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Most will agree that trade unions are a good thing.
The theory goes that they look after their members, negotiate on their behalf, combine their members’ strength, provide benefits and generally avoid anarchy and wildcat strikes that harm the economy.
Unions are so much a part of modern industry that in some countries, notably Germany, they must even have representatives on company boards.
How do our trades unions behave? Do they live the socialism they speak, for example, or have they become so much part of the industrial – and capitalist – fabric, become so rich that they have lost sight of their primary purpose?
As always, the answer can be found by following the money.
Few realise that huge amounts of money fill our unions’ coffers every month, mainly from dues levied on members.
There are 198 registered trade unions in the country, each one charging for the privilege of membership.
Most are members of labour federations. Unions vary in size and not all are as rich as the big ones. However, all of them want members for they are the golden geese.
The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) is – or was – the biggest union. Pre-Marikana it was also the largest member of the Cosatu. It then had 300 000 members, each contributing every month 1 percent of his or her gross pensionable pay. Assuming a conservative average monthly pensionable pay of R8 000 for each member, the NUM’s monthly income was once about R24 million. If that seems high, let’s say members earn R4 000 a month. This works out at “only” R12m a month, and a paltry R144m in a year. These numbers are guesstimates.
NUM does not make its financials freely available. Its annual report is not on its website. There is nothing on the web about the Mineworkers’ Investment Company and its shares in BP – probably because it is still paying for them. Nor is there anything about other investments NUM makes in the capitalist system.
All this in the days before NUM began to bleed members and subscriptions. It may no longer be possible to award 40 percent increases to its senior officials, one of whom is alleged to get R105 000 a month.
The next large union that needs to be looked at financially is the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa). It is more open about its financial affairs.
Numsa’s 200 000 members (some say it is now 300 000) each pay dues of R14.50 a week or R58 a month. It means R11.6m at least goes into Numsa coffers every 30 days, if all members cough up. It claims most of its income goes on salaries. If union dues are taken as its sole income then, depending on how one defines “most”, it is possible that some workers in its offices could be earning R40 000 a month. There are about 130 administrators in its head offices.
In the same league is the SA Democratic Teachers’ Union (Sadtu). It claims a membership of 240 000. What each member pays monthly is determined by salary. Its financials are not freely available but it must rake in large amounts each month – more than Numsa as teachers tend to be paid more than metalworkers.
What Sadtu officials are paid is not easy to assess but the union has officials in all nine provinces, and eight officer bearers in the head office. Each of the provinces has a chairman, a secretary and 82 regional office bearers. The wage bill must be hefty.
Last are the union federations, the main ones being the Federation of Unions of SA (Fedusa) and Cosatu.
Fedusa claims more than 500 000 members of its 20 affiliated unions. Its income from its affiliates is R1.34 per member per month and an annual fee of R2 750 payable by each union, giving a monthly income of R670 000, not including the affiliation fee.
Cosatu has 20 affiliated unions and is reputed to have more than 1 million members. Its financials are not freely available. If similar to Fedusa’s, it probably looks forward every month to twice those revenues.
Now the Numsa strike is over, perhaps it’s time to wonder if the cash generated by union dues every month raises the question of whether strikes are to the advantage of workers or to the benefit of union bosses who, by proving their toughness, keep the subscriptions rolling in.
* Keith Bryer is a retired communications consultant.