Unions are blaming retrenchments for the massive decline in membership by more than 330 000 in the past year, while the Department of Labour says it is workers’ dissatisfaction.
The country’s 196 unions lost 334 377 members – more than the country’s biggest union, the National Union of Metalworkers of SA, which claimed a membership of 329 692 at the end of last month.
The department blames the decline on last year’s violent wildcat strikes.
In its 2012/13 annual labour market bulletin, the department says the 11 percent decline was “realised during and after the violent strikes in 2012, where members lost trust in their trade unions”.
The department described the Marikana strike as yet another instance where workers belonging to unions chose not to be represented by them, preferring lawyers instead.
“During illegal strikes in the mining sector last year, many workers voiced dissatisfaction with their trade union leaders, accusing them of being too close to management and too willing to compromise on workers’ demands,” the bulletin says.
Membership of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) declined to about 270 700 after the Marikana strike. Many were lost to its bitter rival, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union.
According to the department’s annual bulletin, the NUM lost all credibility after it failed to defuse an increasingly violent strike at Lonmin’s mine in Marikana last year.
The Federation of Unions of SA (Fedusa) and the National Council of Trade Unions (Nactu), with a combined membership of more than 1 million, say the loss was because of retrenchments.
Nactu general secretary Narius Moloto said the losses were not to other unions, but to joblessness. Moloto said Nactu had been having a lot of section 189 consultations, which relate to retrenchments.
General secretary Dennis George also admitted that Fedusa, like all federations, had been affected by the decline, but mostly owing to retrenchments.
He said many workers were retrenched only for companies to make more profits.
Moloto questioned the Department of Labour’s conclusions, saying it was not unions losing members, but rather patterns of employment changing.
“The nature of work is changing all the time. Labour brokers make it difficult for workers to join unions,” Moloto said.
He said that sometimes workers did not even know who their employers were, owing to the complex way in which they were hired.
Moloto admitted that young workers joining the labour market were sceptical of unions. “They’re not excited about union membership and participation. They feel union membership will limit their chances of promotion,” he said.
Nactu has 23 affiliates and about 650 000 members, according to Moloto. He attributed the federation’s growth mainly to its affiliate, Amcu.
Fedusa’s membership has gone down from 500 000 to about 450 000, according to George.
Last week, Constitutional Court Justice Edwin Cameron slammed a Cosatu affiliate, the Food and Allied Workers’ Union (Fawu), for cutting its members “loose to protect itself from the unpalatable consequences of its failure to represent them properly”.
Fawu had been taken to court by the late Mandla Ndlela and Michael Mkhize, its members and ex-Nestlé employees, for breach of contract after the union failed to refer their dispute to the Labour Court. The two were awarded more than R107 000 in damages, and Fawu failed in its attempt to appeal the ruling at the Constitutional Court.