Picture: THE TIMES
Picture: THE TIMES

Trade unions only exist because their members are employed,  but unless Cosatu and similar union federations rid themselves of anarchic notions of how economies work, they may cease to be relevant.

Two very important articles in Business Day this month by Carol Paton (Workers of the world, unite to help fix the mess) and Theto Mahlakoana (Striking unions could be on their way out) deal with, among other issues, retrenchment as a means of reducing costs, strike violence, and the need for unions to be involved in changing the economy.

These pieces refer to union federation Cosatu unions, but the same could apply to the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) and the South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu).

Mahlakoana criticises Cosatu unions for presaging their own demise through increasing levels of violence during strikes, whether lawful or not. Union officials mouth the platitude that violence is caused by “criminal elements” not connected to the union. In fact, most of the “criminal elements” are the unions’ members. Union officials try very hard to avoid any responsibility.

Mahlakoana notes that popular sentiment is that the bosses, including the government, are behind the attacks on the protection of strikes. Labour minister Mildred Oliphant has recently drafted regulations to make it mandatory for unions to hold a strike ballot among members before embarking on a strike. This change was due to the increase in unlawful, violent and poorly managed strikes.

It’s not clear that it is a wilful misunderstanding: the rigid belief in communist/socialist dogma is deeply ingrained; possibly, Cosatu can’t envision anything else

Strike protection, like all other constitutional rights, are not absolute. They are realised through legislation, and legislation changes as circumstances change.

Paton, in turn, recounted asking the top leadership of Cosatu at a press conference if they believed it was their role at all to attract investment and create new jobs. The response was eye-opening.

New Cosatu president Zingiswa Losi said: “Cosatu does not create jobs. Government’s responsibility is to create the environment conducive for investment. Our role is to ensure that the rights of workers are not trampled on. Our responsibility as trade unions is to ensure that no workers will be exploited in the name of investment.”

General secretary Bheki Ntshalintshali said: “Our role has been to defend labour laws and clarify to investors coming to SA that they will have to face strong trade unions. Of course we need foreign investment, but not at all costs.”

Things are such that what SA needs “at all costs” is foreign (and local) investment. Instead, what is Cosatu planning? A national strike against retrenchments in February!

The belief that business can be coerced into retaining jobs seems deeply held, says Paton. Cosatu’s leadership nearly walked out of the October jobs summit when the government would not back their demand for a moratorium on all retrenchments. But businesses are not going to be persuaded through talks with social partners or protest action that they should retain workers in a stagnant or contracting economy.

Paton complains that compounding this “wilful misunderstanding of what makes a market economy tick is a refusal to embrace change”. It’s not clear that it is a wilful misunderstanding: the rigid belief in communist/socialist dogma is deeply ingrained; possibly, Cosatu can’t envision anything else.

The fourth industrial revolution is transforming the nature of work and industry. Yet, as Paton writes, Cosatu’s attitude to the fourth industrial revolution is “frighteningly blinkered”.

She notes that at its September congress, Cosatu acknowledged that the changing world of work could not be wished away, but took no responsibility for adapting to the inevitable reality.  Instead, the government and business were called upon “to plan for a just transition to fourth industrial revolution”.

At the National Economic Development and Labour Council  (Nedlac), business tried proposing a plan to facilitate a just transition in the energy sector, following inexorable global trends. Instead, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) and National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu) marched against renewable energy and want independent solar and wind power producers shut down. These are the three biggest Cosatu unions.

Nedlac should be disbanded and any summit on job creation and related issues should not include Cosatu or any other federation or union that holds similar views. Only those who actually want to do something to ameliorate unemployment should attend.

These initiatives are designed to increase employment. One would think growing employment should be a real benefit to Cosatu in terms of new membership. Increased employment will also take the pressure off union members to support others. 

Unless union federations rid themselves of anarchic notions of how economies work, they may cease to be relevant. And union members may well ask what they are paying for.

• Gon is a policy fellow at the Institute of Race Relations (IRR).