Defend Truth


Labour pains: Trade union membership has declined badly and bosses are calling the shots


Karl Cloete is the former Numsa Deputy General Secretary. He writes in his personal capacity. (Photo: Netwerk24)

Trade unions in South Africa must be extremely worried that workers are either not interested in joining a union or are comfortable in taking employment as they receive it, irrespective of bad working conditions. This is not a South African phenomenon — trade union membership is on the decline globally.

Over many decades, the growth of the South African trade union movement has seen a gallant struggle and an amazing evolution.

The 1973 Durban strikes brought into sharp focus the titanic battle to secure worker rights, a minimum floor of conditions of employment and recognition for any trade union to represent their members and to bargain to improve wages, benefits and other conditions of employment.

Trade Union density

Research has shown that workers employed in the South African economy and in the public service have a union density of 23%, meaning that about 77% of workers employed do not belong to a union and thus employers can determine the conditions of employment and wages as they see fit.

All trade unions must be extremely worried that workers are either not interested in joining a trade union or are comfortable to take employment as they receive it, irrespective of bad working conditions. This of course is not a South African phenomenon. Trade union membership is on the decline globally.

It is not very useful or helpful that unions are no longer making members of the union their centre of gravity. Worker control of unions appears to be a mere slogan that leaders recite when they want to sound relevant — but they do not practise worker control of unions so that the real owners of unions may determine the direction of the union and how their own resources drawn from subscriptions should benefit them. It is a reality that:

  • Unions lose members to rival unions in the same workplace, sector or industry;
  • Unions fish in the same pond and do little to organise the unorganised workers; and
  • Service to union members has taken a back seat and union organisers are occupying most of their working hours at the CCMA and the dispute resolution centres.

Unions are just not the same as in the 1980s — why?

On this question, Zwelinzima Vavi has penned a well-written internal SA Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu) discussion document which he titled “Why are established trade unions comfortable with the status quo?” In a gripping articulation to explain the real-time situation within and among trade unions, Vavi explains that:

“The spectre of business trade unionism may be one of the reasons why workers in the private sector have also begun to lose trust in unions. If union leaders appear to be preoccupied with building up personal assets and forgetting about workers’ day-to-day concerns, then workers will withdraw their support.

“As soon as the union is awash with resources from investment companies, for example, allegations fly over whether the leadership is using these resources to amass wealth for itself, getting benefits that tend to weaken internal democracy.

“The interests of the service providers in who becomes the leader of the union have become legendary. The reason why this is the case is also well documented within trade unions with investment companies. The instability this has caused is also well recorded in the past 26 years of democracy.

“We also know that former militant unions that were growing and stable are now under administration and have literally been taken over by the bureaucrats of the department of labour.

“We know that unions that enjoyed stability from the inception are now engulfed in destructive factional wars that have defocused the leadership from top to bottom leading to the weakening of the commitment to serve workers.

“This is capture of our internal trade union principles, not terribly different from how, externally, unions have been muted by capital and the state.”

In another paper penned by Vavi titled, “The early warning for a dysfunctional union”, Vavi makes the following compelling argument that requires any serious trade unionist to engage with:

“Unions with no democratic management structures and democratic system of accountability will simply die and will not attract workers into the ranks or make them relevant in 2020. Badly managed unions have no system of any kind to ensure growth, effective collective bargaining, education and training, prudent financial management of the union resources, etc.”

Through intense struggles, battles and negotiations, trade unions forced the post-1994 government and the state to make many concessions in the best interest of workers (not all of it revolutionary, though).

Improved legislation guaranteed the possibility to help with the transformation of workplaces. This includes the Employment Equity Act, Skills Development Act, Basic Conditions of Employment (as amended) and the Labour Relations Act (as amended).

Regrettably, trade unions left the implementation of these pieces of legislation to the whim of unwilling and headstrong employers. This resulted in:

  • The racial composition of management in companies remains as it was under apartheid. If the annual reports of the Commission for Employment Equity are anything to go by, unions have largely ignored the struggle to bring about employment equity and transformation in workplaces — nice discussions with management will not change the employment equity landscape: it needs to involve a struggle of committed workers;
  • Skills development in companies is largely limited to forklift driving and first aid training — the struggle to get apprenticeships, artisan training and recognition of prior learning off the ground is not just worrying, but very disturbing for unions who once were proud campaigners for training to enable workers to move from being a sweeper to an engineer in their lifetime; and
  • In South Africa unclaimed pension and provident fund benefits are sitting roughly at R50-billion — this is so because there is absolutely no drive by the trade union movement in South Africa to transform the trillion rand retirement industry and to ensure that the deferred wages of workers benefit their families.

From the above, the question that arises for ordinary workers is why they should belong to a trade union and religiously pay their subscriptions when they are failed by the unions at the point of production.

Getting upset and angry about these observations will be of no assistance in building the unity of workers in the private and public sectors. Taking collective responsibility is far better than playing the blame game.

What prevents unions from building strong formations?

It is important that we draw lessons from history and trade union experiences, in SA as well as internationally, if we are to arrest the steady decline and deteriorating influence of unions in workplaces and in broader society.

Some of the old habits and practices of the past require expurgating. In this regard, this article argues that we must purge and liberate the trade union movement in respect of the following:

  • Trade unions should be politically independent from any political party so that any political party in government or outside government can be criticised and fought by workers when the interest of workers are threatened and undermined by government policies;
  • Workers should in earnest discuss the establishment of worker-controlled cooperatives so that the unemployed can be beneficiaries; and
  • The often cosy and bhuti-bhuti relationship trade unions have with management and government must end, because the class antagonisms run too deep for such cosy relationships to benefit workers.

Any self-respecting trade union should rather engage with management and government based on mandates from workers, constant report backs for fresh mandates and holding union representatives accountable for what is done in the name of union members.

Capitalism has restructured locally and internationally and therefore the one-union, one-industry policy is no longer relevant.

Where once a union organised canteen workers, security personnel and transport employees working for any one particular firm, it is forced to abandon those workers as members because companies have outsourced such employees. Business argues that if other ancillary services do not form part of its core business, they cannot hold on to such departments or divisions in their businesses.

In conclusion, and as a follow-up to this analysis, one should spend time paying attention to social dialogue in South Africa and question whether Nedlac is beneficial to workers’ interests. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Trevor Thompson says:

    There is little doubt that unions have historically played a huge role in creating better working conditions in the workplace. In my early working career I come from a pre-unionised environment where the large company I worked for created its own Worker Committee structures. I believe that these were far more beneficial to workers than the unions are today.
    Workers did not have to forfeit any payments for these structures.
    Their issues were addressed on a regular basis.
    Trust between management and workers was fostered – and flourished.
    Management benefited by having a committed and understanding workforce.
    Productivity was far higher than it is today. And so was reward for work.
    Management was able to train workers in the normal work requirements, but in addition, in how companies function, home skills, management training, awareness programmes , for instance.

    Management became divorced from its workforce with the advent of unions which were often driven by intimidatory agendas. The result of this was a loss of respect by management of the workforce. This led, for instance, in workers being paid the barest minimum in terms of legislated minimum wages.

    I believe a structured Worker Committee is a far more beneficial to the relationships between management and workers. It would need a minimal intervention by the state, or unions, to be effective for both sides.

    Of course this is unlikely to happen as the vested interests by the state and the unions themselves to exploit the worker relationships will ensure this does not happen any time soon.

    Like the rest of our required economical interventions to improve this country, we can dream on …..

    • Andrew Blaine says:

      Well said Sir,
      When management are blind to the needs of their staff complement the business is in trouble.
      Equally, Unions in this country put their own needs ahead of their worker members, which puts them in the same place.
      Direct contact between management and their workers is the only long term healthy system in business

  • Steuart Pennington says:

    I was very involved in the Labour relations environment starting 1978. The focus then was on building constructive relationships primarily at enterprise level. Most Labour relations practitioners were not lawyers but industrial psychologists. I have good memories of working on trust, legitimacy and improving working conditions between ’78 and ’95. In ’95 the Labour relations act was significantly amended by Cheadle, le Roux and Thompson, by lawyers for lawyers. Industrial psychologists were replaced by labour relations lawyers and the work of the previous 17 years gave way to a litigious, one-sided environment in which employers found every way possible to distance themselves from the employment relationship and labour learnt the hard way that union leadership was preoccupied with self-interest. The decline in union membership is one consequence, the much more serious consequence is the deterioration of industrial relations, trust, and justice.

  • Steve Spottiswoode says:

    It is worth noting that the number of unemployed in South Africa exceeds the union membership.
    Also that not all unions in the world are driven by the “class struggle”.

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