Picture: 123RF/DMITRIY SHIRONOSOV
Picture: 123RF/DMITRIY SHIRONOSOV

The decline in the dominance of one union in the workplace is an opportunity to revisit earlier debate on co-determination and establish multi-union participatory structures at workplace level.

This could be a way of reducing the growing social distance between union leadership and ordinary membership, and could also address systematically the low trust dynamic between management and workers.

These are the findings of a study we co-authored that was published earlier in the month in Sweden. (“Workers’ Participation at Plant Level: A South African Case Study”, Economic & Industrial Democracy Vol 42).

A recent media briefing by trade, industry & competition minister Ebrahim Patel focused on employee ownership schemes as an important component of the government’s economic plans. But, as Tendani Nelwamondo and Cedric de Beer noted in a recent Business Day article, “Employee share schemes seldom allow workers participation in decision-making and governance of the firms in which they hold shares.” This, they argue, is an opportunity missed. (“Employee ownership schemes would benefit the entire economy”, May 12).

Workplace forums were introduced in 1995 through chapter 5 of the Labour Relations Act (LRA), modelled on the successful German-style works councils. Their purpose is to promote the interests of all in the workplace, improve productivity, enable the employer to consult workers, and for workers to be part of decision-making. In 2014 the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration recorded a total of 56 applications to establish workplace forums. Yet our research indicates that only one was set up successfully, at a municipality. However, the union subsequently contested the workplace forum as it feared workers would leave the union, and it was duly cancelled.

Stereotypes

Many unions remain sceptical of workplace forums as they are independent from union structures and are seen as a substitute for shop steward committees. Though there are no existing statutory union-based workplace forums in SA, management at many private companies have introduced other worker participation schemes.

Instead of following the path of institutionalised co-determination, the labour movement has opted for engagement with employers on the basis of a union agenda and union independence, to transform and democratise the workplace. At the centre of this strategy is the shop steward as the instrument for worker participation at plant level.

Contrary to popular stereotypes, not all shop stewards see themselves in permanent opposition to management. About 30% of respondents to a survey in 1991, and 33% in 2012, agreed with the statement that management and workers have the same aims and objectives. This is a surprising finding given the high levels of conflict within the SA industrial relations system.

Though we found a surprising degree of co-operation with management among many shop stewards, the attempt to transfer the German system of co-determination in the LRA chapter 5 has failed.

In an bid to further investigate how the relationship between management and labour has changed after apartheid, an ethnographic case study on worker-management relationships was conducted at a leading motor plant. At the time of conducting this research the workers in the plant felt deeply disempowered by management’s attempts to establish participatory schemes, largely because management used the committees to convey information, rather than for meaningful joint decision-making.

Despite a number of existing structures for worker participation, shop stewards had little institutional power to influence decision-making. The existing worker participation structures were viewed by workers as not only bogus but a tactic by management to gain legitimacy for their decisions. In other words for these workers, worker participation at the plant was a form of pseudo-participation. As one shop steward put it: “the vast automation that has engulfed our plant is a problem. Production systems which are now being introduced are new to us because ... they have been developed for the developed countries; here we are still struggling even to interact with these because they are not talking directly to us as workers.”

Importantly, the workers were not opposed to joint decision-making with management; they viewed this as necessary for sustained economic viability of the plant and securing their jobs. However, this willingness to participate in decision-making processes was negated by a deep sense of disempowerment and lack of trust in the plant.

What is clear is that in revisiting the regulatory framework set up nearly three decades ago we must not simply transfer effective labour market institutions from the global north. Effective labour regulations require a detailed understanding of how work is performed. This is especially true in a context where digitalisation is dramatically changing the nature of work

• Bischoff and Webster are with the Southern Centre of Inequality Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand, and Masondo is an independent researcher.

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