Opinion / 21 September 2019, 12:47pm / William Saunderson-Meyer
It’s a “Stalingrad tactic”. It’s “provocative” and “draconian” and will be fiercely resisted.
It’s a “nightmare interference”, a ploy to take away the basic rights of our fellow citizens.
Yup, it’s the legal obligation on the unions to conduct a secret ballot of their members before embarking on a strike. This new requirement came into effect in January, but implementation was delayed to allow the Registrar of Trade Unions to conduct information sessions.
It is now being implemented. Last week, the registrar warned that unions’ registrations may be cancelled if they do not comply with immediate effect.
On the face of it, not much reason for fuss and fury. The bedrock of participative democracy is the right to vote. The nub of the vote is that it is secret.
For this first principle, hundreds of thousands, through the centuries, have devoted their lives. Many, not least in South Africa’s recent history, have died to achieve to that goal.
Without the second, democracy is an illusion. If your spouse, your neighbour, your boss, or the state security apparatus have sight of the choice you made on your ballot, you cannot exercise a truly free choice.
Which is exactly why some powerful players, including the SA Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu), are threatening a general strike against the new law, as well as approaching the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the Constitutional Court to try to block it. Saftu’s biggest affiliate, the metalworkers’ union Numsa, has threatened the kind of rolling mass action that, once upon a time many years ago, used to terrify the government and paralyse the country.
The combative mining and construction union, Amcu, is also strongly opposed. More strong words can be expected at the Amcu congress being held this week - an event hastily convened to avoid deregistration for not having had a national congress for more than six years.
These unions are correct to be worried. Wildcat, destructive actions unleashed at the whim of firebrand, self-aggrandising leaders are powerful weapons precisely because they are unconstrained by any process that allows for pause, alternative viewpoints and moderation before acting.
One must wonder, for example, how many Amcu members would have voted for - and continued voting to prolong - the recent strike at Sibanye Gold, instead of accepting the deal struck between the miner and its rival, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM).
The Amcu strike lasted five months before collapsing and it will take the strikers, fodder in Amcu’s moves to displace NUM, about 15 years to recoup their lost wages.
Meanwhile, at least nine non-strikers were murdered and some 60 had their homes burnt down.
It is this bitter and violent rivalry between the newer, more radical unions and those of the ANC-aligned Cosatu, that has split union opposition to the secret ballot.
While the registrar’s threats of legal sanctions have angered it, Cosatu says it is “not opposed in principle” to secret ballots. Its affiliate, NUM, says the secret ballot will “democratise the workplace”.
Cosatu is painfully aware of its vulnerability to Saftu exploiting “shop floor flashpoints” to grow at its cost. It knows that it will benefit from a more measured process.
It was the introduction especially of the secret ballot, strenuously resisted by the unions, that bridled the power of the British trade union movement in 1984. Today, secret strike ballots are unremarkable elsewhere in the world.
In South Africa, if the secret ballot law is enforced, it would set us on the same course of drastically limiting the economic and political chaos that the unions can unleash.
Unfortunately, that’s not going to happen. The secret ballot is open to fraud if not overseen by an independent entity, which is not the case here. More importantly, in terms of life, limb and property, unions must bear some legal responsibility for the violent rampages of their members during marches, demonstrations and pickets.
Add to that, the ANC has an unhappy history of passing laws that it lacks the political will - never mind policing and prosecutorial resources - to implement.
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