BROKEN and battered by two long years of infighting over issues brewing for twice as long, Cosatu faces massive changes if its largest affiliate, the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa), leaves its fold.

Cosatu will be dominated by public-sector workers — largely white collar and middle management — if Numsa departs with its factory-floor members.

The public-sector unions combined are already the largest collective in the Cosatu fold; the government is the country’s biggest employer and there are more union members in the public sector than in the entire private sector.

Five public-sector unions — the South African Democratic Teachers Union, the National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu), Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union (Popcru), the Democratic Nurses Organisation of SA and the South African Municipal Workers Union — make up nearly 1-million of Cosatu’s 2.19-million members. Most of these unions’ members are the new bourgeoisie created by the state, who are likely to persuade Cosatu to drift further from the left to secure their class privileges. These unions have a direct interest in maintaining state power and the current economic trajectory.

Between 2008 and 2012, government employment rose by 13% and its salary bill increased by 76% to one-third of public expenditure. This year public servants are demanding a 15% increase in salaries.

The industrial unions in the Cosatu fold also tend to favour higher-paid workers — the rejection of the National Union of Mineworkers on the platinum belt in favour of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union was largely due to its members no longer being able to identify with the character of their union.

The department of labour cautioned last year against what it observed as a "proliferation of unions", and this problem is likely to worsen as competing unions are launched by Cosatu and its rivals.

Should Numsa leave the fold, Cosatu will be a more pliant participant in alliance politics with the ANC and the SACP — the stance of many of its affiliate unions on e-tolls is evidence of this.

The possible expulsion of Numsa is likely to deepen Cosatu’s cash-flow crisis. As the federation’s largest affiliate with about 340 000 members, Numsa contributes the most to monthly subscriptions estimated at more than R20-million annually.

While the rejection of e-tolls is Cosatu policy, many of its unions, including Nehawu and Popcru, criticised its campaign against the contentious system. The federation’s financial well-being will also take a knock if Numsa leaves. According to a Cosatu report earlier this year, a "punitive financial decision" in 2013 not to increase affiliate fees impaired its cash flow.

By May this year it was owed more than R8-million in affiliate fees by unions who were withholding their monthly subscriptions. It has spent millions of rands on court battles, lawyers and forensic audits. Cosatu admitted that it was increasingly dependent on "outside funding" to bankroll the "most basic activities".

The possible expulsion of Numsa is likely to deepen Cosatu’s cash-flow crisis. As the federation’s largest affiliate with about 340 000 members, Numsa contributes the most to monthly subscriptions estimated at more than R20-million annually.

But the character of Cosatu without Numsa will depend on several factors, particularly whether any of its 18 other affiliates will walk out.

The ANC task team report on the Cosatu battle says all affiliates continue to remain loyal to the governing alliance irrespective of whether they side with Numsa in the federation’s battle. This implies that outside of the Cosatu and the alliance fold, Numsa is on its own. It explains Numsa’s ardent fight to remain within the federation.

Numsa’s leaders say they will not leave Cosatu of their own volition.

If they are expelled, it will tie in conveniently with their narrative that the they are the sole defender of the "old Cosatu", that the federation is a shadow of its former self, a "toy telephone" cow-towing to its "neoliberal" allies, the ANC and the SACP. The test of Numsa’s support may come should it be expelled and it opts to appeal its expulsion. Cosatu’s constitution allows an expelled affiliate to appeal the decision at a national congress, where the decision is "final and binding". Numsa is hedging its bets that delegates at a congress will reverse its expulsion.

Creative Voodoo Consulting research analyst on labour and mining Mamokgethi Molopyane says if Numsa is expelled, other affiliates would think very hard about following, as the adage "its cold outside the alliance" resonates within the congress movement.

Numsa will not depart intact. Members who remain loyal to the alliance will find other unions in Cosatu to represent them. Molopyane says Numsa may have to start over, and prove their worth to shop-floor workers, to break into sectors in which it does not currently organise. The stumbling block for Numsa is its mixed messages, she says. It wants to remain within Cosatu but has already identified itself as outside of the alliance.

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