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Do we still need unions?

Nov 17 2014 07:10
Mandi Smallhorne

THERE's been some rejoicing at the split of trade union federation Cosatu, voiced either by people who are thrilled at the prospect of the tripartite alliance breaking up, with possible political opposition to the ruling party as part of the side-effects, or by those who see this as the beginning of the end for the unions, or at least a huge (and, they say, necessary) blow to their power.

Many people, inside and outside the unions, have said that the unions have lost their way – they are too pally with the management (a phenomenon that has recurred, I believe, many times across the world as unions get richer and more comfortable, and are less lean and hungry). They’ve been accused, too, of losing sight of their most important goals, of acting in political interests rather than labour interests.

In these terms, I think the split could be good for the union movement in South Africa, to get union management back on true.

But do we need unions? I heard an economist on Talk Radio 702 saying that the younger generation is not interested in collective wage negotiations, they are more individualistic. And that a growing black middle class (in 1994 there were only 1.8 million black people in the middle class – today there are 5.9 million) will not be aligned with ‘working class’ goals.

But who is this middle class? The definitions are multitudinous, but many seem to see the income threshold for the middle class at around R4 000 a month per household – see, for example, Justin Visagie writing on the subject.

Two Stellenbosch academics questioned the income basis for defining the middle class this year; their definition of the middle class as people who, rather than having comfortable standards of living, being highly skilled and stable, are “empowered and capacitated and who are free to develop and realise their aspirations”, which expands the numbers in this class hugely (What does the ‘middle class’ mean in a polarised, developing country such as South Africa? Ronelle Burger and Camren McAravey, Stellenbosch University).

But “…the lacklustre performance of the labour market has restricted opportunities for individuals to translate empowerment and untapped capabilities into productive employment and earned income…”

Is this middle class likely to see itself as out of sync with unions, with the struggles of the working class? If you have aspirations and are unable to reach them (say you’re a retail merchandiser and your husband drives a forklift, and together you earn R6 000 or so a month), would it not seem to be a good idea to align yourself with ‘workers’ rather than management, seeing a strong workers’ movement as a way to realise your goals?

But that aside, here’s why we really need unions. While many commentators and members of the public talk as if striking for pay increases (with the occasional benefit thrown in) is what unions are for, it bears repeating that there is much more to the trade union movement than that.

Historically, wage negotiations have only been one aim of the movement, sometimes the less important one.

Have you ever heard of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire? In Manhattan, March 25 1911, 146 people, 123 of them women (mostly Jewish and Italian immigrants aged 16 to 23) died from smoke inhalation and burning – the youngest were Kate Leone and Sara Rosaria Maltese, both just 14; laws about child labour were not enforced, so some two million children under 15 – and some as young as three! – were working in the USA at the time. (The International Labour Organisation estimates that, in places where the union movement is not strong, some 150 million children around the world are working today.)

Why did the garment workers die? Because of actions the owners took to prevent workers taking unauthorised breaks (in a very long and arduous working day). They had LOCKED THE DOORS to the exits and the stairwells. A large number of the dead had jumped from the upper stories of this ten-storey building.

Fighting for improved working conditions

The International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union grew rapidly after this fire and fought for improved working conditions.

Remind you of something? Yes, of course, the 2012 Dhaka fire in Bangladesh, where 117 people were unable to escape through narrow exits, or had their way blocked, apparently, by huge amounts of stacked textiles.

We still need a powerful union movement everywhere to counteract the enormous power wielded by employers. It is in the nature of employers to maximise their profits and the work they get from employees; in some places, some employers will do things that are dangerous, unhealthy and even inhumane to achieve this.

We need a strong trade union movement to make the voices of the vulnerable, the exploitable, heard. It is through union activity that we have some things we take for granted: laws against child labour in many countries; limits on hours worked (it was common in Victorian England to work a 12-hour day, six days a week); paid leave; on-the-job safety; maternity leave; and much more.

I hope that the split focuses unions on their true purpose, but we would all lose in the end if unions became too weak to challenge employers.

*Mandi Smallhorne is a versatile journalist and editor. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on twitter.

mandi smallhorne  |  labour
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