Johannesburg - The launch of a new union federation led by expelled Cosatu affiliates has promised to give South African unionism a shot in the arm this year. The founding congress of the new federation is planned for the middle of March.
The group’s proposed name is the Democratic Independent Trade Union Federation of SA, and there are a number of major assured members.
The National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) remains the core of the project, which is as much a draw card as a deterrent.
Numsa is the country’s largest union and, in the private sector, there are few contenders.
At the union’s annual congress last month, one obvious concern from inside its ranks crept into the congress declaration.
“The new federation must strive for financial self-sufficiency and all the affiliates must fund the organisational programme and campaigns of the federation to avoid overreliance on Numsa,” reads one of the handful of declarations on the new formation.
Numsa’s mission is to become a general union and swell its own ranks to 500 000 by 2020.
The declaration last month, however, glossed over the fact that Numsa membership has been stagnant since at least 2013.
The declaration bragged that membership had grown from 300 389 in 2012 to 340 687 last year.
What it failed to mention was that, in 2013, Numsa membership, as declared to the department of labour, was 342 444. It’s membership is now slightly lower than it was four years ago.
From the outside, potential affiliates have to contend with the likelihood that Numsa’s Irvin Jim and former Cosatu secretary-general Zwelinzima Vavi will almost certainly play leading roles in the new federation.
Existing federations have given the new rival the cold shoulder, with the Federation of Unions of SA (Fedusa) earlier this year rejecting an invitation to a summit of potential affiliates, and Cosatu is an unhappy rival by default.
It matters because Fedusa and Cosatu hold the key to institutional power, not least in the form of getting a seat at the National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac), where unions get to influence legislation.
The last time a new union federation tried to crack Nedlac was in 2004, when the Confederation of SA Workers’ Unions tried and failed as it ran up against the effective veto wielded by the existing three federations: Cosatu, Fedusa and the National Council of Trade Unions (Nactu).
Nactu, which counts the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) as a member, largely backs the plans.
Numsa by itself, or a federation dominated by it, could be a major source of dissent around two major labour market reforms this year.
The union has “denounced with contempt” the proposal for a national minimum wage of R20 an hour, which existing federations have been negotiating at Nedlac.
Numsa is also dead set against the new code of conduct for strikes that is being hammered out at Nedlac.
It was highly unlikely that the national minimum wage would get implemented this year, said a source close to the negotiations at Nedlac.
It might even only get implemented in 2019, said the source.
Apart from plans to conduct an impact assessment of the proposed wage floor, the parties at Nedlac still have widely divergent demands for changes to the proposal tabled by a panel of experts last year.
The unions are still holding out for a higher minimum wage and also want to remove some of the proposed exemptions for workers in the Expanded Public Works Programme and in learnership programmes.
New strike rules
A more advanced labour reform is a set of new strike rules aimed at stopping long and violent industrial action.
The accord on collective bargaining, strikes and pickets comes with amendments to the Labour Relations Act.
The important one is a system for compulsory interest arbitration when strikes seem to have reached a deadlock or have turned violent.
Interest arbitration entails an independent arbitrator deciding on an outcome – for instance, the wage increase being fought over in this case.
This arbitration could be requested by the union or the employer, or simply imposed by the authorities.
Importantly, the outcomes won’t be legally binding like a court order, but parties would have to present the arbitrator’s proposal to members.
Another intervention is to make secret strike ballots a compulsory part of all unions’ constitutions.
This will not be particularly enforceable, said the source.
“It is not making strikes unprotected if there wasn’t a ballot, but if there is obvious flouting, the registrar would take steps. The accords are soft law, but they do provide guidance that will be more influential in the long term.”
The code mostly asserts things that are law in any case, and spells out basic house rules and etiquette during bargaining and strikes.
This includes non-interference with non-strikers and the prohibition of carrying weapons at a picket, including symbolic traditional weapons such as knobkerries, whips and sjamboks.
Parts of the accord clearly stem from the platinum strikes held in 2012 and 2014.
It is, however, not very clear how they would remedy the situation that prevailed then.
One clause asserts the rights of informal workers’ committees, but only “in the absence of a recognised union”.
The enormous strikes on the platinum belt in 2012 were led by committees who employers such as Lonmin refused to talk to.
The clause in the code would not have changed that situation at all because those workers intentionally bypassed the recognised union – Numsa.
Another clause says that employers should not bypass unions and deal directly with employees “before deadlock or a reasonable period after deadlock”.
This harks back to the battle Amcu fought against platinum companies which, in 2014, started bargaining with workers via SMS.
That months-long strike was, however, the perfect case of a deadlock, so the clause would seemingly not have applied if it had existed then.
The department of labour’s annual Industrial Action Report for 2015 was released late last year and demonstrates the dramatic return to normalcy in 2015. Nothing indicates this changed last year, and, if the department’s theory that a slow economy dampens strikes holds water, this year should be calm as well.
According to the department’s report, there were actually more strikes, but they were far smaller than the massive stoppages in mines and farms that occurred over the past few years.
The report tries to measure working days lost by multiplying the workers involved with the length of their strikes.
The days lost in 2015 were about 904 000. This was the lowest number since 2008.
A major strike in the mining sector is unlikely for the foreseeable future due to the bedding down of Amcu in its new role as the dominant mining union.
It signed a multiyear wage deal with platinum companies last year without much fuss and with a relatively conservative increase.Read Fin24's top stories trending on Twitter: