While reading this superb analysis from Gideon du Plessis,General Secretary of the trade union Solidarity, two facts kept popping up. First, now that it has been scientifically proven the DNA of human beings is 99.9% identical, surely it’s time to dispense with those who still seek to highlight differences based on the hue of our skins. And second, as RW Johnson discusses at some length in his latest masterpiece, sustained above-inflation increases have lifted average public sector salaries to 45% above those in the private sector. In other words, those that contribute to the tax base are, on average, earning considerably less than those who absorb those funds. It’s high time we all follow Du Plessis’ example and challenge often trotted out statements that, in South Africa, “blacks” still earn less than “whites”. First, because it is racist. But more so, as the examples he cites show, because it is false. – Alec Hogg
By Gideon du Plessis*
Years ago, the few historical practices where white employees had been favoured above black employees as to remuneration practices and training, were remedied at the negotiating table and expunged through legislation.
At the same time, the job levels of skilled employees in most sectors were successfully transformed, as reflected in the employment results of the mining charter, among other sources.
Nevertheless, the race card remains a well-liked instrument in the negotiating vocabulary of populist trade unions.
The unrelenting false allegations of racial favouring and employers, who choose not to repudiate the accusations for the sake of political correctness, are creating increasing disquiet among Solidarity and its members.
In support of this misrepresentation, at the beginning of this month, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) announced on its social-media platform that NUM members in the coal sector were to strike; the union claimed that employers had offered their black employees an increase of R356 while white employees would receive an increase of R1 500.
In another case, Numsa recently threatened a strike at the Medupi power station and claimed that Solidarity’s white full-time shop steward was earning much more than Numsa shop stewards were.
By comparing payslips we could prove the opposite, namely that a Numsa shop steward was earning a discriminating R25 000 a month more than his Solidarity peer because the employer was in that way trying to “buy” goodwill. Numsa withdrew the dispute without bothering to correct the facts.
Unfortunately, it is not only trade union negotiators who are caught up in this obsolete racial rhetoric. In the Sowetan of 21 September 2015, Prince Mashele wrote in his column that the reason why Solidarity was always the first to accept employers’ salary offers was that Solidarity’s white members were earning much more than Cosatu members at the same job level.
Mashele’s false allegation can be refuted by our participation in the recent mining negotiations.
Solidarity members (including black members) mandated the union to negotiate first of all for a cost-of-living-related increase that would not compromise job security, and secondly for the retirement age to be raised from 60 to 63 years.
While Amcu and NUM were negotiating for an unrealistic increase motivated by the race card (and thus escalating the possibility of a strike), Solidarity successfully reached a settlement for an inflation-beating salary increase, as well as a process for raising the retirement age to 63 – in so doing we negotiated an additional 36 payslips for our members. Why should we not immediately close the deal?
The continued abuse of the race card was to be expected because, apart from the convenient clinging to the past, its historical use has established a fixed practice whereby employers in many sectors are still granting entry-level employees a radically higher percentage increase, compared with that of skilled employees, in order to reduce the so-called “apartheid wage gap”.
However, some interesting tension is now building up as a result of black skilled employees becoming annoyed about the shrinking gap between the remuneration of skilled and unskilled employees.
The tension is made worse because it is not in the DNA of trade unions such as NUM and Amcu to negotiate effectively for their skilled members, whose remuneration for the most part is linked to output.
It was indeed this dilemma that, at the Impala Platinum mine in January 2012, led to the Marikana incident when the NUM wanted to distribute a skills related allowance − allocated to skilled members − among unskilled members. It caused considerable tension, which ultimately spilled over to Lonmin.
On deeper analysis, however, my perception is that the race card, apart from its entrenched nature, rather indicates ideological impairment, and the blinding effect of ideology on a trade union negotiator can be stupefying.
While the claim of a R12 500 minimum salary for unskilled workers is being pushed aggressively, certain individuals who rose up from entry-level ranks are now earning in excess of R50 000 a month because they constantly grasp training opportunities and accept responsibility for self-development which, eventually, will lead to promotional prospects.
The weak point then is that training and skills development never becomes a primary claim of trade unions representing unskilled workers. A double-digit increase remains the primary claim, and the self-seeking reason for that once again became evident during the recent mining negotiations, when the Chamber of Mines offered a generous, non-benefit-bearing cash allowance as an increase for entry-level workers.
The populist trade unions strongly objected to the offer on the grounds of the harm such an increase would wreak on union revenue. (By way of explanation, where Solidarity’s subscription fee is a fixed amount, the populist unions charge 1% of a member’s salary. Therefore, a 20% salary increase negotiated for members means a 20% increase in union revenue – in that way, these unions negotiate towards their own bank accounts.)
The negative consequences of our past cannot be negated; however, in the interests of both their members and South Africa, populist unions should urgently abandon their self-benefiting and outdated rhetoric, in order to heed Nelson Mandela’s view that “training is the most powerful weapon to change the world”.
Racial ideology is counterproductive; training on the other hand is the way to a better life and the true empowerment of unskilled workers. Although unions such as Solidarity realise this, many others oppose the notion because skilled workers cannot be abused and incited quite that easily, as is the case with frustrated unskilled workers.
- Gideon du Plessis is the General Secretary, Solidarity