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Winner-takes-all: Rivalry among trade unions is undemocratic — Solidarity

JOHANNESBURG — South Africa finds itself in a position where it favours majority unions, a situation which is undemocratic, according to Solidarity. With bigger unions trying to push smaller unions (and even new players) out, there is little time left to focus on workers’ issues. Subsequently, a change is needed, but will all players listen? – Gareth van Zyl

By Gideon du Plessis*

Gideon du Plessis

The apartheid era was marked by the banning of the ANC, PAC, SACP, and black trade unions. Thanks to the Wiehahn Commission of Inquiry, the rights of black trade unions were reinstated in 1979 while political movements were banned. Consequently, since the 1980s, trade unions have become the legitimate mouthpiece of black employees, giving rise to the establishment of inclusive industrial democracy. From then on, pressure by the black labour force has become instrumental in the pursuit of political democracy in this country.

In our democratic political dispensation, 13 political parties have a seat in parliament and the smallest party, the African People’s Convention (APC) with only 0,17% electoral support, may participate in matters of national importance – albeit to a limited degree. Diametrically opposed to political democracy, the undemocratic majority principle of trade union recognition came into being, along with Cosatu’s socialist principle of “one industry, one trade union”. Around 2012 the latter started losing its attraction when Numsa, as the largest trade union in South Africa, began to organise across sectors.

The winner-takes-all principle of trade union recognition was continued after 2012, but then because of power and financial reasons. The destructive potential of this majority principle is well known, as attested by the rivalry and conflict between the Num and Amcu – a contributory factor to the Marikana incident.

In order to prevent another Marikana, mining role-players signed a framework agreement in 2013 in their quest for a sustainable mining industry. The agreement sought to make an end to the majoritarian principle.

Striking platinum miners sing during a rally near Lonmin’s Marikana mine April 29, 2014. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

In addition, the Labour Relations Act was amended to allow a minority trade union to oppose, by means of an arbitration process, the matter of its failure to obtain recognition because of a threshold set by the employer and the majority union. An arbitrator should decide whether a minority trade union is a significant role-player or holds a significant interest in a workplace. The interest of a minority trade union only representing an airline’s pilots, would serve as an example. In a case like that, the arbitrator might rule that the interest of highly trained employees outweighs their numbers, with their union winning recognition. This is Solidarity’s supporting principle in its representation of skilled employees at various workplaces.

However, this legal process about significant interest should be reviewed, because it is cumbersome and it affords the majority trade union the right to oppose the application. It is inevitable that the majority trade union would oppose such an application, because its own interest outweighs the constitutional right to freedom of association. For instance, a union that represents a substantial membership at a major employer qualifies having full-time shop stewards who, while remaining on the company’s payroll, are working full-time for the union.

Read also: Labour relations 2017: Who’ll strike, settle, retrench? Gideon du Plessis looks ahead

A good idea was unfortunately turned into a demon because employers such as Eskom, Lonmin, Sasol, Telkom and Kumba Iron Ore, to name just a few, showered the majority trade union’s full-time shop stewards with privileges and material benefits to “buy” their loyalty. Employers also created various consultative forums, but many shop stewards started to abuse these forums to “bully” their own employers and they became a law unto themselves. To make the situation even more favourable for fulltime shop stewards, employers exercise minimal supervision over their day to day movements. Just for protecting that gravy train existence, this group of shop stewards forming part of the existing workplace structures would do everything in its power to be re-elected and to maintain majority recognition status. In addition, the majoritarian principle is driven also externally by certain majority unions in order to prevent other unions from sharing in the revenue from membership dues. Moreover, a majority trade union may further increase its revenue through the equally undemocratic yet legal principle by which agency fees are levied; in so doing, an amount equal to union dues is recovered from employees not affiliated to the majority union, for the benefit of the majority union.

Furthermore, another factor to be borne in mind is the utterly undemocratic yet once again legal principle utilised at Royal Bafokeng Platinum, by the Num for instance, entering into a so-called closed-shop agreement with an employer. The agreement means that all identified employees are to become members of the Num – this agreement making Amcu see red and generally stoking tension among unions.

A spate of union-related murders has now flared up in the Rustenburg platinum belt. After the umpteenth murder last week – this time involving an Amcu member – Joseph Mathunjwa, President of Amcu, urged trade unions to settle their differences and rather cooperate. He made a special appeal to unions to share their resources against the flood of layoffs reigning supreme in the mining industry.

Read also: Handling labour relations basics will help avert our credit slide – Solidarity

Yet these physical and layoff bloodbaths would remain the norm while trade unions do very little besides talking, while the destructive rivalry just continues. Not one of the majority trade unions wants to abandon the winner-takes-all-principle in the mining industry, and so they keep on trying to oust each other and all other minority trade unions. The irony is that, if the principle of pluralism were accepted, the involvement and influence of unions such as the Num and Amcu would widen across the mining industry; yet only if they were prepared to accommodate each other by accepting a minority status at certain mines.

Despite employers vilifying themselves by implementing the undemocratic majority principle, it is clear that trade unions are undermining industrial democracy for their own gain, while merely banning others. This practice is being continued in statutory bodies such as Nedlac, bargaining councils, sectoral councils and SETAs, where the founder unions are all the while doing their utmost to keep out new trade unions or trade union federations.

Nedlac’s credibility has sunk to a new low, and the trade union federations Cosatu, Fedusa and Nactu are now doing all they can to bar Saftu (second-largest federation in the country) from entering Nedlac – purely out of self-interest: workers’ interests enjoy hardly any priority. Professor Andries Bezuidenhout, in his book Labour Beyond Cosatu, accurately summarised some of the Nedlac federations, when he pointed out that certain federations had sunk away into elite-unionism, and that even a basic trade union principle such as internal democracy had vanished within their own ranks.  

Industrial democracy, which would benefit stability, unity among workers, justice and the constitutional right to freedom of association, must revive. Trade unions should therefore take note of the inclusivity of political democracy, which, ironically enough came about by the efforts of the workers. The norm should be that a union having a recognised interest at a workplace, must also enjoy recognition. Should there really be a minority trade union with a very low representation yet still representing a significant interest, then limited rights may be allotted – as is the case in parliament.

  • Gideon du Plessis is Solidarity’s General Secretary.
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