Unions clue­less to re­spond to chal­lenges

Finweek English Edition - - OPINION - BY MAMOKGETHI MOLOPY­ANE

It was the same yearly event, yet it was dif­fer­ent some­how. There was a tin­gling, an­tic­i­pa­tory am­bi­ence in the air. And, for a short while, it seemed that this May Day events were go­ing to fi­nally un­leash all the un­said words that had been sim­mer­ing at the tip of the tongue of many a union leader. Or at least map a path that would have clearly pointed to the di­rec­tion in which unions are head­ing. Alas, it was not to be.

In­stead, Worker’s Day speeches, from Amcu in Rusten­burg to Cosatu in Dur­ban, all in­di­cated that lead­ers are strug­gling to un­der­stand the new ter­rain they now face. The once for­ward­look­ing May Day ral­lies were just an­other part of long-stand­ing rou­tines. They un­veiled no plans or poli­cies or blue­prints of work­ers’ in­ter­ests.

In his study of Euro­pean so­cial­ist par­ties, Robert Michels claimed that all or­gan­i­sa­tions have a nat­u­ral ten­dency to de­velop oli­garchi­cal lead­er­ship and con­ser­va­tive goals, as off icials gain power and or­gan­i­sa­tional main­te­nance be­comes their high­est pri­or­ity. Can the same be said about the labour move­ment in SA? Has or­gan­ised labour be­come more like an in­sti­tu­tion­alised in­ter­est group than a so­cial move­ment?

One thing has emerged: the Achilles heel of or­gan­ised labour is time. The post-2007 eco­nomic cri­sis-rid­den work­place is dic­tated by how a coun­try’s eco­nomic plans keep up with chang­ing times. For work­ers, there has been much change: work­ing hours, the tra­di­tional def­i­ni­tion of work and the once se­cure full-time em­ploy­ment ex­pec­ta­tions are all un­der pres­sure. Most unions seem mori­bund as lead­er­ship bat­tles are grow­ing and po­lit­i­cal inf lu­ence dwin­dling.

Right now, or­gan­ised labour, whether aligned to the rul­ing party or not, is strug­gling to see the whole (eco­nomic) pic­ture, hence it is un­able to deal with the times it finds it­self in; it is fail­ing to change its shape or ad­just its sails.

Time does not a f f ect l abour alone; the clock con­tin­ues to tick for labour’s so­cial part­ners, gov­ern­ment and busi­ness, too. Their con­cerns are three­fold. Firstly, the re­al­i­sa­tion that, in or­der to change our na­tional be­hav­iour, they must en­ter into ar­range­ments and pacts that take into ac­count the re­al­ity of to­day’s global econ­omy. Se­condly, that eco­nomic growth will re­main slug­gish and un­em­ploy­ment high i f so­cial part­ners con­tinue to act in eco­nom­i­cally un­sus­tain­able ways. Thirdly, if busi­ness and labour con­tinue on this path of short-ter­mism by max­imis­ing their own in­ter­ests, SA will run out of time be­fore it can ad­dress the struc­turally high rate of un­em­ploy­ment. “Time and tide waits for no man,” goes the say­ing. The grow­ing dis­tance be­tween elected of­fi­cials and union mem­bers has al­lowed lead­ers to mould the or­gan­i­sa­tion in their in­ter­ests rather than in those of its mem­bers. The gen­eral decline of unions pro­vides a re­minder that the past glo­ries are gone; the lan­guage spo­ken at var­i­ous events sug­gest the fu­ture is un­know­able and the present path is mired by the fog that has de­scended.

As the era of the ‘old guard’ draws to its close, the ones cling­ing to power are in­ca­pable of keep­ing up with time. Unions seem un­pre­pared in deal­ing with the in­com­ing younger gen­er­a­tion of work­ers and their de­mands. It seems age has cre­ated the illusion among union lead­ers that ex­pe­ri­ence is the best teacher, and hence they are caught up in the storm of time: un­pre­pared and un­able to adapt. Mamokgethi Molopy­ane is the chief re­search an­a­lyst: min­ing and labour at Cre­ative Voodoo Con­sult­ing.




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