Labour relations in unprecedented flux – Solidarity’s GdP predicts 5 year outcomes | Fin24

Labour relations in unprecedented flux – Solidarity’s GdP predicts 5 year outcomes

Nov 23 2016 18:35

Solidarity’s Gideon du Plessis analyses the rapidly shifting political dynamics in the trade union movement, predicting that if current trends continue, central collective bargaining in several sectors could shift to the workplace, much to the delight of individual employers.

Thrown into this potboiler is the growing gulf between Cosatu and the ANC, Cosatu’s own debilitating internal wrangles, the union’s unequivocal stance on Zuma’s machinations, plus the hostilities between the mining arch-enemies NUM and Amcu. This last battle will do workers no good and office bearers might soon be feeling the weight of member disillusionment.

How unions respond to their own capacity challenges when it comes to disparate workplace negotiations will also prove critical to serving their memberships, perhaps prompting further political shifts.

It’s a fascinating read which demystifies some of the current labour relations imponderables while highlighting others that might flow from the current wrangling. – Chris Bateman

By Gideon du Plessis*

The pre-Marikana labour relations dispensation, with a dominant Cosatu that had increased the relevance and profile of trade unions, changed dramatically in post Marikana times.

Four years after Marikana and Cosatu is on the verge of implosion and the membership of its once mighty subsidiary, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), has shrunken drastically; Amcu and Numsa are the leading workerist trade unions on the left of the labour political spectrum; Zwelinzima Vavi’s proposed trade union federation has already attracted prominent Cosatu trade unions; central collective bargaining at the Metal and Engineering Industries Bargaining Council (MEIBC) and the Chamber of Mines, the oldest and largest national bargaining councils, is falling apart; employer unity is under pressure, especially at the aforementioned forums; trade union rivalry and violent strikes are mounting; internal trade union leadership tensions are rife because of prevailing political differences, faction fighting and tribalism; and workplaces are increasingly being mechanised and, as a result, retrenchments are the order of the day.

Just as the political environment is likely to look quite different after the national elections in 2019, so too will the labour relations dispensation look quite different by then.

Capacity challenges

Based on current trends, central collective bargaining in various sectors will, over the next three to five years, shift increasingly to the workplace as individual employers want to take charge of the impact wage increases have on their sustainability.

This will pose a challenge to the capacity of trade unions as negotiations would now take place at various workplaces rather than at one central bargaining forum. Due to their lack of capacity smaller trade unions will be taken over by the larger ones.

Even Amcu, with its nearly 190 000 members, will have to create capacity by appointing more trade union officials because, notwithstanding its membership income of approximately R100m per annum, it has a small staff component that has to conduct its labour relations.

Hence, Amcu is currently only focused on mainstream employers and, for all intents and purposes, it takes no part in industry-specific forums and initiatives. Numsa will have exactly the same challenge as Amcu.


Federation unity

It is also possible that a floundering Cosatu (given their increasing differences with their ANC ally) and Vavi’s new trade union federation could settle their differences to form one socialist federation. Their ideology is similar and it is mainly a sentiment of for or against Zuma and the ANC that is dividing them at the moment. Part of the problem should be resolved by 2019. This scenario will inevitably mean that all the splinter unions that are split between Cosatu and the new federation, could reunite again.

A united new federation with Vavi at the helm will not be ANC friendly and this could mean the end of Nedlac should the ruling party do away with this platform which served as a power building mechanism, moving labour debates to the various Parliamentary Portfolio Committees in order to retain the balance of power.

Nactu, which together with Cosatu, is one of the recognised trade union federations at Nedlac, should also be part of such a new united federation because of the fact that the justification for their existence has been in question for a long time already.

Although unlikely at this stage, mining archenemies NUM and Amcu might also realise that if they work together not only will they be able to negotiate better results for entry level workers, but their violent rivalry, which is destroying jobs and lives, will also come to an end.

As in party politics, the formation of coalitions in the world of trade unions will be the order of the day over the next few years. The pressure is mounting at various workplaces where the majority union is trying to impose the un-democratic majoritarian principle as far as trade union recognition is concerned, thereby jeopardising the recognition of other trade unions.

The prospect of a coalition offers the possibility of a win-win situation where a minority union such as Solidarity could, for example, retain its recognition by concluding a cooperation agreement with the second largest trade union at a particular workplace.

For example, through a coalition with typically a NUM, Uasa or a Numsa, which are our trade union allies, both coalition parties would retain their organisational rights while they would be combining membership numbers for recognition and wage negotiation purposes.

The growth challenge trade unions are facing

Given their ageing membership base and their representivity of 26% of South African workers, trade unions will have to reposition and modernise themselves to attract the current generation of millennials as members.

This generation will be more interested in belonging to a cyber union they can interact with via social media and the internet. Funeral policies that are currently held in high regard as a membership benefit, will not be in great demand; rather, help to fund further studies and negotiating benefits related to achieving a work-life balance are the things that will attract this generation.

On the other hand, the #FeesMustFall grouping will not need a trade union when they enter the workplace because they have learnt to solve their own problems –the #Fees leaders will, however, make good populist trade union leaders, even if it just serves as a stepping stone for a political career.

A new area for union growth which is already showing potential and which has to be harnessed is at management level, just above the traditional trade union membership level because workers who are promoted to that level retain their union membership, while members of management and professionals are feeling increasingly vulnerable and are experiencing the need to be protected by a trade union.

In the last instance, trade unions that want to survive and expand in the future will be those that have an attractive framework of ideas and do not regard their members as mere “employees” but as “South African citizens,” offering them individual service and benefits from the cradle to the grave.

  • Gideon du Plessis is Solidarity’s General Secretary

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