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  • Writer's pictureNerine Kahn

Do trade unions have a future in South Africa?

Are unions a thing of the past? Should civil society take over from them? Is Cosatu too close to the government and is its past role lost? What role should unions play in a country with massive unemployment? Are unions part of the problem rather than the solution? These were some of the questions that panellists at the 30th Annual Labour Law Conference discussed.

Gideon du Plessis: Between 1994 and 2004, a labour regime emerged covered by laws and worker rights. Industrial relations institutions were created, some of which are actively used by trade unions. Many unionists, however, in this period moved into industrial relations departments and institutions and became bureaucrats.

Unions are now characterised by a shop steward and a union bureaucracy that has replaced organisers accountable to their mass membership. Precarious temporary work has grown, creating a messy labour market. Unions are often weak and embroiled in infighting, splits, and corruption.

South Africa is not exceptional in this — unions all over the world have been in decline.

Unions used to be a vehicle for politics, and they are finding it difficult to shift from this mode. Members now want to be treated like citizens.

Nerine Kahn: Unions must update. They must develop modern technology and organising methods like flash mobs and use other forms of industrial action like go slows that bring in new and younger membership.

To modernise, a new leadership must be elected by unions with an appreciation for good governance, training, and thorough preparation for bargaining rounds. Unionists need to have a comprehensive vision of the whole labour market, not just disputes and bargaining institutions. They should, for example, focus on equity issues and on updating institutions that compensate workers. Unions also need to look at productivity and new forms of work.

We should think about setting up workplace forums where employees and management can work together with more dialogue. Then we will get fewer cases going to the CCMA.

Union members shouldn’t elect the same people over and over again. To keep people honest, you must have a change in leadership.

Khomotso Makapane: If you keep on doing the same thing, don’t expect a different result. Unions have not taken on board new entrants into the labour market with new needs. This is the microwave generation where everything must pop up quickly, so if you don’t develop new ways of doing it, you will fail. There is a disjuncture between potential membership and the form and operations of current trade unions.

Unions don’t inform themselves enough. They just take in what’s in the media. But now people ask questions about unions like, "What’s in it for me?" What have they done for me? ’ Unions can’t answer these questions.

What should unions be doing? Well, I’m a lawyer. I’m a creature of instruction. I must listen and work out how to service my client. Union officials are in the same position. They must do what they are supposed to do well – that’s all. We are seeing a decline in membership, unhappiness, and violence, so we need to do things differently.

We must never allow ourselves to be victims. We must inform ourselves. It won’t come from outside. We deserve what we get – what we elected. We must make informed decisions.

The employee you represent has much more going on. Don’t ignore this. People are burdened. They are over indebted. You must understand the needs of the members, or else how can you represent them? Unionists must reflect people’s concerns and not their own needs.

Training is important. Training in negotiating – management and union officials need training so that they can communicate effectively.

Du Plessis: There is a lot of conflict and tension in our environment. Tensions between unions in the same sector Amcu [Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union] and NUM [National Union of Mineworkers] and Saftu [South African Federation of Trade Unions] and Cosatu [Congress of South African Trade Unions]. There are also tensions between employers.

There is poor leadership. Tribalism raises its head in unions, financial problems, and self-interest. There is a gravy train in union elections. One day you are working underground, and the next you are a shop steward on the surface with a phone, a car, and a better salary. This must be addressed.

The Fees Must Fall movement showed that students don’t need unions. They succeeded in outsourcing university workers, and they don’t need unions to speak for them.

The new generation doesn’t focus on a pension and other benefits like the older generation. They want opportunities to increase their skills. They can triple their salaries by improving their skills. They don’t want a 10% increase.

Workers are turning to workers’ committees rather than trade unions for representation through shop stewards. On top of this, there are massive retrenchments and no new jobs.

The collapse of Cosatu was bad. It led a strong campaign against e-tolls on major roads in 2012. Cosatu lifted the profile of trade unions. Now government employees don’t consult unions on everything, so the profile of unions has dropped.

Judge Davis: The university Fallists succeeded in challenging management in a way unions could not. Will unions become anachronisms and civil society take over what they can’t do?

Du Plessis: Saftu wants to go the route of linking up with workers’ communities using a UDF [United Democratic Front] model where workers and the community are one.

Solidarity, my union, has a different model. We offer a cradle-to-grave service. We will assist our members with school, university, technical college, and other financial support with other projects. Unions must go into the community because of the failure of government in this area.

Collective bargaining is just one of the things we offer. Other unions are more focused on bargaining.

About 25% of our membership is black and skilled. Coloured workers were alienated from Cosatu, especially in terms of language, so they joined us.

Kahn: There is a disconnect between what the membership needs and what they are given. Unions need to professionalise. Trade unions have forgotten how the workplace and the community once came together. It’s important to do this again, especially in working with the unemployment problem.

Judge Davis: Cosatu was formed in 1985 and fought for increased wages, collective bargaining, and change and was crucial in the attainment of democracy. Is it now too close to the government and this past role is lost?

Kahn: Cosatu’s leadership is too close to the government. Trade unions should not be aligned with the governing party in this day and age. Cosatu was independent and powerful, it argued, for example, against VAT on basic foods. Other organisations then took up the issue and won.

Cosatu used to understand what was expected of them in servicing the society. But now it places a greater emphasis on aligning with the government and it is more focused on power struggles. I don’t think it’s necessarily wrong to align with the government as long as you keep focus.

Judge Davis: The LRA [Labour Relations Act] was born with the idea of entering the global economy. It was viewed as a countervailing power. Is it still valid? It is a different time, yet the issues remain the same.

Cosatu fought for a broader conception of a better society. Every day we hear of violations, but who shouts the odds now? Why don’t unions do this? Or do we lack a citizen movement so that unions don’t have to play a role in the broader society?

Makapane: The LRA has been amended to become more relevant, but most unionists are not in touch. People can see this, and employers have delegated management tasks to trade unions. This is the environment in the workplace.

Du Plessis: Nedlac [National Economic Development & Labour Council] has lost its ability to negotiate. And there are breakaways everywhere. The EFF [Economic Freedom Front] is a breakaway from the ANC; Saftu is a breakaway from Cosatu. We see the conduct in parliament and then a mirror image in the unions and in the workplace. Political stability is important, but all we see is economic and political instability.

Everything goes back to politics and poor leadership.

Judge Davis: Unions only care about the employed and not the unemployed. They ignore this broader tragedy. Are unions part of the problem rather than the solution? Do we view the world in an adversarial manner rather than in a cooperative way? Are we too right-oriented rather than focusing on building a community?

Kahn: Unions are missing the community aspect. It’s hard for unions to garner strike solidarity because of the threat of unemployment. And there are no programmes for the unemployed.

Nedlac talks about the community, but it is not the community where the vast majority of unemployed live. Unions have ignored the unemployed.

Judge Davis: A huge part of the population has nothing. So, in the face of massive unemployment, what role should unions play?

Makapane: Unions must remodel themselves. The political language in unions must end. They must now address the broader community. They must ask people, "How are things before we talk about the workplace?"

Unionists must stop behaving like management and workers are on the same team. Employers have no loyalty to employees, so they look to unions. It’s time employers stopped treating their workers like commodities.

Unions and employers must come to the table and say there is a better way to resolve issues. Unions must focus on problem solving and not be driven by ideology.

Judge Davis: This means a massive company mind shift.

Du Plessis: Trade unions can be destructive around job losses. Look at Amcu’s five-month strike on the Rustenburg platinum belt. Just before the strike, Lonmin wanted to open a new mine, but the strike wiped out any extra cash and Lonmin also reduced the workforce. So 14,000 jobs overall gone. Unions and workers need to really discuss before they go on strike. We can’t strike ourselves out of jobs.

Kahn: Lonmin was involved in transfer pricing and could have afforded to pay their workers what they demanded. How do we deal with the terrible inequality in our country?

Du Plessis: I can’t defend Lonmin. Your information is correct. But my message is: what is in the best interest of members? We must remember that members come from homes and families, and we must show them respect. Communicate, consult, reach consensus, and then you won’t have to use the CCMA!

We share information in meetings. At Anglo, our health and safety discussions work well. The trouble is that workplace forums are used for discussion of retrenchments, so unions stay away from them. The problem is employers’ huge salaries.

Kahn: Government failed us with Lonmin. We need a social wage with proper services – transport, housing, roads, and so on.

Judge Davis: Fruitless expenditure. Billions have been taken by companies, and nobody can quantify how much. Why are the unemployed not shouting from the rooftops? This could be theirs.

Kahn: We’ve changed our focus from the poor and needy. Everyone stands up for the Minister of Labour when he arrives with his security and blue lights. When I worked for the Department of Labour, this was not the case.

Judge Davis: is We are so divided. We know there must be growth, but we have not succeeded in building a common vision, so we can’t codeterminate.

This is a summary of a discussion on ‘The Future of Trade Unions’ at the 30th Annual Labour Conference. It was facilitated by Judge Dennis Davis from the High Court in Cape Town and the participants were Nerine Kahn– CEO of Employment Relations Exchange, Gideon du Plessis, – General Secretary of Solidarity, and Khomotso Makapane, – partner at Bowman Gilfillan in the dispute resolution department.

The 30th Annual Labour Law Conference 2017

L-R: Members of the panel were Judge Dennis Davis (chair), Gideon du Plessis from Solidarity, Nerine Kahn of Employment Relations Exchange, General Secretary of Solidarity, and Khomotso Makapane, – partner at Bowman Gilfillan in the dispute resolution department.

Source: Extract from "The South African Labour Bulletin", Volume 41, Number 4, Pages 27–29: 08/12/2017

Download the original document here: SALB NovDec

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