Metalworkers’ union, NUMSA [National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa] is expected to announce this afternoon whether it will end its four-week strike in the metal and engineering sector. Labour analyst Patrick Deale shares some perspective on where we are with the NUMSA strike and the future of collective bargaining in this sector.
Interview Source: https://youtu.be/nTq1XKL3amA
Section 37 of the Bargaining Council Agreement – Perhaps we can start with you just giving us a sense of the history of the section or the clause and tell us its significance at the moment?
Firstly, the collective bargaining is done at a central level. The idea is it takes bargaining out of the companies – the individual companies – and for logistical reasons it is seen to be more efficient to be able to bargain at that level.
So instead of having hundreds or even thousands of separate negotiations, you have one big negotiation at the top. And whatever you agree at the top, or at central level, between the management and the unions must be representative of the employers and of the employees. Then, it gets extended to everyone who falls within the scope of the agreement. That’s the big idea.
Things changed in 1992 in relation to what exactly could be extended, or what should be extended by agreement. Before 1992, the negotiations were about minimum conditions of employment: minimum wages, working hours, and those kinds of things. And then the parties in 1992 agreed to change that and to turn it into actuals. So, from then on and since 1992, which has been quite a long time, they’ve had a tradition of agreeing actual wages. Those then get extended for the period of agreement whether it’s a one, two, or three-year agreement. The current one has been a three-year agreement.
The idea then in terms of Section 37, where this notion is captured, is that the parties can’t then go back to the companies and have another ‘bite at the cherry’ – or what they call ‘double dipping’ on issues that relate to money. Particularly wages and things like holiday pay, and bonuses, etc. Although, bonuses may be in a separate category.
So, what exactly in this instance does NUMSA stand to lose here? They are adamant this shouldn’t be the case.
Yes, the wording of the Agreement 37 has stood the test of time over all this period since 1992.
This year or late last year, the Labour Court made a judgment where NUMSA had applied to attack the interpretation of what the wording of the Agreement says.
The interpretation that they asked the court to put upon it and what the Court agreed with them, is that it’s not such that the parties can’t negotiate anything at company level. They can negotiate at company level even if it does sound in money, if it is not specified as being particularly excluded at company level. So, that’s where there’s a sort of a grey area about what is negotiated at central level and can’t be double dipped again and what is not.
And there’s a sort of a window that was opened according to this judgment for NUMSA to say, well actually maybe there are other things that we haven’t specially listed here that we can take up at company level, that we can about negotiate, which would cost companies money. That’s what the employers are trying to stop.
You open the papers this morning and you see threats of a bargaining council collapsing. Could we actually see an eventuality where you have these 10,000 companies in the sector having to hold exclusive agreements or negotiations with workers on plant level? Could we reach that stage?
It’s possible that the system can collapse if the parties don’t agree.
Because, of course, when an Agreement like this one comes to an end at the end of its three-year period and if they haven’t got an agreement to cover the next year or the next three years, for example, there is no agreement.
And for so long as there is no agreement, things are held in limbo which then threatens the whole notion of collective bargaining.
So that’s what the sort of threat is, if you like, and so there’s a risk analysis that the parties need to make at this point. To either use what they’ve got which has been tested over time, or they can look at wording the Agreement, on wording Section 37, in such a way that it’s specific about what’s in and what’s not in – to clarify that.
Because there are other Agreements and other Councils where that does exist. For example, in the motor industry, where they are specifically things that are agreed at central level that you cannot bargain at company level. And that might be helpful in this situation and that might save the collective bargaining process because I think there’s too much to lose particularly for NUMSA and the employers by not doing something like that
Patrick, that’s not the only issue that’s weighing on these negotiations. You also have the employer bodies to some degree disagree. I mean you have a body like NIASA [Nuclear Industry Association of South Africa] which is adamant it can’t afford these proposed offers of salaries. And yes, they are a smaller body, but there are plenty of small businesses out there. What do you make of this disagreement between the employers?
Well, it’s a very difficult thing to manage when you’ve got a divided house within your employer groupings. Because obviously it creates uncertainty.
And it’s hard for the unions to respond where they have, in this case, they’ve responded to where they’ve got the best offer and trying to get a follow-through by NIASA in this case.
And that has got to do with the numbers ultimately; About which employer organizations have the most clout in terms of their membership in the collective bargaining arrangement.
NIASA has got slightly more employers of the smaller employers, but less employees. I think it’s something like 2,500 employers versus 60 employees in the bargaining unit. Whereas SEIFSA [The Steel and Engineering Industries Federation of Southern Africa] has slightly less. They have bigger employers about 2,200 but they have 160,000, so far more number of employees. And that’s what determines, in terms of the Labour Relations Act, who gets the right to pull the strings in the system. So that tension has to be sorted out.
And may I say that there’s a parallel process that is underway to examine these kinds of issues. There is an industry policy forum which is investigating these particular things: about how you bargain, how you participate, whether big businesses should be separated from small businesses, and how that should be done perhaps.
We will find out and get more clarity at four o’clock this afternoon. Patrick, thanks indeed for coming on.
My pleasure, thank you.
End of interview transcript.