Inside Labour: In a rebellious mood

2014-06-02 10:00

Misunderstanding and confusion over the platinum sector pay issue persists. And much of the media is to blame for repeating, without analysis, the public relations spin of the mining companies.

This distorted version of the facts states the mining companies agreed to meet the R12?500 a month entry-level wage demand, phased in over three years and that the union rejected this.

The implication being the union wants the money without delay.

But it was worker-mandated union negotiators who first proposed the phasing in over three years. This was rejected, as was a proposal of four years to reach R12?500.

As I have mentioned before, the main sticking point is that the mining companies want to include all the usual extras to basic wages, such as holiday pay and housing allowances, in their R12?500 offer.

So it is understandable the union, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu), representing the striking miners, rejects this.

But the portrayal of the union, often personified by its high-profile president Joseph Mathunjwa, as the power opposing the companies is also a distortion.

This because Mathunjwa, the Amcu executive and the union negotiators are beholden to committees elected by the miners and, ultimately, to the worker majority.

What occurred in the platinum belt in August 2012 was a rebellion by a majority of miners, members of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), against their union leaders who, they felt, no longer served their interests. After mass desertions from the NUM following the Marikana massacre on August 16, Amcu stepped into the organisational vacuum, offering to respond to the democratic mandates of the miners.

These developments raise the question of the role of unions and their relevance in this global, crisis-ridden economic system. On the one hand, unions came into being as voluntary associations of equals and, in principal, remain as such.

In mines and factories, especially in dangerous environments, workers cooperate and rely on one another, making collective decisions because all too often their lives depend on it. This is democracy in action and it is such circumstances that gave birth to trade unions.

But distortions soon crept in to the often idealistic origins of various unions. Possessing considerable collective power, they are constant targets for manipulation by governments, politicians, big business and political parties.

These pressures, combined with the actions of ambitious individuals, have seen many unions develop into virtual clones of big business, developing a bureaucratic layer between the workers below and the employers above. Many unions have also contradicted

the fundamental principle of equality and solidarity by establishing investment companies that profit, like business anywhere, from the labour of workers.

Although these companies are invariably at arm’s length from the unions themselves, operating as separate entities, they are still linked to the unions. As such, there have been numerous allegations of official fingers in various investment company tills.

But, as the latest row in the SA Municipal Workers’ Union has revealed, there are also allegations of fingers in union tills.

And, certainly in the case of the major unions, those tills could provide lucrative pickings since the subscription income alone puts them in a league well beyond that of small businesses.

There are also issues of fiduciary responsibility and accountability. These surfaced again this week as part of another apparent attempt to discredit Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi over the sale and purchase of the federation’s headquarters. But the person directly in the firing line is Collin Matjila, now the acting CEO of Eskom, who headed Cosatu’s Kopano Ke Matla investment company when the deals were done.

But now there is a new and rebellious mood abroad in the union movement, especially since Marikana.

It seems to indicate a desire to return to the basics – to the concept of voluntary associations of equals where the leadership is not only elected but is transparent in its dealings and wholly accountable to the membership.

In the present economic climate where employers are under increasing pressure to cut costs, wages and conditions, collective protection — unions — for the sellers of labour seem vital.

But trade unions, because of their fundamentally democratic nature, can also provide a bulwark against threats to our democracy.

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