A Cosatu leader addresses a large crowd in Cape Town in 2010. In some cases the voice of smaller unions might be the voice of sanity and might just save the employer, writes the author.

It’s an age-old question, but does size really matter? When it comes to trade unions, organisations boasting large numbers certainly appear to have more muscle.

But last month it was not the giant National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) which brought international focus to SA when it took on the Lonmin mine management at Marikana, but a small splinter mining union, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU).

Anthony Pierce, KwaZulu-Natal spokesman for the teachers union Naptosa – which is considerably smaller than the South African Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu) – said big numbers mattered when you wanted to display strength.

“But not when you want to bring issues to the table. So being smaller doesn’t make you less important.”

He added: “Bigger unions assume everyone needs to conform, but in a democracy it’s not like that.”

Pierce conceded, however, that the smaller, non-Cosatu-aligned unions did not enjoy the same standing with the government as those belonging to its tripartite ally.

Still, Cosatu was not taking lightly the emergence of smaller splinter unions. As the federation was to meet in Midrand this week for its national congress, spokesman Patrick Craven said these breakaway unions would definitely be on the agenda for discussion.

Most visible at the moment is AMCU in the mining sector, which is posing a serious challenge to the NUM, Cosatu’s biggest and most powerful affiliate. Utatu, the United Transport and Allied Trade Union, is also proving to be a thorn in the side of the better known Satawu, the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union.

Craven said Cosatu would have to take some responsibility for the breakaway unions.

“For Cosatu it’s a cause for concern when workers form breakaway unions because it is going to weaken the trade union movement… we need even bigger unions to be more effective,” he said.

In the same vein, Mbuyiseni Mathonsi, KZN secretary of teachers union Sadtu, said smaller unions were not recognised at national bargaining councils and were therefore toothless.

“The others [smaller ones] are like associations where people come together like in stokvels and funeral schemes.”

Analyst Johnny Goldberg, of Global Business Solutions, agreed. He said after 25 years experience he believed that there was a need for the one-workplace-one-union concept.

This would strengthen the voice of workers and avoid the competition between them to see who would get the most members as a result of the subscriptions.

“When you have 30 000 to 100 000 workers it’s a big business,” said Goldberg.

But Chris Kloppers, the CEO of the South African Teachers Union (Satu), strongly disagreed. He said that if employers only listened to one union, it could seriously disadvantage workers as the true picture of what was happening in the workplace might not be revealed.

“Sometimes the voice of the minority might be the voice of sanity and might just save the employer.”

Kloppers said being independent and not beholden to any political party was important because this meant unions would not have to toe the party line and disadvantage workers.

He said internationally there was also a move away from the “blue collar style of unionism” where everything was determined by numbers.

It was better to be in touch with workers and provide a critical, independent voice while realising that unions were an integral part of the services sector, he said.

Kloppers said last year Satu, which has a national membership of 33 000 together with the Federation of Governing Bodies of SA Schools, challenged the education department in the high court for refusing to employ 6 000 temporary teachers in the Eastern Cape, which had left the province’s schools in disarray.

They won the case even after the department appealed against the initial ruling. Kloppers said this was a clear indication that size did not matter.

Craven believed that among the reasons for the formation of breakaway unions was that the pay of many workers was still low, especially in relation to their employers, as well as the persistence of racial inequality in the workplace as indicated in the recent report of the Commission for Employment Equity.

So from today to Thursday, Cosatu unions will scratch their heads and try to come up with ways to deal with the issue.

Craven said in some cases members had left and joined other unions because they felt Cosatu was not radical enough; in other cases political opportunists had jumped on the bandwagon, while unions had in some cases let their members down and could have done better.

In addition, trade union leaders are better paid than the workers they represent.

“We need to check that we are not too complacent,” said Craven. He said Cosatu wanted to be closer to its members and ensure that they did not become “office-based unions where organisers spend their lives in air-conditioned offices”.

Mthetho Xhali, a researcher at the International Labour Research and Information Group, agreed that Cosatu had moved away from its workers and that it should go back to being the trade union it was in the ’80s when it was intimately involved in the struggles faced by working-class communities. He added that Cosatu should democratise itself and develop ways which would allow its rank-and-file workers to shape its agenda.

“The unfolding developments in the mining sector reveal that shop steward committees are no longer the best link to workers. This is not the first time that lack of accountability has been exposed within Cosatu unions. We saw this during the public sector strike, where workers rejected an offer which negotiators settled with the state,” said Xhali.