Defend Truth


Trade unions’ war-like rhetoric out of step with attempts to build a modern SA economy


Patrick Deale is a labour lawyer, mediator and arbitrator practicing as Deale Attorneys in Johannesburg and Hilton KZN. He specialises in labour law and commercial dispute resolution, assisting companies, organizations and individuals to resolve conflict at executive levels and disputes between businesses.

Now is the time to change our broken model of labour relations. The psychology of a revolutionary militant union movement with its associated war-like rhetoric is manifestly unfit for purpose in a modern economy.

“Whatever their culture and epoch, mankind has sought to acquire what it takes to satisfy their basic desires: security, shelter, sustenance, and self-expression” — Philippe Gigantes: Power and Greed, A Short History of the World

The purpose of unions is to pursue the means to satisfy these desires for its members in the workplace. They are legally enabled to do so by using the collective power of their members.

The reformed Labour Relations Act (LRA) of 1979 was a government defensive strategy to prevent economic destruction after the 1970s social uprisings. It institutionalised a traditional model of labour relations which promoted inherently adversarial structures for the regulation of the relationship between management and unions.

One pillar accorded rights to management and unions under the principle of unfair labour practices. The other systemised wealth distribution through collective bargaining to determine wage levels and other conditions of employment.

There was no structure to encourage growth or wealth creation activities between management and labour. The relationship was confined to building ‘us vs them’ mindsets. Conducted by legal rights on one hand and power on the other, workplace relationships inevitably suffered and descended into often violent conflict. Two powerful forces intensified this adversarialism.

One was the liberation Struggle in which capital was identified as a legitimate target by the trade union movement. The other was a ferocious state-run propaganda campaign promoting the idea that the unions’ real agenda was a Communist plot to overthrow the government.

As “defensive” management and “offensive” labour polarised, distrust intensified. Fixated on formal agreements to reaffirm their rights, unions became anti-capitalist and anti-production. Employers were branded as the “enemy”. This was the response to reparations for the damage done by 50 years of oppression under apartheid. 

The unions purported to identify themselves as a “revolutionary movement” in pursuit of Marxist ideologies. The revolutionary political battle carried through to the employment arena as the new site of struggle. They rejected the workplace forum innovation in the amended LRA in 1995. This, modelled on Germany, was designed to add a third pillar of workplace participation alongside the other two pillars of rights and power through collective bargaining. Unions were suspicious that cooperation with employers meant co-option and selling out to capital.  

Now, 40 years on, this deeply embedded psychology of mistrust, anti-capitalist ideology and militancy persists. Increasing dysfunctional political conflict during the Jacob Zuma years and the harsh demands of a modern economy, have torn the union movement apart. The once-powerful rallying calls “One country, one federation”, “One industry one union” and “An injury to one is an injury to all” have become hollow — if not fallen silent.

In 2022, the unity on which collective bargaining has depended for its power has disintegrated. There are no less than 24 union federations and over 200 trade unions registered in South Africa. The “one-industry one union” policy has been dropped and “general unions” go in search of members in any industry.

Total union membership has fallen from 47% in 1990 to less than 25% in 2021 at 3.1 million. On May Day 2022, the EFF announced the creation of yet another, its own EFF union. They all compete in the ever-shrinking pool of those fortunate to be employed (14 million) in a sea of unemployment (8 million). And their competitive edge is aggression and who can be the most militant.

The traditional annual cycle of wage negotiations is dysfunctional. It’s an ever more aggressive and often violent encounter producing diminishing returns for members — often at the cost of real wages in protracted strikes which can never be recovered.

Business is about taking informed risks to reap desired rewards. Management continuously works to mitigate identified risks to maximise rewards. They must do so in a brutally competitive environment presenting a host of external risks. And they must work equally hard to mitigate the internal risks presented by the declared “enemy” within the business — hostile unions hellbent on using blunt instrument power to give in to demands.

Why do union members continue pursuing these losses, and even their jobs, during protracted strikes when final increases seldom exceed inflation plus one or two per cent?

The incident at the May Day rally in 2022 was a tipping point for unions.

The televised scenes of NUM and Amcu members pleading with President Cyril Ramaphosa to intervene in their wage dispute with Sibanye Gold shows how desperate they are and how they’ve lost faith in their unions. Ironically, they’re the very two unions that nearly tore each other apart to recruit members in the months before the Marikana tragedy in 2014.

Now is the time to change this broken model of labour relations. The psychology of a revolutionary militant union movement with its associated war-like rhetoric is manifestly unfit for purpose in a modern economy. The ongoing need for reparation for past injustices and resulting inequalities is a legitimate cause.  

Successful unions elsewhere in the modern world are professional service providers. They don’t enter into battle with employers and demonise them as the “enemy”. They advocate partnerships with employers to satisfy the desires for which their members strive. Their purpose is to assist their members to grow their personal wealth by negotiating profit and share participation plans with their employers.

And they’ve built huge collective economic wealth and influence through union retirement funds and investments for the benefit of their members.

They do not engage in low-return wage negotiations and put their members at risk in long and aggressive strikes. They focus on contributing to the growth of the “economic cake” and to negotiating a fair share for their members. They reject the combat zone in which unions battle for a slice of a diminishing cake with lose-lose results.

Management and unions in our country can do the same. Just imagine what can be achieved in our troubled nation if all the negative energy of workplace hostility can be turned into the positive economic wealth-creating energy that workplace partnership offers!

It’s surely time to change this broken model of labour relations. The old models of adversarial unionism and traditional hostile collective bargaining rituals are outdated and dysfunctional. Unions, though weakened, remain critically important stakeholders in our society. But they don’t and won’t be able to satisfy the desires their members so desperately need if their race to the bottom continues.

Only a radical change from power to partnership psychology in labour relations offers a real prospect that unions will remain relevant as service providers in the modern economy.

The president has called on labour to partner with employers. Employers will likely welcome the call. And they’ll be ready to engage with unions on ways to grow and share the economic cake they mutually create. The need to change the psychology is urgent. DM



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All Comments 3

  • Does this mean the low wage worker must gratefully partner with the employer by volunteering to do the work of three for the price of one? Or has economic democracy secretly landed overnight and transformed the structural antagonism between profit seeker and means- to- live worker? The desired picture suggested by the article seems so nice, especially in this era of the global oligarchy and the gush upward effect celebrated by the one percent. I especially don’t see how the unemployed are supposed to pledge their support to the mighty job creators who don’t seem to be creating much, while suggesting that good old capitalist growth pathology would flood the world with universal abundance were it not for those lefty unbelievers poisoning the fountains of unrestricted financial faith. So no, i hope the unions stay suspicious, and focus their efforts on democracy in the workplace, and help us move beyond the adverserial relationships resulting from the autocratic wage system .( Ps, Opposition to capitalist production is not opposition to production, which even the biggest fool knows needs to take place.)

  • This article is spot on. A move away from self destructive behaviour requires a concerted effort on the part of employers to educate workers on how markets work. The Chinese T shirt and what it costs to make and how that cost is made up, is an easy way to show how jobs are destroyed if unit costs of labour are too high for example. Unless of course workers are happy to pay more for the same T short made in RSA!! Some measure of profit share, after a reasonable risk return for shareholders, is the way forward.

  • Unions re-organising their thinking and their approach may be one thing, but what is much more important in SA’s case is the total overhaul of the 1995 Labour Relations Act, written by lawyers for lawyers. It makes no allowance for employer/entrepreneurial risk, it provides no incentives to create employment, it ties employers up in a sea of red tape the moment they hire, it encourages militancy on behalf of unions and it requires that every ‘boss’ has a BA LLB in Labour law!

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