Unions - Major players or a spent force?

Andrew Levy assesses the political potential of the trade union movement.

Political analysts, when there is little else exciting to occupy their time, tend to speculate on the nature of the relationship between Cosatu and government. They pore over the entrails like ancient Roman soothsayers, making confident pronouncements. It seems to be something of a national pre-occupation. The recent national stayaway called by the federation, was really a damp squib from a numbers point of view, and has put some renewed vigour into speculation that Cosatu is a spent force, but perhaps the rumours of its death have been greatly exaggerated.

The first point is that the rise, or decline for that matter, of labour movements is not measured between one week and the next. The course usually spans decades, although there is an argument that suggests that things grow faster, and equally perhaps, rot sooner, under the African sun.

The rise of the black populist labour movement which has been such a dominant force in economic and political life in recent times can be traced back to the early nineteen seventies. For those who could read the signs, it was clear by the late 1990s that the tide was turning.

To some extent this was predictable. Unions are generally slow to adapt to major societal shifts. Witness the sensational decline of the American movement after the Second World War because of its failure to take account of the growth of mass consumerism in the United States and the changes that it wrought on the old blue collar working class. The decline in the UK was equally marked in the eighties, although a healthy dose of Thatcherite legislation helped it on its way. The opposite is arguably true in South Africa, however. There are few frameworks of labour law that encourage and support unionism as strongly as our own.

From a numbers point of view, both potential and actual, membership is falling (see Note and Diagram One). Daily, the number of job-seekers entering the labour market grows, and they are not, nor will they in the foreseeable future, find employment. This means that it becomes well nigh impossible for unions to recruit them. The informal sector, which, as we so often forget, includes crime, prostitution and drugs, is unorganisable, and there has been a constant loss of jobs in the formal sector over the last decade or so. In the light of all this, Cosatu has done a pretty sterling job in stemming a strong tide. There are however more fundamental structural changes that mean that it is unlikely that unionism will ever be the same again.

As an industrial force, unionism is not the currency of the 21st century. A global real time business environment, multinationals who site their operations in what they deem to be a welcoming environment, the collapse of the Soviet bloc and socialist economies, not to mention the IT revolution, are amongst the macro-factors that have changed the structure of industries and with it the world of employment.

These same factors have altered the nature of the demands for labour, changed participation rates, and have altered the capital labour-ratio once and for all. International competition and falling trade barriers means that firms have to compete on price, quality and delivery everywhere. In the brutal world of international business no prisoners are taken, and it is legitimate to ask whether or not labour movements generally have kept up with these changes.

In Europe, certainly, any still trapped in the old paradigms of "Fordism" and the tyranny of the production line, or who still see themselves as the standard bearers in the international socialist struggle, may need to catch a wake up call. Individualism and not collectivism is much more the watchword in the workplaces of Europe and America now - certainly more than it was 50 years ago. It is ironic too, that the impact of legislation here, such as Employment Equity, is at its heart, intensely individualistic. After all, when push comes to shove, promotion and advancement is about the individual, and what he or she can achieve. A promotion for one may actually be an injury to all the others who did not succeed.

So much for the world.

Economic groundswells aside, the very air that nurtured our labour movement is no longer the same. Apartheid has gone, and although the labour movement was a vital force amongst the agents of change, it is arguable that managements have come to terms more quickly with post-struggle South Africa, than have their toyi-toying counterparts. Both parties have certainly learned a great deal about the conduct of management/labour relations, and this leads to my first major point. In judging whether or not unionism is or is not a force, we need to differentiate between the political agenda, and the day to day conduct of relationships on the factory floor.

From a day to day point of view, the stayaway call was bound to be a dismal failure when compared to past responses. In fact, Cosatu hasn't managed to mount a really good stayaway in years. Why? Simply because macro policy issues are foreign to many shop floor workers. Apartheid they could understand, but losing a day's pay when you are not marching for freedom is a less attractive proposition. Besides, it is also arguable that shop floor and local leadership is less charismatic and persuasive than it used to be.

What too of the credibility of current leadership within the unions themselves? It is, by most measures, sadly lacking. Youth, inexperience, jealousy, rivalry and allegations of serious corruption have tarnished the image and credibility of a number of unions in recent years. This too has taken its toll, both within the movement, and in the way that it is perceived from the outside.

So what of the political dimension? Cosatu remains a force and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future, but to expect the relationship with government to be constantly cosy is naïve.

Now governments, generally speaking, don't wish to alienate any particular power bloc, even more so when they are old comrades, and when some may still share the ideological dream that brings a sparkle to many eyes within Cosatu . The issue really is to what extent will government swerve from its determined path to maintain the comfort of the relationship, and how far will they go to keep their old companions happy?

Indications are that the answer is less and less, and this is perhaps one of the warnings implicit in the lack of real material support for the Cosatu stayaway. They would be unwise to plan on their ability to stop government economic or employment policy dead in its tracks. This does not mean, however, that they are impotent.

Government's stomach is much more for consensus than for confrontation. This is both a legacy of the spirit of the struggle and its alliances. This, at the very least will ensure that Cosatu's voice will continue to be heard, and to some extent, whatever your point of view, this a good thing. After all, democracy is all about opposition, and that is what any government needs. It helps to keep them on their toes. Whether or not the particular note of opposition strikes a sympathetic chord with your own political views is somewhat of a different, and possibly less interesting, discussion.

So, in terms of all this, Cosatu is still a political voice, and will continue to be so for the immediate future. It is however, a minority shareholder in terms of its stature. If the federation made a realistic assessment of its clout, it would admit that whilst it can shout the odds, it can't stop the train - that is if the driver is resolute enough. There are times in the recent past, when government, as an employer, has been as red-blooded in its approach to unionism as any capitalist member of the country club. How about unilateral implementation of wage increases as an example.

So what of the future?

Firstly, it would be wrong to believe that we will be union free. We have a strong component of union membership throughout the economy, and the sharpness with which employees protect their rights will not go away. It is even arguable that the culture of employee rights is so well established, that it does not need a labour movement to keep it alive.

On the shop floor, the future of the union movment will be a function of how well they cater for the changing and more sophisticated needs of their membership, who will increasingly need consumer services and life skills. As the industrial mix shifts away from the smokestack industries to services, so will the needs of its membership change. This is not to say that we will not have heavy industry, and that it will not be unionised, but rather to suggest that the future of employment and growth will concentrate in smaller employment units and more skilled services. After all, look at the gold mining industry. It was our economic dynamo - alas, no longer.

Oddly enough, looking into the political crystal ball, it is not impossible that the day might come when the current government will be wooing their old comrades in arms. If you tend to take the view that the next credible challenge to government will be a populist movement to the left, then government will need all the friends that it can get, and might be well pleased with the support of its old marching companions.

So, to sum it all up, is the labour movement dead? Certainly not - it may just be sleeping. Will it maintain and enhance its shop floor clout while moving forward? In the rapidly changing world of 21st century employment practice it may never enjoy the same raw power as it did in the past. Its value to its members may well lie in how well it seizes its role as trusted friend and advisor, perhaps even providing benefits such as educational advice and assistance and travel services.

Politically speaking? Here is the irony. Yes, Cosatu has political potential, which may well at the moment be in inverse proportion to government's will to resist it, but even if this whimsically metaphysical fact is so, it is important. As long as they are in the loop, they have a view, and they will express it, and this, overall, is positive. Circumstances might well arise however, when the ability to deliver a coherent constituency, such as organised labour, might be a vital consideration for government. Stranger things have happened.

I should not be in the least surprised if both parties have a sharp understanding of this.

Latest figures from the Department of Labour, captured in its 2000 Annual Report, point to overall union membership in the region of 3,5 million - an increase from 3,3 million in 1999. However the Department stresses that this is an approximation only because of a lack of updated information from many unions.

Membership figures are submitted to the department by individual unions on a basis of self-reporting. Because they are not current the total for 2000 may be over-estimated and a figure of 3,2 million closer to the mark.

Retrenchments have continued unabated across most sectors of the economy and have primarily affected the labour intensive mining and manufacturing sectors and impacted directly on union density. Further erosion is anticipated in the wake of global economic factors and related uncertainty.

Since its formation in 1985, Cosatu's membership increased threefold and it is currently the country's largest and most powerful union federation, followed by Fedusa and Nactu. Although formal sector job losses have led to a fall off in membership in recent years, this has largely been offset by growth in the public sector.

However, with the government's privatisation programme underway and any lack of any meaningful job creation in the offing, Cosatu's strength will be further diminished. Latest reports indicate a drop from 1,8 million members in 2001 to a current estimate of 1,6 million.