Christine Olivier heads to Geneva to lead union federation

The former Atlantis factory worker intends to focus on women and worker-controlled unions in the Global South as a new assistant general secretary at international union federation IndustriALL.

A South African woman leader in the male-dominated metal and manufacturing sector is headed to Geneva to take up her new position as one of three assistant general secretaries of the international union federation IndustriALL, which has 50 million members.

IndustriALL is one of the world’s largest international union federations, with unions in 140 countries from the metalwork, mining, energy and manufacturing sectors. Christine Olivier, currently the international officer at the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa), is a powerful leader who puts feminism at the centre of the union agenda.

Circa 2000s: Christine Olivier at a meeting of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa. (Photograph supplied)

Olivier was elected at the IndustriALL congress on 15 September. She is the first African woman to be elected to the leadership of the giant, which is a merger of three global union federations – chemical and energy, clothing and textiles, and leather and metal workers. She is a humble, strong and dedicated person who places great emphasis on the struggles of ordinary workers.

“For me, it is all about caring about workers and the commitment to defend and fight for the rights of workers. That is one of the things I must continue doing because if I am not doing that, then I don’t belong in any position in the trade union movement,” says Olivier.

Worker-controlled unions

With a background as a factory worker who was elected dozens of times over the decades as shop steward and union leader, Olivier is unswerving in her commitment to one of the core principles that underpin the progressive trade union movement, worker control.

Over the years, this principle has been eroded in many unions. In a truly worker-controlled union, leaders act only on mandated decisions and are accountable to the workers who elect them.

“I know there are challenges with this. Even in some countries in Africa, workers don’t have a say in their own unions, there is no accountability. We must take the mandate from the workers. I come from a worker-controlled union and that is what I want to see,” Olivier says. “This is one of the things we will have to push. We must be accountable to workers because if the workers are not there, trade unions will become non-existent.” 

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International union federations have historically been dominated by leaders elected from unions in the northern hemisphere, where many began corporatising and doing away with direct worker control a few decades ago. A feature of union corporatisation is the reduced power of factory-floor shop stewards and the appointment of permanent chief executive officers instead of elected general secretaries who can be recalled at any time by the union’s members. Corporatised unions usually shift their focus away from the strike action favoured by unions in the southern hemisphere towards partnerships with employers. International union federations can be places where ideas clash.

Olivier is aware of this and plans to champion the workers of the southern hemisphere, she says. “We are happy that we could get another person from the south elected in IndustriALL, especially a woman. For me, I will uphold the expectations from the recent IndustriALL congress, which were that we must become a campaigning organisation that takes multinational companies head-on.”

Taking on exploitative companies 

Olivier was born and raised in Atlantis, a community 65km from Cape Town established as an industrial hub with houses for people classified as coloured by the apartheid government. These residents provided a pool of cheap labour for industries set up in the area.

In the working-class town, Olivier says she saw from an early age “how the employer can abuse workers”.

By the time she got her first factory job in the mid-1990s at ITron, manufacturing components for pre-paid electricity meters, “seeing this abuse made me a very angry person and I decided I could not keep quiet. The members decided I should become a shop steward and they kept on electing me for decades. So for me it was always about making sure that workers are not exploited at the point of production and that workers’ rights are looked after,” says Olivier.

She is one of the few women union leaders in South Africa to have been elected to leadership positions. These roles include the provincial chairperson of Numsa – the first woman to hold a provincial chair position – central committee member of the South African Communist Party, provincial treasurer of the Congress of South African Trade Unions, second deputy president of Numsa and then first deputy president of Numsa, another position that has never before been held by a woman.

The ITron factory closed in 2015, after which Olivier joined Numsa as its full-time international officer. She was then elected as chairperson of the automotive global working group of IndustriALL before taking up her new position as assistant general secretary.

20 September 2021: Christine Olivier will become an assistant general secretary of the international union federation IndustriALL.

“We must take multinational companies head-on. We must take global capital head-on. We must have more international solidarity and worker-to-worker contact, and put the interests of workers at the forefront of all the work that we are doing.”

She intends to organise workers from different unions in different countries who work along the supply chains of the same multinational companies. Making these connections will help reduce the impact that outsourcing and precarious work has had on unions’ abilities to organise workers. For example, it would help contract workers unable to strike but facing poor working conditions in a factory in South Africa if union members at a factory in Germany making components for the same company were to take action in solidarity.

“Now that the global supply chain is growing bigger and bigger, that is where most of the exploitation is taking place. Multinational companies now sign agreements with our governments and workers are not consulted. In many African countries, governments sign agreements with multinational companies … even if the work created is actually precarious. Governments don’t care as long as the unemployment rates are seen to be dropping.

“We need to put pressure on the supply chains of companies by saying, ‘If you are exploiting workers anywhere in the world, and if there is no freedom of association in your workplace, we won’t allow the company to do business with you,’” she says.

Women and racism

The coronavirus pandemic has shrunk the number of permanent workers in local and multinational companies and increased precarity in the workplace.

“There are many companies like Barloworld in South Africa who used the pandemic to claim that they’d lost income and needed to retrench workers, but we found that a few months later they would employ those same workers on precarious conditions – on their minimum wage, on contracts and without benefits,” she says.

Some companies stockpiled products and were still able to deliver orders, even after retrenching. This happens especially at multinational companies. “It is so unfortunate that companies can get away with using Covid-19 as a weapon to get rid of permanent workers. If you look around the world, the pool of precarious workers is growing bigger and bigger and the pool of permanent workers is shrinking.” 

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Olivier will also focus on the global struggle against racism in her work. “One of the biggest things that we need to uproot and should not tolerate is any racism within our workplaces, and within our trade union movement. We are very quiet when it comes to racism. It is one of the issues that we will have to start discussing openly within the trade union movement. Comrades are a bit reluctant to discuss racism but we must say that in the trade union movement we will not tolerate racism.”

A campaign to put women in more than 40% of the leadership positions in IndustriALL did not succeed, which disappointed Olivier, but she says she will continue to fight for women to gain prominence.

“Many of our sectors are previously male-dominated and transformation in the workplaces that used to be male-dominated is important. It is important that women take up their rightful places within our organisation. I would want to see equality and equity not only in the workplace but in the trade union movement.”

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