment, the conference ended on an almost upbeat note, with stress on various positive statistics and developments. In the process, a plethora of contradictions and underlying problems tended to be buried.

The programme of action agreed by the conference came up with what the union labels a “six pack of. big ideas”. Quite vaguely worded, this “six pack” seems to imply that Sactwu sees no reason to change course; that the only concession to the reality of a collapsing industry is the need to expand membership outsid& of the factories. This is listed as the first “big idea”. Since the idea of recruiting the army of home-based outworkers has always been on the cards, this hardly qualifies as either new, or big.

On the job saving front, there is a proposal to deal with this via building “a major business services unit”. This seems to link with the promotion of “socially responsible investment” via the use of workers’ retirement funds and “investment vehicles”, while the “message of the movement” should be improved through better communication.

The fifth “big idea” is to “reactivate and strengthen the intellectual and cultural networks that support values of solidarity, development and social equity”. As one puzzled delegate noted: “I think we need to unpack that.”

Finally, the six pack notes the need to“explore and advance practical and innovative interventions at the workplace” in order to build “a new growth path for decent work” in the sector. The labour movement has defined decent work, but a new growth path remains elusive. And, as Burrows notes about governments and big business: “Business as usual is back.”

Judging by the statements and the “six pack” programme of Sactwu, the same applies for unionists in the South African textile and garment industry.

Source: Business Report – Terry Bell