A middle class act

2012-05-12 10:28

Cosatu’s anti-toll march revealed some interesting facts about its support

As we all threw a toll tantrum in March, there were gasps of amazement that Cosatu had managed to get the middle class to march.

Cameras lingered with amusement on images of white executives and coloured aunties joining the march, gripping placards and mastering the steps of the toyi-toyi.

But the truth that may be more profound is that Cosatu is now a middle-class federation.

It is no secret that the anti-toll part of its march dominated the second theme of anti-labour broking.

Could it perhaps have been because most Cosatu members now own cars and would have felt the effect of the toll fees on the monthly budget more acutely than the elite?

Teachers, nurses, civil servants and other state employees now comprise the most powerful part of the Cosatu membership.

The public service unions have eclipsed the private sector ones in the hierarchy of who holds union power.

In 2008, the most significant growth for the federation was in its public sector affiliates, including Nehawu, the teachers union Sadtu, the municipal union Samwu and the police and prisons union Popcru.

While the mining affiliate NUM is still the largest, these figures were a snapshot from 2008. South Africa missed out on the most recent commodities boom and manufacturing is in decline, so there is every chance that the pattern has been accelerated.

A fascinating study for the Uasa federation by economist Mike Schussler shows how the employed enjoy relatively good living conditions at an average salary of R13 200 with a lower tax average than in wealthy countries.

Schussler reveals that public sector semi-skilled employees and those who work for the parastatals earn way more than their private sector counterparts.

There can be little doubt that this is the direct outcome of successful union bargaining in the public sector.

Cosatu has created a middle class where one did not exist in the 18 years of democracy. That it is funded by the public purse (funded in turn by you and I, the taxpayers) is neither here nor there.

What is remarkable is how a federation that started as decidedly blue collar has altered the identity and social position of its members so quickly and so effectively that it could turn the public policy of tolling on its head.

With taxis stripped from the tax base, the impact would have been borne by middle-class commuters.

In addition, it shows how good union negotiations can have an effect on the income trajectory of an entire sector of workers. This fuelled a consumption boom and helped lift South Africa to become a middle-income nation.

Of course, there is a downside, and that is reflected in the employment numbers out this week.

The tick-up in job-finders noted in the final quarter of 2011 did not hold and the numbers are back down, notably on the back of sliding in the private sector.

The public sector continues to be a nett job creator. But here’s the rub, according to Schussler: “government and state-owned enterprises do not really employ enough unskilled people – probably because they are too expensive”.

And productivity is too low to give a significant boost to the competitiveness of our economy.

Good unionism is crowding out the unskilled and keeping them out.

This helps to explain why many workers employed by labour brokers did not join the march and why this theme was almost completely flushed out from the gob-smacking March protest.

It is worth quizzing Cosatu hard on whether it wants labour broking outlawed to protect its rump of middle-class members who may otherwise have to compete with the newcomers, or whether it wants to protect the bottom end of vulnerable workers employed in awful conditions.

The answer is not at all clear.

Neither is the federation’s position on a youth wage subsidy, which appears to be an effort to protect a labour elite.

But how are the country’s three million unemployed young people going to get into the economy if not by relatively low-paying, entry-level jobs?

“The economy cannot afford to employ the unskilled. The unskilled form the biggest chunk of the adult population and the unemployed and they have very little hope of employment.”

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