Unions clueless to respond to challenges
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.
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.