TIPPING POINT FOR UNIONS: What can unions do to stay relevant in a modern South African economy?


TIPPING POINT FOR UNIONS: What can unions do to stay relevant in a modern South African economy?

Whatever their culture and epoch, mankind has sought to acquire what it takes to satisfy their basic desires: security, shelter, sustenance, and self-expression. [Phillipe Gigantes: Power & Greed, A Short History of the World].

The purpose of unions is to pursue the means to satisfy these desires for its members in the workplace. They are legally enabled to do so by using the collective power of their members.

The reformed Labour Relations Act of 1979 was a government defensive strategy to prevent economic destruction after the 1970s social uprisings. It institutionalized a traditional model of labour relations which promoted inherently adversarial structures for the regulation of the relationship between management and unions.

One pillar accorded rights to management and unions under the principle of unfair labor practices. The other systemized wealth distribution through collective bargaining to determine wage levels and other conditions of employment.

There was no structure to encourage growth or wealth creation activities between management and labor. The relationship was confined to building US vs THEM mindsets. Conducted by legal rights on one hand and power on the other, workplace relationships inevitably suffered and descended into often violent conflict. Two powerful forces intensified this adversarialism.

One was the liberation struggle in which capital was identified as a legitimate target by the trade union movement. The other was a ferocious state-run propaganda campaign promoting the idea that the unions’ real agenda was a Communist plot overthrow the government.

As “defensive” management and “offensive” labor polarized, distrust intensified. Fixated on formal agreements to reaffirm their rights, unions became anti-capitalist and anti-production. Employers were branded as the “enemy.” This was the response for reparations for the damage done by fifty years of oppression under apartheid.

The unions purported to identify themselves as a “revolutionary movement” in pursuit of Marxist ideologies. The revolutionary political battle carried through to the employment arena as the new site of struggle. They rejected the workplace forum innovation in the amended LRA in 1995. This, modelled on Germany, was designed to add a third pillar of workplace participation alongside the other two pillars of rights and power though collective bargaining. Unions were suspicious that cooperation with employers meant co-option and selling out to capital.

Now, forty years on, this deeply embedded psychology of mistrust, anti-capitalist ideology and militancy persists. Increasing dysfunctional political conflict during the Zuma years and the harsh demands of a modern economy, have torn the union movement apart.  The once powerful rallying calls “One country, one federation,”One industry one union” and “An injury to one is an injury to all” have become hollow if not fallen silent.

Now in 2022, the unity on which collective bargaining has depended for its power has disintegrated. There are no less than 24 union federations and over 200 trade unions registered in South Africa. The “one-industry one union” policy has been dropped and “general unions” go in search of members in any industry.

Total union membership has fallen from 47% in 1990 to less than 25% in 2021 at 3.1 million. On May Day 2022 – the EFF announced the creation of yet another – its own EFF Union. They all compete in the ever-shrinking pool of those fortunate to be employed (14m) in a sea of unemployment (8m). And their competitive edge is aggression and who can be the most militant.

The traditional annual cycle of wage negotiations is dysfunctional. It’s an ever more aggressive and often violent encounter producing diminishing returns for members – often at the cost of real wages in protracted strikes which can never be recovered.

Business is about taking informed risks to reap desired rewards. Management continuously works to mitigate identified risks to maximise rewards. They must do so in a brutally competitive environment presenting a host of external risks. And they must work equally hard to mitigate the internal risks presented by the declared “enemy” within the business – hostile unions hellbent on using blunt instrument power to give in to demands.

Why do union members continue pursuing these losses, and even their jobs, during protracted strikes when final increases seldom exceed inflation plus one or two percent?

The incident at the May Day rally in 2022 was a tipping point for unions.

The televised scenes of Num and Amcu members pleading with the President to intervene in their wage dispute with Sibanye Gold shows how desperate they are and how they’ve lost faith in their unions. Ironically, they’re the very two unions who nearly tore each other apart to recruit members in the months before the Marikana tragedy in 2014.

Now is the time to change this broken model of labour relations. The psychology of a revolutionary militant union movement with its associated war-like rhetoric is manifestly unfit for purpose in a modern economy. The ongoing need for reparation for past injustices and resulting inequalities is better achieved with a new fit for purpose model for labour relations.

Successful unions elsewhere in the modern world are professional service providers. They don’t enter into battle with employers and demonise them as the “enemy”. They advocate partnerships with employers to satisfy the desires for which their members strive. Their purpose is to assist their members to grow their personal wealth by negotiating profit and share participation plans with their employers.

They do not engage in low-return wage negotiations and put their members at risk in long and aggressive strikes. They focus on contributing to the growth of the “economic cake” and to negotiating a fair share for their members. They reject the combat zone in which unions battle for a slice of a diminishing cake with lose-lose results.

TIP:      It’s surely time to change this broken model of labour relations? The old models of adversarial unionism and traditional hostile collective bargaining rituals are outdated and dysfunctional. They are important stakeholders in our society – but they don’t satisfy the desires that their members so desperately need. Only a radical change from a power to partnership psychology in labour relations offers a real prospect that unions will remain relevant as service providers in the modern economy. The President has called on labour to partner with employers. The need to change the psychology is urgent.



labour lawyer & mediator



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[Edited by Sarah Christie]


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