Tony Ehrenreich is unemployed.
After serving as trade union federation Cosatu’s Western Cape secretary general since 1996 – with only a two-year break when he was elected as the deputy secretary general – he confirmed this year that he did not intend to stand for re-election.
His tenure came to an end on Sunday, when Malvern de Bruyn was elected to take his place.
But “Comrade Tony” may not be unemployed for long – unionists are urging him to put his name up for consideration as member of the legislature.
“I have said I will only go to Parliament if we reduce the salaries and perks. The amount of money [they] get in relation to our people is ridiculous. I will only go if I get half of the pay,” he insisted.
“I don’t want to go there for the money and be one of those comfortable fat cats that many in Parliament have become. It must serve our people. It must rock the boat. It must make things happen. It must make those in power feel uncomfortable.”
Ehrenreich, 56, has moved out of the hot seat at Cosatu’s Salt River office following De Bruyn’s election at the organisation’s provincial congress this past weekend. The choked-up unionist could only manage three sentences before he was overcome by emotion and left the stage.
This has only happened once before, when his mother died 10 years ago, he recalls.
‘I know what it’s like not to have a job’
Ehrenreich had volunteered to stay on another month to ensure there was as smooth a transition as possible, but an affiliated union has offered to pay him a stipend for his efforts.
The last time he was unemployed was in the early 1980s, Ehrenreich recalls. He had just returned from a two-year stint at sea after completing his schooling.
He got by doing odd jobs, such as working as a casual labourer in a bottle store and as a back-up driver at another business.
“But there were periods where I did not have a job and didn’t have money. So I know what it’s like. It’s tough. I know it’s hard for older people especially. I am thankful that I am probably not in such a situation. I will get a job. There are some prospects.”
Born in Parow and forcibly removed to Uitsig, on the Cape Flats, where he still lives, a young Ehrenreich completed an apprenticeship and qualified as a motor mechanic. Two years later, in 1988, be became a shop steward and the next year was employed by National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) as a local organiser.
In 1993, he was promoted to national negotiator for the union and in 1996 he was elected as the provincial secretary of Cosatu in the Western Cape.
He was voted in in 1999 as the union federation’s deputy secretary general, the second-most powerful labour union position in the country.
“When it came to elections, there would be battles with the leadership, who sometimes wouldn’t like me because I am too outspoken about the union or about ANC issues. But the members would always stop them from trying to get rid of me at congresses. Where people have moved against me, their members have removed them,” Ehrenreich told News24.
Decent salaries for all
“I didn’t want to play the palace politics where you can caucus a few leaders at the top to try and ensure you have longevity. I didn’t pander to them at all. I just made sure that I always responded to the members; the members then took the decision as to whether I should stay or not.”
The positions he held over the years came with big pay cheques, and Ehrenreich has often criticised the fact that union leaders’ salaries are so high.
He used some of his earnings to, among others, pay an apprentice and also increase the income of his office administrator whom he feels is underpaid.
Low wages and wage bargaining remains the main reason for a union’s existence, Ehrenreich pointed out.
“We have got to make sure our people earn decent salaries because once you have decent salaries, you have more disposable income to buy other things, which generates demand in the economy – more production, more jobs.
“At the moment, the economy is growing on the back of the consumption of the wealthy section of society that mainly consumes imported products – the Gucci and Mercedes Benz buyers – so they don’t consume the things we produce. Most people are too poor to afford those things, so we have to deal with the low wage economy we inherited from apartheid. That’s got to be responded to more urgently.”
The issues facing the modern workforce are very different to when he started out in the unions, Ehrenreich recollects.
“There’s been a huge improvement in the labour market. The discrimination, racism and exploitation that was crude then doesn’t happen now anymore. We have institutionalised labour law; the battles are different.
Social distance between Cosatu leaders, members
“But workers are still impoverished. The levels of inequality in our country are greater, so clearly we haven’t been able to address the systemic foreplans of apartheid and how whites accumulated wealth at the cost of black people. That problem in society is still very prevalent and reflected in the growing levels of inequality. We have got to fight that.”
The battle for job maintenance and growing an economy that creates more employment opportunities is currently the greatest challenge facing the country, Ehrenreich believes.
“There are a lot of the challenges we have to respond to: how companies operate in a global environment, how do they maintain market share, how to attract investment. Those are problems that are ordinarily those of a government, but become the problem of the unions because we are in a democratic environment and we must also contribute to making the country a place where we can create the kind of jobs that we want.”
Unions are certainly still relevant in modern South Africa, Ehrenreich maintains, but warns that Cosatu has to “jack up its servicing” to remain the union of choice.
“Cosatu has got to close the social distance between its leaders and the members. I earned enough money to go live in a middle class area. But that’s not going to help the social connection between leadership and the workers.
“You become distant. Your aspirations become middle class. All workers should be able to get to a middle class life. But if you are out of that you are not struggling for those circumstances.
“You are not concerned about what happens in the public hospitals because you don’t have to go queue there with your kids. You are not too worried about what happens to Metrorail because you drive to work in your fancy car. You stay in the suburbs so you don’t have the gangsters shooting across the road. Those [issues] are not at the top of your mind, as a leader. And they must be.”
Land expropriation ’24 years too late’
The only way an organisation remains relevant to its members is if it “responds to the social injury that they encounter”.
“We’re not doing that with the urgency and the radicalism that we need. It’s good to have a relationship with government. But we’ve got to continue to ensure that the ANC, Cosatu and the South African Communist Party advance the principles of the Freedom Charter.
“For 23 years they haven’t done that. We promised our people that the land will be shared by everyone. Now we are finally coming on board with land expropriation without compensation, but it’s 24 years too late.”
Increasing membership numbers should be among Cosatu’s priorities, he said.
“Members have declined. In the country, Cosatu has about 2.2 million to 2.3 million workers. Numsa, with about 400 000 members, and Fawu (Food and Allied Workers’ Union) left Cosatu – that alone was about half a million workers. Some other workers have come in as the economy has grown a few more jobs, but we have lost important capacity in Cosatu because of Numsa – probably the most important industrial union in the country that can fight the capitalist.
“We now have public service unions that are big and strong, but fighting the government is not the main function. How do we deal with the private sector, how do we deal with private capital? We can’t do that when we’ve lost Numsa.”
Mining union members have also declined significantly.
“We are probably down to about 150 000 members now. We had about 350 000 workers five years ago. Remember Marikana? A lot of those workers left the NUM [National Union of Mineworkers] to go to Amcu [Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union] and the other unions. And that [situation] was of our own making, the problems that led to that crisis.”
A life well spent
There is much work to be done, but Ehrenreich believes it’s time for new brooms to sweep clean.
“It’s been 22 years but it is not good for an organisation to have the same main public face. Because what happens in many instances is that people manipulate the system when they are in positions so long and then are able to survive forever.
“I want there to be two-term limits. After the six years you must go. There must be a change in the leadership, like we do with the president, because there is a rationale for that.”
Ehrenreich believes he is leaving Cosatu in good hands.
“Malvern has 23 years of experience in the labour movement and has also been a shop steward. He knows the pain of workers and will be committed to taking those issues forward.”
But his tenure as secretary general was the best way to spend most of his life, Ehrenreich mused.
“The unions have done more for me than I could ever do for it. The learning, the opportunities, the experience, the encounters… I have been lucky.”
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