Strike Season: Union Blaming Misses the Point

By Frank Meintjies · 11 Nov 2013

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Picture: Alternet
Picture: Alternet

This has been a tough year as far as labour relations go. There have been numerous strikes and many of them have been characterised by violent clashes. The length of the strikes has also taken its toll. Companies, workers involved and members of the public have all faced the adverse effects of major labour conflicts.

The wave of strike action has triggered another round of the blame game. A huge segment of the public blames unions for strikes. Many go further and accuse unions of damaging the economy. The anti-union sentiment gained new momentum with the recent national union of metalworkers, NUMSA’s, strike in the motor industry. The blamers joined the management of BMW who argued that due to the strike, it had cancelled its bid for BMW to invest in a new production line at its South African plant.

A huge majority of South Africans are concerned about inequality and the extent of extreme poverty. But ironically, many of the same people rail at trade unions that are at the forefront of challenging wage systems that sustain household poverty. The public must make its mind up - does it want the status quo?

This brings one to the need to squarely confront the challenges faced by our labour relations system. It is under immense strain. Others talk about “a collective bargaining crisis” and Professor of Sociology at the University of Pretoria, Sakhela Buhlungu, has called for a commission of inquiry on the labour relations system. He is also deeply concerned that players, on all sides, more frequently use power to crush opponents and resort less to persuasion.

What are the realities of the labour market now?

Some experts argue that the situation resembles the conditions that existed in the late seventies, before the Wiehahn Commission made changes that would lead to our current industrial relations system. There is heightened conflict. Unions, which form part of the ‘official’ bargaining system face competition from unions and workers on the outside – this competition is often expressed as wildcat strikes or in the form of newer, militant, trade unions operating outside of existing sectoral agreements. This is an extension into the workplace of what Prof. Russel Botman of Stellenbosch University has called “social anger” that was dangerous and derailed reconciliation.

Industrial relations are also plagued by violence. According to Mohamed Motala, director of the Community Agency for Social Enquiry, there is a link between violence and the weakness of unions. In this regard, what South Africa needs is well organised and stronger unions rather than weak unions. And, despite the mantra of the pro-business labour specialists, our economy remains a cheap labour economy characterised by low skill levels.

Is the labour relations system adequate?

In practice it has generally not advanced worker interests nor increased workers’ share of the wealth of the country. The system of annual or multi-year negotiations has, over 20 years, yielded increases that have barely kept pace with inflation. But the system of labour relations is also not working for the long-term interests of employers. Although big businesses have done well since 1994 – and corporate profits in South Africa have been higher than in many parts of the world – they are threatened by instability.

What about the benefit for the broad masses of people in South Africa?

It cannot be said that the Labour Relations Act (LRA) and the way it has been used has helped to deliver the economic dividend that, for millions, is so conspicuous by its absence. The dispensation it produced has not created societal cohesion and economic inclusion.

Nevertheless, most experts agree that no significant changes are needed to the LRA; its mechanism, systems and structures are similar to other well-functioning systems. But certainly what is needed is more attention to “relations” in the industrial relations system. Interactions between labour and management needs to be built on mutual respect, including respect for the role that each plays in the production process. On the part of unions, there is the requirement of strong effective structures, unions that are focused, that service their members and that are close to the heartbeat of workers. For their part, an effective system requires that companies engage with honesty, openness and that they dispense with an arrogance rooted in the belief that, in a sea of unemployment, all workers should show gratitude and genuflect before bosses.

They should also give due attention to labour relations as a discipline. Although labour-business engagement involves strong sectoral aspects and – during wage negotiations – there is a single focus on the “wage deal”, emphasizing the relational aspect of the LRA requires a strong commitment to democratising the workplace.

The NUMSA strike – and the public response to it – raises the question of the link between labour instability and South Africa’s position in the world. In this regard, South Africans cannot be blasé about the turbulence and threats emanating from globalisation, the global slowdown and competition for investment.

South Africans should co-operate to push back against the negative repercussions from global economic conditions and challenge the centrifugal forces that constantly threaten to push countries like ours to the periphery. We must take steps to boost South Africa’s comparative advantage. We can work together to build a home grown economic strength. Ordinary people can contribute through a commitment to key economic values – opposing corruption, striving for excellence and taking opportunities to engage in learning and saving. 

In the industrial relations arena, despite the sanctity of the right to strike, social partners should explore strategies for reducing conflict, reducing the length of strikes and increasing the number of agreements reached before strikes are declared. But a strong and united response to global economic pressures cannot be built on injustice – nor on an agenda that seeks to maintain low wages and the migrant labour system.

However, it is counterproductive to do so simply by blaming unions for strikes and other forms of militant action. Employers are equally responsible for the state of the industrial relations system. Faced by adverse business conditions, many executives, supported by sharp management consultants, aim in the first instance, to sustain high shareholder returns and to transfer to workers the pain of business setbacks. And when they detect that labour organisations have grown weaker – through a decline in members, intra-union conflict or union rivalry – they become cocky and intransigent; they grab the opportunity to push through minimalist wage increases.

Unions and employers must work together to address adversarialism and violent workplace conflict. They must find new ways of engaging. And they need to rededicate themselves to building democratic workplaces.

Meintjies is an independent consultant and a Visiting Research Fellow at Wits School of Public & Development Management.

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