Amcu members who work for Sibanye-Stillwater gather for a strike update on a koppie near a gold mine in Carletonville, west of Johannesburg. Picture: Alaister Russell
Amcu members who work for Sibanye-Stillwater gather for a strike update on a koppie near a gold mine in Carletonville, west of Johannesburg. Picture: Alaister Russell

SA’s “strong unions” are often cited as one of the reasons why we battle with an unemployment rate that reached 27.5% in the third quarter. It’s much higher if those discouraged from seeking work are included. 

The argument holds some merit. Labour laws give unions significant power in the workplace, and bargaining councils and the extension of agreements to non-members – often smaller companies – are often blamed for the lack of job creation by the manufacturing industry in particular.

South Africans are also used to lengthy and violent strikes – recent examples include the deadly stoppage in the plastics industry, and the ongoing one at Sibanye-Stillwater’s gold operations, which easily creates the perception that the unions hold all the power and should be cut down to size.

More should certainly be done from a legal perspective to limit lengthy strikes and prevent violence.

But is our problem really that unions are too strong? An argument could be made that our unions are, in fact, not strong enough.

But is our problem really that the unions are too strong? An argument could be made that our unions are, in fact, not strong enough.

Take the Sibanye strike, where the Association of Construction and Mineworkers Union (Amcu) called probably the most ill-timed strike in recent history, with workers downing tools shortly before the annual holiday shutdown. Other unions, including arch rival the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), were happy to settle on what was essentially Amcu’s demands. But suddenly Amcu’s leaders were no longer interested in settling – getting a one-up on the NUM seemingly more important than serving members’ interests. So much for “an injury to one is an injury to all”.

These are the same leaders who issued a press release on December 14, in which it accused Sibanye of paying “slave wages” and making “super profits, some of which has been invested in the smelting business of Texas America” [sic].

One assumes Amcu is referring here to the purchase of Stillwater, the platinum and palladium mining company based in Colorado, a deal that was announced two years ago as part of its efforts to diversify operations from its deep-level gold mines with limited lifespan. As for the super profits? The stock has lost investors 30.9% this year.

The question is – as a union member, would you want leaders to represent your interests at a company that they clearly have no interest in knowing or understanding? As a union, how do you fight for the long-term sustainability of your members’ jobs if you don’t understand the finances of the business, or the economics of the industry?

Amcu is but one example; many other unions have similarly poor track records when it comes to providing strong, democratic leadership where everyone from the general secretary to the shop steward are held accountable, where transparency of union affairs are a nonnegotiable, and where members’ interests are at the heart of the union’s activities.

If the NUM, for example, operated by those principles, Amcu wouldn’t even exist today – its leader, Joseph Mathunjwa, would probably still be climbing the ranks in the NUM, where he was a highly popular workers’ representative before the “leadership” allegedly got rid of him by  undemocratic means.

Strong unions can be a powerful force for good, not only guarding workers’ rights but also bringing about positive change in society by organising and campaigning to strengthen democracy and good governance, and campaign for human rights. Look no further than the role the NUM, and trade federation Cosatu, played in ending apartheid and building SA’s democracy.

Ironically, it is their alliance with the governing ANC that has contributed significantly to their decline – politics started trumping workers’ issues, opening the door for breakaway unions, resulting in a weakened organised labour movement, where the core focus seem to be self-enrichment, and fighting rival unions for members.

What we need are unions whose leaders can outsmart their counterparts at the negotiating table to the benefit of their members; where members’ interests – and safety – are paramount; and where leaders know the employer’s business inside out, leaving no room for exploitation on either side of the divide.