The formation of SATAWU (South African Transport and Allied Workers Union) in 1998 and 2000 respectively was made possible through a series of mergers. At its launching Congress in 1985, COSATU (Congress of South African Trade Unions) resolved on phasing out general unions for a one union one industry mandate. This resolution coupled with the challenge of uniting workers from different political, ideological and organisational backgrounds would become the cornerstone of merging both public and private sector trade unions.
The Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU) and General Workers Union (GWU) were the first to fulfil the one union one industry mandate. Six months after the launch of COSATU, the two unions successfully merged in1986, to establish the new TGWU. Merging the new TGWU and SARHWU (South African Railway and Harbour Workers Union) was virtually next to impossible. The continued ideological and organisational differences saw the first SATAWU being formed in the absence of TGWU in December 1998. Though TGWU formed part of the merger discussions, it however, did not partake in launching Congress. Parties resolved that the name “SATAWU” will remain unchanged after concluding the merger between SARHWU, BLATU (Black Transnet Allied Trade Union) and TATU (Transnet Allied Trade Union).
It took the former TGWU and SARHWU 15 years to conclude COSATU’s one union one industry resolution. Central to the delay was an ideological dispute on the word “Allied”. For SARHWU, the merger between parties had to be exclusive to transport workers. Conversely, TGWU was not willing to let go of its members from the services industry (security and cleaning) owing to their vulnerabilities, on one hand, and the rate of exploitation, on the other. After years of negotiations, parties resolved to set aside their differences allowing for the new SATAWU to be established on 18 May 2000.
Two years after the formation of SATAWU, the newly formed trade union underwent two sequential ruptures between 2001 and 2002. These ruptures were an outcome of the union’s inability to achieve a successful post-merger integration (PMI). The events following the 3rd National Congress in 2011, reproduced historical tensions within the union. The fundamental difference was that factions were no longer ideological but resource-driven. The desire for instant opulence, prestige and upward mobility created a new form of struggle within the union. The shift towards entrepreneurial trade unionism resulted in the formation of three more breakaways between 2012 and 2015 respectively.
After enduring five sequential ruptures in the course of our development, the 4th National Congress in 2018, mandated the union to “reclaim, renew and unite for working-class power…” The central message of the Congress was for SATAWU to go back to basics. Our revitalisation demands that we retrieve, preserve and embrace our identity as a culturally diverse trade union. A thorough understanding of our history is necessary for critically diagnosing our challenges and applying prescriptions aimed at steering the union towards a qualitatively different path.
It is indisputable that the labour movement, in general, is in a state of flux. The history of economic crisis, economic restructuring and variations in the nature of work demands that we reorganise in order to adapt, influence and advance the interests of workers within these complexities. As we strive to achieve immediate short term gains for our members, we must remember that our long term objective is to achieve universal social and economic rights for the working class in general. Our struggle cannot be separated from social and economic conditions. Notwithstanding, that it is equally domestic, international and socialist in character.
Going back to basics demands that we organise the unorganised, educate, agitate, campaign and advance our class interests. The unity of transport, cleaning and security workers is paramount to our existence. These leaders in their own right played a critical role in liberating blacks in general and African’s in particular from the shackles of colonial domination. These leaders sacrificed their own organisational traditions to give rise to “a revolutionary trade union most admired. SATAWU, a union of choice”. We are an outcome of multiple organisational cultures, political and ideological traditions. We carry the DNA of SACTU (South African Congress of Trade Unions), NACTU (National Congress of Trade Unions), FOSATU (Federation of South African Trade Unions), Independent Trade Unions and COSATU.
We cannot allow for our rich history to be placed in an archive of antiquities. It is from this perspective that commemorating 22 years of our name and 20 years of our complete existence should be in the same proportion as honouring the independent component parts that made our formation a possibility. The revitalisation of SATAWU is inevitable the same way “every storm runs out of the rain, just like every dark night turns into day”.
Happy 20th Birthday SATAWU. AMANDLA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Issue by: Comrade Ntuthuzelo Mhlubulwana (SATAWU President) on behalf of the National Office Bearers