If pro­posed new union fed­er­a­tion gets off the ground this year, union­ism may pro­vide new ac­tiv­ity and en­cour­age­ment in the sec­tor

CityPress - - Business - DE­WALD VAN RENS­BURG de­wald.vrens­burg@city­press.co.za

The launch of a new union fed­er­a­tion led by ex­pelled Cosatu af­fil­i­ates has promised to give South African union­ism a shot in the arm this year. The found­ing congress of the new fed­er­a­tion is planned for the mid­dle of March.

The group’s pro­posed name is the Demo­cratic In­de­pen­dent Trade Union Fed­er­a­tion of SA, and there are a num­ber of ma­jor as­sured mem­bers.

The Na­tional Union of Me­tal­work­ers of SA (Numsa) re­mains the core of the project, which is as much a draw card as a de­ter­rent.

Numsa is the coun­try’s largest union and, in the pri­vate sec­tor, there are few contenders.

At the union’s an­nual congress last month, one ob­vi­ous con­cern from in­side its ranks crept into the congress dec­la­ra­tion.

“The new fed­er­a­tion must strive for fi­nan­cial self­suf­fi­ciency and all the af­fil­i­ates must fund the or­gan­i­sa­tional pro­gramme and cam­paigns of the fed­er­a­tion to avoid over­re­liance on Numsa,” reads one of the hand­ful of dec­la­ra­tions on the new for­ma­tion.

Numsa’s mis­sion is to be­come a gen­eral union and swell its own ranks to 500 000 by 2020.

The dec­la­ra­tion last month, how­ever, glossed over the fact that Numsa mem­ber­ship has been stag­nant since at least 2013.

The dec­la­ra­tion bragged that mem­ber­ship had grown from 300 389 in 2012 to 340 687 last year.

What it failed to men­tion was that, in 2013, Numsa mem­ber­ship, as de­clared to the depart­ment of labour, was 342 444. It’s mem­ber­ship is now slightly lower than it was four years ago.

From the out­side, po­ten­tial af­fil­i­ates have to con­tend with the like­li­hood that Numsa’s Irvin Jim and for­mer Cosatu sec­re­tary-gen­eral Zwelinz­ima Vavi will al­most cer­tainly play lead­ing roles in the new fed­er­a­tion.

Ex­ist­ing fed­er­a­tions have given the new ri­val the cold shoul­der, with the Fed­er­a­tion of Unions of SA (Fe­dusa) ear­lier this year re­ject­ing an in­vi­ta­tion to a sum­mit of po­ten­tial af­fil­i­ates, and Cosatu is an un­happy ri­val by de­fault.

It mat­ters be­cause Fe­dusa and Cosatu hold the key to in­sti­tu­tional power, not least in the form of get­ting a seat at the Na­tional Eco­nomic De­vel­op­ment and Labour Coun­cil (Ned­lac), where unions get to in­flu­ence leg­is­la­tion.

The last time a new union fed­er­a­tion tried to crack Ned­lac was in 2004, when the Con­fed­er­a­tion of SA Work­ers’ Unions tried and failed as it ran up against the ef­fec­tive veto wielded by the ex­ist­ing three fed­er­a­tions: Cosatu, Fe­dusa and the Na­tional Coun­cil of Trade Unions (Nactu).

Nactu, which counts the As­so­ci­a­tion of Minework­ers and Con­struc­tion Union (Amcu) as a mem­ber, largely backs the plans.

Numsa by it­self, or a fed­er­a­tion dom­i­nated by it, could be a ma­jor source of dis­sent around two ma­jor labour mar­ket re­forms this year.

The union has “de­nounced with con­tempt” the pro­posal for a na­tional min­i­mum wage of R20 an hour, which ex­ist­ing fed­er­a­tions have been ne­go­ti­at­ing at Ned­lac.

Numsa is also dead set against the new code of con­duct for strikes that is be­ing ham­mered out at Ned­lac.


It was highly un­likely that the na­tional min­i­mum wage would get im­ple­mented this year, said a source close to the ne­go­ti­a­tions at Ned­lac.

It might even only get im­ple­mented in 2019, said the source.

Apart from plans to con­duct an im­pact as­sess­ment of the pro­posed wage floor, the par­ties at Ned­lac still have widely di­ver­gent de­mands for changes to the pro­posal tabled by a panel of ex­perts last year.

The unions are still hold­ing out for a higher min­i­mum wage and also want to re­move some of the pro­posed ex­emp­tions for work­ers in the Ex­panded Pub­lic Works Pro­gramme and in learn­er­ship pro­grammes.


A more ad­vanced labour re­form is a set of new strike rules aimed at stop­ping long and vi­o­lent in­dus­trial action.

The accord on col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing, strikes and pick­ets comes with amend­ments to the Labour Re­la­tions Act.

The im­por­tant one is a sys­tem for com­pul­sory in­ter­est ar­bi­tra­tion when strikes seem to have reached a dead­lock or have turned vi­o­lent.

In­ter­est ar­bi­tra­tion en­tails an in­de­pen­dent ar­bi­tra­tor de­cid­ing on an out­come – for in­stance, the wage in­crease be­ing fought over in this case.

This ar­bi­tra­tion could be re­quested by the union or the em­ployer, or sim­ply im­posed by the au­thor­i­ties.

Im­por­tantly, the out­comes won’t be legally bind­ing like a court or­der, but par­ties would have to present the ar­bi­tra­tor’s pro­posal to mem­bers.

An­other in­ter­ven­tion is to make se­cret strike bal­lots a com­pul­sory part of all unions’ con­sti­tu­tions. This will not be par­tic­u­larly en­force­able, said the source. “It is not mak­ing strikes un­pro­tected if there wasn’t a bal­lot, but if there is ob­vi­ous flout­ing, the regis­trar would take steps. The ac­cords are soft law, but they do pro­vide guid­ance that will be more in­flu­en­tial in the long term.”

The code mostly as­serts things that are law in any case, and spells out ba­sic house rules and eti­quette dur­ing bar­gain­ing and strikes.

This in­cludes non-in­ter­fer­ence with non-strik­ers and the pro­hi­bi­tion of car­ry­ing weapons at a picket, in­clud­ing sym­bolic tra­di­tional weapons such as knobker­ries, whips and sjam­boks.

Parts of the accord clearly stem from the plat­inum strikes held in 2012 and 2014.

It is, how­ever, not very clear how they would rem­edy the sit­u­a­tion that pre­vailed then.

One clause as­serts the rights of in­for­mal work­ers’ com­mit­tees, but only “in the ab­sence of a recog­nised union”.

The enor­mous strikes on the plat­inum belt in 2012 were led by com­mit­tees who em­ploy­ers such as Lon­min re­fused to talk to.

The clause in the code would not have changed that sit­u­a­tion at all be­cause those work­ers in­ten­tion­ally by­passed the recog­nised union – Numsa.

An­other clause says that em­ploy­ers should not by­pass unions and deal di­rectly with em­ploy­ees “be­fore dead­lock or a rea­son­able pe­riod af­ter dead­lock”.

This harks back to the bat­tle Amcu fought against plat­inum com­pa­nies which, in 2014, started bar­gain­ing with work­ers via SMS.

That months-long strike was, how­ever, the per­fect case of a dead­lock, so the clause would seem­ingly not have ap­plied if it had ex­isted then.


The depart­ment of labour’s an­nual In­dus­trial Action Re­port for 2015 was re­leased late last year and demon­strates the dra­matic re­turn to nor­malcy in 2015. Noth­ing in­di­cates this changed last year, and, if the depart­ment’s the­ory that a slow econ­omy damp­ens strikes holds wa­ter, this year should be calm as well.

Ac­cord­ing to the depart­ment’s re­port, there were ac­tu­ally more strikes, but they were far smaller than the mas­sive stop­pages in mines and farms that oc­curred over the past few years.

The re­port tries to mea­sure work­ing days lost by mul­ti­ply­ing the work­ers in­volved with the length of their strikes.

The days lost in 2015 were about 904 000. This was the low­est num­ber since 2008.

A ma­jor strike in the min­ing sec­tor is un­likely for the fore­see­able future due to the bed­ding down of Amcu in its new role as the dom­i­nant min­ing union.

It signed a mul­ti­year wage deal with plat­inum com­pa­nies last year with­out much fuss and with a rel­a­tively con­ser­va­tive in­crease.

The ac­cords are soft law, but they do pro­vide guid­ance that will be more in­flu­en­tial in the long term

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