An assertive workforce working within an equitable regulatory framework is key to South Africa’s economic prosperity and social stability.
It is probably what the government intended when it introduced co-determinism, and created Nedlac and the industry bargaining councils.
But a major flaw has been the unions’ propensity for enforcing strikes through intimidation and violence, which the government has repeatedly ignored or excused despite featuring in almost every industry-wide strike.
This contradicts the basic principles of co-determination, which expects business and organised labour to accept one another as trustworthy, rule-abiding partners in crafting a strategy for an industry sector. This incongruity may explain why Nedlac and the bargaining councils have, despite being mandated to do so, failed to produce creative solutions to any of the country’s economic predicaments.
The intimidation and violence that are endemic to our industrial relations prevent individuals from properly exercising responsible choice as to whether to strike or not. There is little difference between being intimidated from working, and being intimidated to vote for a particular party: both are undemocratic and violate human rights.
It’s unlikely that intimidation will ever be completely eliminated, but properly managed balloting – run by a credible institution like the Independent Electoral Commission – could seriously mitigate this problem.
Yet, even though Nedlac accepted the need for strike ballots it was dropped without adequate explanation when the legislation came before Parliament – probably because trade union leaders realised that properly managed strike ballots compromise their power and they put pressurise on the ruling party to drop the clause.
Wielding its dominance of Nedlac and centralised bargaining, Cosatu has resisted nearly every attempt to make the economy more flexible and productive, projecting its own innate conservatism onto, for example, the youth wage subsidy, exemptions for non-metropolitan textile and garment workers and other ideas that would require a change in the status quo.
This approach makes today’s bargaining councils’ attitude and behaviour almost identical to their apartheid, white-era predecessors.
The rise of the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) on the platinum belt, the Marikana massacre and the degree to which Amcu is able to obdurately hold the industry to ransom is a clear wake-up call to government.
As it is not affiliated to Cosatu, Amcu provides much-needed neutrality and perspective to the government, highlighting the unintended consequences of its labour relations policy and hence its alliance with Cosatu.
Furthermore, the National Union of Metalworkers of SA split from Cosatu and its withdrawal of blind support for the ANC have started a healthier trend in industrial relations and cracked the tripartite alliance, freeing the participants to act according to their individual responsibilities.
Cosatu now faces the ethical challenge of promoting decent work while holding the economy to ransom by refusing to trade off its parochial interests against those of the unemployed and society as a whole.
The trade unions must question the assumptions and ideologies that inform their policies – policies that neither foresaw nor adapted to the scale of the current technological “revolution”, globalisation, the influx of emigrants from the rest of Africa and industrial competition from Chinese and other Asian economies.
An interesting trend is the co-operation between the chief executives of the major platinum producers who declare individual interests, yet share relevant information.
Management is standing firm; dealing in the interests that the workers would call “capital” but they are doing in a strategic and business-like fashion; for themselves, not through the bureaucratic and defensive bargaining system that has so cynically been manipulated by Cosatu – to block our government from trading off competing interests and leading, as opposed to just managing, the South African economy.
Jonathan Yudelowitz is the joint managing director of YSA Limited and the author of Smart Leadership.