The fragmentation of the South African labour relations landscape, caused by union rivalry and the ructions at the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), is problematic for business, labour and South Africa as a whole.
Employment and labour lawyer Joe Mothibi told a recent Forum at the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) that South Africa needed strong unions in order to create certainty: "Business needs to know who it is dealing with, and that final agreements reached are conclusive."
He said union rivalry has an impact in the workplace and that strikes and strife in the labour market discourage foreign direct investment.
"There must be rules of engagement with unions and business. Fractured unions and rivalry can only lead to unprotected strikes, which is bad for South Africa. We need to find a middle ground to encourage stability, and for this we need strong unions," he said.
Labour unions in crisis
During the past year, COSATU expelled its biggest affiliate, the National Union of Metal Workers of South Africa (NUMSA) over irreconcilable differences, as well as its long-serving general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi.
Senior lecturer in International Relations at the University of Witwatersrand Dr Vishwas Satgar said the possibility of a strike-ridden economic environment, characterised by tumultuous industrial relations was a real threat.
Dr Satgar said COSATU had lost its way and was facing a multifaceted crisis:
Labour unions had lost ground due to bureaucratisation and the undermining of worker control within organisations. There had also been a structural class shift in the skills base of workers from traditionally unionised, unskilled labourers to semi-skilled, white-collar workers in the public sector that had led to the ascendance of public sector unions.
Former COSATU National Spokesperson Patrick Craven told the Forum that COSATU's current crisis was "symptomatic of a broader struggle in society as a whole between labour and capital."
He said the trade union movement was becoming more and more fragmented: "There is a lack of understanding how far things have deteriorated within COSATU. There is no place for a trade union movement to cozy up to the state, especially the capitalist state."
The trade unions of yesterday had taken their eye off the ball and the concerns of shop floor workers no longer seem to be top of mind, as unions were more concerned with the bigger political issues, Mothibi said.
Recent student demonstrations over outsourced labour at universities, following nationwide fee protests, had achieved in a few short weeks what labour unions had failed to do in a decade of negotiations. The spontaneous action with little leadership had parallels with the 1968 student uprisings in France, Craven said, which had led to a general nationwide workers strike. "Sadly this hasn't happened yet, but it might still filter down," he said.
The future role of labour unions Dr Satgar said labour unions had an important role to play in a highly unequal society as a democratising and redistributive force.
However, he conceded that the international trade union movement had been significantly weakened by globalised trade, value chains and globalised finance: "There have been limits imposed by the globalised economy. South Africa is in a very dangerous period and while we need to rethink the paradigm of trade unionism, but we can't abandon it."
Craven said any new labour federation that is established must be a mass movement that is ideologically clear and, above all, has to be democratic and worker-controlled."
"COSATU is clearly in crisis, but that doesn't mean the worker's movement is in crisis. This is not just a South African problem and we need to broaden the movement internationally," he concluded.
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