Ignore the unions at your peril
Irecently attended a partnership breakfast session that aimed to build relationships between the private and the public sectors. It was one of those events where powerful men and women pat one another on the back and commit to a f uture of collaboration, but the moment they are out of the door, they mutter to their associates: “There’s no way this will work.”
But that’s not what irked me most about the event. During breakfast, as is so often the case with South Africans, we got talking about the state of the nation. And then someone at our table made a comment about “South Africa’s obsession with labour”.
The f irst point is that as a person in the business sector, surely he should understand how the activities of unions and their federations occupy the attention of the economist, the politician and the man on the street. In any economy – developed or developing – labour is required for the making of goods and the supply of services. For politicians, especially in the alliance, widespread ire by Cosatu members, even in the federation’s current weakened state, could mean the loss of support they need for the election machinery to function.
The broader economic impact of an unhappy labour contingent has longlasting ramifications. Three recent strikes had such an impact on the economy: the 2006 security sector strike, the monthlong 2007 public sector strike, and the record five-month-long platinum sector strike in 2014, which was the longest this country has ever seen.
The implications of SA’s obsession, as he put it, with labour, far outstrip the span of a column. Even if we tried, we can’t ignore labour; they are a permanent thorn in the side of SA’s economy − sometimes irritating but not something that can be ignored.
Consider the state of the private sector: jobs are not fast coming; mining is on track to having one of the biggest retrenchments across all its sectors in its history. SA’s workers can see how steeply business and its ability to create jobs has declined.
Now let’s look at the public sector, the country’s biggest employer. Remember that the bulging public sector must be paid for with government revenue, a dwindling resource.
It would be foolish to forget the might of the whip of unions on both government and the private sector. But if the current economic outlook continues, SA is headed for a recession, if we’re not already in one.
Looking at how matters may evolve over time, one wonders if private sector workers, whether they belong to a union or not, can see that without compromises they may be forced to join the ranks of the unemployed.
The bargaining power of workers in the public sector looks substantially different. They’ve become a powerful political organisation; they can shut down schools and hospitals, disrupt tax collection and government services. While the former will have the public up in arms, the latter two possibilities should fill government with visceral fear.
There is an overarching point I want to make that transcends the murmurings of an executive about SA’s obsession with unions. To think, no, to assume that unions and labour are merely social organisations f ighting for better wages and working conditions for their members, or for the betterment of society, is to lull oneself into false comfort.
History has shown us that in this countr y, unions are st raddling t he economy, and they won’t be letting go for a while. In the political economy, they have an ability to tip the scales. So we rightfully obsess about their activities. To ignore them would be arrogantly blind.