Labour Watch

South African labour scene set to change dramatically


The South African organised labour landscape is set for dramatic changes after the expulsion of its biggest single trade union, NUMSA, from its parent federation, COSATU.

Apart from political implications, dealt with separately, the impact on labour relations in South Africa could significantly alter the dynamics thereof.

The expulsion of NUMSA (National Union of Metalworkers of SA), and the possible exodus of up to seven more unions, fundamentally alters the composition and clout of COSATU (Congress of SA Trade Unions).

The exit of NUMSA – and the possible loss of more unions – will weaken COSATU and could alter the relationship between it and the government in the latter’s favour. It could lead to possible revisions and relaxation of South Africa’s restrictive labour laws – key contributing factor to the high unemployment rate of 25% and resultant failure to reduce poverty.

But it is too early to get excited just yet. As NUMSA vacates its dominant position in COSATU, another factor is in the ascendency: the rising clout of public sector unions.

Rise of public sector unions

Public sector unions, which led the charge against NUMSA are now becoming dominant in COSATU where they are in a unhealthy and paradoxical partnership with their employer, government: political allies in a governing alliance ánd opponents in the industrial relations arena. With its members being state employees they are in an even better position to hold the government hostage to their demands, be it financial or political.

In the battle around NUMSA the SA Municipal Workers’ Union’s (SAMWU) representatives switched sides at the last minute and voted for NUMSA’s expulsion.

This vote by SAMWU’s representatives at the COSATU central committee meeting may yet be contested in the union itself with some SAMWU leaders and ordinary members claim it was contrary to SAMWU’s mandated position.

If NUMSA’s 339 567 members (most recent official figure as at January 2014) all remain with it outside of COSATU, the latter’s membership of 2.16-million (most recent audited membership figures of 2012) comes down to 1.82-million. Of that total 930 357 (51%) are members of public sector unions.

However, many more members of unions affiliated to COSATU are effectively working for the state, such as transport and communications unions.
If public sector unions among the seven that voted against NUMSA’s expulsion also leave COSATU, its affiliated public sector members will drop to 831 254 (45.6%).

COSATU’s public sector membership has grown from 7% in 1991, to 39% in 2012, to 43% in July 2013, and at least 51% after NUMSA’s expulsion.

The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) also had some scores to settle with NUMSA, but in many respects the public sector unions within COSATU are biggest benefactor from its ousting of NUMSA with the South African Communist Party (SACP) backing them.

Not only do they now dominate COSATU, but they engage the most closely with the ANC in government. If this trend continues, COSATU may end up being nothing more than a massive public sector union front manipulated by the SACP, doubling as the ANC’s partner in government.

Shrinking COSATU

The NUM, once COSATU’s biggest and most powerful union, shrank to the fourth largest after losing thousands of members to the new independent Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU).

The creation and rise of AMCU resulted from yet another politically motivated expulsion of opponents in which ANC secretary-general and leading figure in the SACP Gwede Mantashe, then still a NUM leader, had played no small part.

With NUMSA now gone, two public sector unions, namely the National Education, Health and Allied Workers Unions (NEHAWU – 260 738 members) and the SA Democratic Teachers Union (SADTU – 251 276 members) have become COSATU’s number one and two unions by size. Both have for some time been asserting themselves as the dominant players in COSATU.

Leaders from these two unions also emerged as the most vociferous opponents of NUMSA and COSATU general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi.

If all seven unions which opposed NUMSA’s expulsion also leave COSATU, its membership will fall to 1.45-million. As an aside, some pretty wildly inflated figures have of late been bandied about in the media and by the various players involved.

Nonetheless, in one fell swoop its current leaders reduced COSATU’s membership by 15.7%. If all of the seven unions follow NUMSA, the loss will be 32.6%. Whichever looked at, it amounts to a serious split.

Changing labour dynamics

The era of COSATU’s almost monolithic power and dominance of the labour environment is something of the past. Labour dynamics are changing back to a more fragmented landscape, with large multi-sectoral or general unions and more competing smaller labour federations.

This represents movement away from one overwhelmingly dominant federation (COSATU) built on the basis of one single union per sector.

Since COSATU’s launch in 1985, unions that had often been competitors or came from vastly different political, ideological and organisational backgrounds (often seemingly irreconcilable) were merged into COSATU’s sector based “super unions” with membership recruitment across sector lines forbidden.

NUMSA was no exception. Following several splits and metal unions coming and going, NUMSA was formed in 1987 by merging four unions and transferring metal sector workers from two giant general unions to NUMSA. More recently it crossed the line and started poaching members from other sectors, specifically the mining sector to the chagrin of its old rival, the NUM.

It was not the first or only COSATU union doing it because of changing labour and economic conditions.

Employers’ perspective

From an employer perspective the emerging new labour situation is both good and bad.

Apart from developments in the public sector, fragmentation means unions and federations will arguably be less powerful. But, it will also place more pressure on an already stressed labour relations system with future employer/employee negotiations equally fragmented.

Increased competition among more unions and federations, coupled to worsening socio-economic conditions, are likely to push wage demands higher, causing prolonged strikes, as has already been witnessed by the AMCU (platinum) and NUMSA (metals and engineering) strikes this year.

Social dialogue & new dispensation

Already over the last few years the industrial relations dispensation has come under increasing pressure and will have to change.

The recent Labour Indaba, led by Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, missed a golden opportunity to set the ball rolling on this when, as we predicted, it proved to be little more than a speech-making opportunity where declarations of intent were repeated for the umpteenth time.

As AMCU has already shown, with more fragmentation and competition, the Labour Relations Act enforced majoritarian principle elevating unions with 50% membership to the position of reaching agreements, which is then binding on everybody, has become untenable. It, for one, promotes aggressive recruitment practises that could further destabilise industrial relations.

The NUMSA expulsion is likely to also complicate social dialogue initiatives with the labour component even more divided into competing factions. This was already experienced during the post-Marikana peace engagements of mining companies and government with AMCU and the NUM.

Members’ support of NUMSA

The big unanswered question is of course how many NUMSA members will remain loyal to their union leaders and their declared positions versus how many will remain loyal to COSATU, the ANC and the SACP. How many NUMSA members may yet defect to a new ANC-supporting metalworkers union in COSATU? And how will voting patterns be influenced come election time?

In a pre-emptive move shortly before NUMSA’s expulsion, an alternative metals sector union, the Metal and Allied Workers Union of SA (MAWUSA) was already being set up with the help of former NUMSA president Cedric Gina.

Some speculation has it that NUMSA’s desperate attempts to remain inside COSATU and rather use a special national congress to scuttle the present Dlamini-led leadership might be a sign it is not all that sure of support on the ground.

The political implications and possible ramifications are also vast and discussed separately here.

by Stef Terblanche

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