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26 June 2017 21:17 (South Africa)
Opinionista Irvin Jim

Workers must reject proposed agreement between government and Cosatu

  • Irvin Jim
    irvin-jim.jpg
    Irvin Jim
The reported agreement between the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and the government threatens to undermine the independence and constitutional rights of trade unions.

Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan has told London’s Financial Times that the government is close to a series of “reforms” to the labour market which would include “the minimum wage, balloting before strikes, and compulsory arbitration, so that strikes don’t last forever”.

Cosatu President Sidumo Dlamini says Gordhan was premature in stating that the government was close to announcing labour legislation reforms, and concedes that negotiations on a minimum wage were still at “a delicate stage”, but that talks about other labour reforms, such as those relating to pre-strike balloting, were “nowhere near closure”.

This however confirms that Cosatu and government are in the process of negotiating on proposals which threaten many hard-won trade union rights, supposedly on the basis that they want to “balance pay with job security”.

The Times, on 5 July 2016, under the headline “Cosatu: Save the jobs”, reports that “in an effort to help turn the tide on unemployment and continuing job losses, labour federation Cosatu has called on the unions affiliated to it to tread carefully when negotiating pay increases. For the first time, Cosatu is calling for restraint. It says there should be a balance between wage demands and the preservation of jobs.”

The Times quotes Sizwe Pamla, Cosatu’s national spokesperson, as saying that “we have called on our affiliates not to over-promise and demand wages that will lead to workers losing their jobs down the line. What we are saying is that workers should not be misled and promised increases that will affect their jobs. We are approaching a recession and if this economy collapses it will affect all of us. We are all in danger”.

Cosatu general secretary Bheki Ntshalintshali is reported to have called for a “rethink” by unionists involved in salary negotiations. “You don’t want to get an increase and then thereafter people are retrenched and only a few remain to enjoy the benefits of that increase.”

“Cosatu,” reports The Times, “said it would advise its affiliates to push for above-inflation increases for those at the bottom of the pay scale. It said better-paid workers would negotiate for increases in line with inflation, which was at 6.1% in May.

“Ntshalintshali said that ‘for the lower grades it really has to be inflation-plus. We don’t determine how much above inflation [the demand should be] but it can’t be at inflation level, it can’t be below inflation’."

Cosatu President, Sidumo Dlamini, echoed the same theme when he told Power FM listeners that he is encouraging workers to moderate the salary demands with the need to preserve jobs.

Numsa has rejected this proposed agreement and the false arguments used to justify it. It is a move by government and the employers to make workers pay for the capitalist crisis of mass unemployment, poverty and inequality by plunging themselves into even greater poverty by accepting wage settlements that in real terms mean a wage cut.

The 6.1% level of inflation referred to is well below the level in the rate of food price inflation, which according to Stats SA rose from 5.2% year-on-year in the fourth quarter of 2015 to a massive 11.3% in April/May 2016, while the petrol price rose by nearly R1.50 (13%) between March and June 2016.

Poor households spend a proportionally larger share of their budgets on food and transport costs compared to higher income households and therefore typically suffer most from the impact of higher food and fuel prices.

Of course, saving jobs and creating ones is a top priority for unions at a time when jobs are disappearing daily and whole industries, like steel, are in jeopardy. The mining sector alone has shed more than 35,000 jobs since 2012 as commodity prices have slid over the last few years.

But I reject the false argument of the bosses, government and now Cosatu that the way to save jobs is to cut the real wages of those who still have jobs.

On the contrary, by reducing workers’ disposable income they reduce spending on goods and services, which forces even more employers to shut down and makes the current recession even worse. Not only will it not produce jobs for the unemployed but it will reduce the small amounts that thousands of them now receive from employed family members.

How can Cosatu even talk about wage moderation by workers when the incomes of their bosses soar upwards with no moderation at all? In 2015 CEOs were earning 725 times more than workers. The CEO of South African Breweries Alan Clark will shortly be in line to receive a payout of £55-million (R1,100-million) when SAB Miller is taken over by Anheuser-Busch InBev.

This is the same company which in 2014 was paying its CEO R122-million a year (over R1,010,000 a month). Compare that to the average wages of over half of full-time working people who were earning of R3,640 a month (R43,680 a year) or less in 2015?

The union is also utterly opposed to other so-called ‘reforms’ put forward by Gordhan – balloting before strikes, and compulsory arbitration.

Numsa prides itself on its insistence on democratic worker control. No decisions can be taken by leaders without a mandate from the members concerned. This is particularly the case with strikes, which for workers are always a last resort when every possible way to negotiate a settlement has been tried but failed.

Many unions already hold ballots on strikes, but others prefer the members to be consulted at workplace mass meetings, where questions and objections can be raised from the floor. Meetings also give the leadership a platform to counter the employers’ propaganda in the media, which can be more difficult with ballots.

But we are adamantly opposed to government dictating to unions how they should or should not seek a mandate from their members. It strikes at the heart of unions’ independence and worker control and creates a precedent for government to control all other unions’ rules and render them powerless.

The same applies to compulsory arbitration. Workers always prefer to settle disputes through negotiations, and so do many employers; the big majority of disputes are resolved with a negotiated settlement. Strikes are always a last resort when employers are intransigent or even want to provoke a strike as an excuse to sack workers.

But strikes can, and must, never be averted by some government-appointed arbitrator acting as a referee with red cards to wave at workers. Governments in capitalist societies, and the arbitrators they appoint, will always be biased in favour of their capitalist class allies and rule in their favour.

This proposal opens the way to workers who remain on strike in defiance of an arbitrator’s ruling facing being told either to return to work or else end up facing civil legal action and being dismissed for being on an unprotected strike.

This is a clear breach of the right to withdraw one’s labour which is enshrined in South Africa’s Constitution and many international conventions which our government has signed. It would amount to forced labour and turn workers into slaves.

It is outrageous that a trade union federation can even discuss such proposals, let alone agree to them. These are the policies of the Democratic Alliance, the Free Market Foundation and all the other enemies of the workers and their organisations. If ever introduced and enforced they would provoke an unprecedented explosion of rage from the working class.

I call on every union to fight these plans and refuse to be bound by any of the proposals.

As well as the unions which are coming together to form a new militant and independent federation, who we are confident will reject these plans, I call on all members of unions still affiliated to Cosatu also to abandon this once proud federation, which has become the police service of the government and employers.

It has joined the ruling class in seeking to place the blame for the global crisis of a rotten capitalist system on the very workers who produce the world’s wealth in the factories and mines, and provide the essential services in our schools and hospitals.

This agreement proves that Numsa and others who saw Cosatu degenerating into a labour desk of government and the ruling party, and now also the capitalist bosses, were right and now is the time to build the new democratic and revolutionary workers’ federation and political party. DM

  • Irvin Jim
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    Irvin Jim

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