Lucien van der Walt: discussing state of the unions in South Africa

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‘Workers do not have a good story to tell’

30 Jul 2015 16:09 Sarah Evans

Between the second quarters of 2014 and 2015, union membership in South Africa decreased by 17 000 members

Levels of unionisation in South Africa remain stable relative to other countries, but union membership is on the decline.

Analysts and unionists put this down to a number of factors, including mass retrenchments in key sectors and a failure on the part of unions to organise non-permanent workers, and to keep their workers who become unemployed inside unions.

Between the second quarters of 2014 and 2015, union membership in South Africa decreased by 17 000 members.

About 3.7-million workers in South Africa are union members. This is according to the Statistics South Africa Labour Force Survey, released this week.

A survey by the South African Institute of Race Relations, released in February this year, revealed a 26 % decline in union membership between 1994 and 2014.

A perceived distance between trade unions and their workers is often cited as a key factor which drives workers away from unions, and towards cheap, private legal services such as LegalWise.

This is particularly true in the mining sector, where several mining companies are now threatening to retrench thousands of workers. Lonmin could retrench up to 6 000 workers as it restructures its operations, while Anglo American Platinum has said it will reduce its workforce in the Rustenburg area from 24 000 to 16 500 workers. Globally, Anglo American is cutting its workforce by a third. Harmony Gold is also considering retrenchments, while Kumba Iron Ore has closed one of its mines, with 1 160 workers losing their jobs.

Cosatu’s political crisis reached its apex at its special national congress in July, sealing the fate of the expelled metalworkers union Numsa, as well as former general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi.

But Cosatu’s labour market policy coordinator Patrick Phelane told the Mail & Guardian this week that if one were to take a broad view of the problem, “membership is not only declining due to the factors that are often stated”.

He was referring to the popular view that workers are leaving unions because their interests are not represented.

“Explosion” of casualised labour

Retrenchments and increasing levels of casualisation and outsourcing are central to the declining numbers, he said.

This view is shared by Igshaan Schroeder, coordinator at the Casual Workers’ Advice Office in Johannesburg. Schroeder previously told the M&G that an “explosion” of casualised labour, even in sectors not traditionally associated with non-permanent work, means that more and more workers are not unionised.

This is because non-permanent workers are difficult to organise, and unions admit their failure to come up with creative ways of unionising these workers.

However, Phelane said there has been some growth in membership, particularly in the transport sector.

Professor Lucien van der Walt, professor of sociology at Rhodes University, said that South African unions typically did not hold on to their members when they were retrenched. In this way, unemployment was compounding the problem.

“That’s a failing on the part of unions,” he said.

Van der Walt said that while any loss of membership is a cause of concern, it is still “remarkable” how sustained the levels of unionisation have remained in South Africa in spite of mass retrenchments in many sectors.

He said that outside of industries such as agriculture, union membership is sometimes as high as 40% of the workforce.

He said the trend is for unions to shed members in industries which are facing job cuts, such as mining.

Organise the unorganised

While mining is certainly in trouble, Phelane and Van der Walt agree that the retail sector, with its high rate of casualisation and outsourcing, is bleeding.

Phelane said, “We have to organise. We just have to come up with new ways of recruiting members. We also have to identify where enterprises are being created. We need to organise the unorganised.”

Van der Walt said that this was not just happening in the private sector.

“In large parts of the public sector there is also large attrition of jobs,” he said. This is a sector where Cosatu has tended to grow its membership thanks to large public-sector unions.

But it is also a sector where labour is increasingly outsourced.

“For example, you’ll find a police station using a private security company, or government institutions that use private cleaning companies,” he said.

Outsourcing “fractures the workforce,” said Van der Walt.

In this regard, an example could be made of Wits University, which has faced heavy criticism for its outsourcing of labour.

Wits’ vice chancellor Adam Habib has previously said that insourcing support services at the university was crucial to transforming the institution, as outsourced labourers were often “grossly exploited and sometimes abused”.

But Habib said the university did not have the funds to insource these services.

Van der Walt said the result of this fractured workforce was that there were many different negotiating platforms.

So cleaning staff negotiated with the cleaning company, and security services negotiated with private security companies.

“This makes it harder to unionise these workers,” he said.

Phelane says there are around 235 000 workers who are not organised in the metals sector. This is a sector where upstart the Liberated Metalworkers Union of South Africa (Limusa) is now competing with the country’s biggest union, Numsa. Limusa is now part of Cosatu, Numsa’s former home.

Phelane said that besides that opportunity, Cosatu recognised that it had to find ways to organise workers in the informal sector.

“It is very, very difficult to organise those workers. But it is not impossible,” he said.

Castro Ngobese, Numsa spokesperson, told the M&G that the union’s membership had grown over the last three years, from about 290 000 members in 2013 to well over 360 000 members.

Ngobese attributes this to “quality services”, but also Numsa’s decision to expand its membership base along the value chain, “because of the way the industry is changing”.

This resulted in Numsa organising workers outside of its traditional, manufacturing base – something that irked Cosatu with its policy of “one union, one sector”.

“Some of the new members that we’ve received are not from our traditional base. They are from sectors like transport, aviation, where workers are disgruntled with the service they get from their previous unions,” Nbobese said.

Ngobese says Numsa faces a threat in the steel industry, where mass retrenchments are looming.

He said the union is looking at ways to mitigate against this.

As Cosatu admits, another union weakness is the movement’s failure to recruit workers on short term contracts, or “casual” workers.

Winning, delivering

This speaks to a need for unions to get better at organising, and to develop new methods of organising in general.

Van der Walt cites Numsa as an example of where this has been achieved with some success.

“Numsa is expanding the boundaries of who it can unionise. The other thing is what attracts people to a union is that there’s a record of winning and delivering.

“NUM lost a huge amount of members in platinum, as it was seen as distant, corrupt, and too close to power. I think NUM is improving though after the shock it got with Amcu.

“When it comes to organising, Numsa is far more militant and successful,” he said.

Compared with other countries, like Zimbabwe, where unions are being “slaughtered” by massive restructuring, as well as the political environment, and the US, where unionization is decline, Van der Walt said it is also true that union membership in South Africa is stagnant.

“This is a sign that unless the unions begin to find ways to organise workers who are employed in other types of ways, they will not grow.”

However Van der Walt says reform is not impossible.

For example, the first trade union federation to be formed in South Africa, the Federation of South African trade unions, was formed in 1979, following the 1973 strike wave in Durban and Pinetown.

“The union federation was formed during an extremely repressive government regime. It was a time when workers could be fired on the spot for wearing the wrong T-shirt,” said.

And so the challenge for unions was “more a political question, of unions developing strategies of organising the broader working class”, he said. This includes the unemployed, workers who are not employed through traditional means, and workers in the informal sector.

Ngobese said that for unions to remain relevant, they must remember that workers can walk away from them at any time, and so their issues must be paramount.

“Unions must focus more on workers’ issues, as opposed to being politicians’ lackeys, going around talking about the “good story to tell”. Workers do not have a good story to tell, he said, referring to the ANC’s 2014 election slogan.

Ngobese said that union’s alignment to political parties was hurting workers.


Sarah Evans is a Mail & Guardian news reporter

About Lucien van der Walt
I teach at Rhodes University, the Eastern Cape. I’m South African, born and bred. I am currently also involved in union education and have a background in social movement and left-wing activism, the Workers’ Library and Museum, the Anti-Privatisation Forum, and the National Health and Allied Workers Union (NEHAWU). I’ve presented papers at more than 120 conferences and workshops, published in key journals like 'Capital and Class' and 'Labor History', have co-edited 3 journal specials (these on global labour history, African labour, and unions in the Global South), and written well over 130 other articles, papers and entries. I was Southern Africa editor for the 2009 'International Encyclopaedia of Revolution and Protest' (Blackwell). My focus has been on South Africa, but I have also done research in Zambia and Zimbabwe. I won the 2008 international 'Labor History' thesis prize, and the 2008/2009 Council for the Development of Social Science Research prize for best African dissertation, for my PhD thesis on South African anarchism, syndicalism and black militants. I have several books, including 'Negro e Vermelho: anarquismo, sindicalismo revolucionário e pessoas de cor na África Meridional nas décadas de 1880-1920,' 'Anarchism and Syndicalism in the Colonial and Postcolonial World, 1880-1940: the praxis of national liberation, internationalism, and social revolution' (co-edited with Steve Hirsch, Brill, 2010/ 2014) and 'Black Flame: the revolutionary class politics of anarchism and syndicalism' (co-written with Michael Schmidt, AK Press 2009).

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