Strike wave calls for institutional innovation

2012-10-06 10:18

South Africa’s mining industry has built the cheap- ­labour system of migrant ­labour.

For this reason, many ­people, ­including Lonmin workers and their families, will be excited about the Lonmin Marikana mine’s 22% wage increase.

Those who ­survived the police shootings in ­August will feel vindicated by the settlement. However, there is more to the agreement than meets the eye.

The fact that it resulted from ­negotiations that bypassed trade ­unions presents a challenge for South Africa’s collective bargaining ­dispensation.

The Marikana settlement has now become a benchmark for workers in mining and other industries, sparking ­further strikes.

What we are witnessing is not an ordinary strike wave. Workers are not only striking against their employers, but are passing a vote of no confidence in their unions.

They are unprotected strikes, so strikers can be fired for not following labour law. But for companies it may not be practical to fire so many experienced workers.

The sheer magnitude of the strike wave throws South Africa’s entire industrial relations dispensation into disarray. We have experienced such crisis moments in the past.

Present ­dilemmas also relate to how we have responded to these ­challenges.

In 1973, spontaneous strikes started in Durban, Pietermaritzburg and Pinetown, and spread from there to other parts of the country. At the time, black workers could not strike legally and often the police violently broke strikes.

Following the 1973 strikes, activists started organising black workers into trade unions, thereby channelling popular discontent into organisations that could systematically articulate workers’ demands.

Under hostile conditions, these workers experimented with different models of trade unionism.

In contrast to the system that criminalised wage negotiations for black workers, white workers could negotiate with employers in industry-wide bodies called industrial councils.

They were represented by unions affiliated with the Trade Union Council of SA (Tucsa), staffed by union bureaucrats who often took decisions with very little membership consultation.

The emerging black unions were forced to arrange alternative collective-bargaining structures. They signed recognition agreements with companies directly and negotiated wages and conditions at a decentralised level.

This bypassed state-sanctioned ­industrial councils.

Initially, in response to this “challenge”, the apartheid state promoted non-union forms of representation for black workers.

However, the alternative collective-bargaining system became such a ­challenge for employers and the state that, in 1977, the government appointed a commission of inquiry, led by Professor Nic ­Wiehahn, to consider a response.

The Wiehahn Commission recommended that black unions be allowed to register and thereby become part of collective bargaining in industrial councils.

The aim was to institutionalise endemic workplace conflict and, in 1979, labour laws were overhauled accordingly.

Some of the emerging black unions formed the Federation of SA Trade Unions in 1979, which later joined other unions to become the Congress of SA Trade Unions­ ­(Cosatu) in 1985.

These unions were initially reluctant to register with an illegitimate state and join industrial councils. But, when they ­finally did, the overly bureaucratic Tucsa unions were no match for these worker-controlled ­unions.

Cosatu unions soon dominated the labour landscape and increasingly also the political landscape. In 1987, Cosatu adopted the Freedom Charter and used its power to support the liberation movement.

After the ANC’s election victory in 1994, reviewing labour legislation was a key priority.

The Labour Relations Act of 1995 maintained the institutional logic of the ­Wiehahn reforms, with industrial councils renamed bargaining councils.

The current wildcat strikes show that this last premise may need rethinking.

In 1994, 72% of Cosatu members surveyed said shop ­stewards were only allowed to do what members tell them to do. In 2008, this figure had declined to just 42%.

This suggests that the tradition of worker control over unions is waning.

At its recent congress, Cosatu acknowledged the growing social distance between union leaders and members.

Trade unions also struggle to organise younger workers and growing segments of non-permanent workers.

The current strike wave suggests that we may have overestimated the extent to which the Wiehahn system is able to institutionalise workplace conflict.

Like the strike wave of 1973, the events at Marikana point to the need to rethink South African industrial relations institutions.

Such a rethink would have to also investigate ways of overcoming the impact of the cheap-labour system on industrial relations today.

One way to do this would be a commission to consider the question in detail, very much like Professor Wiehahn’s team did in the 1970s.

New institutional innovations may be required to channel growing social dissent into ­coherent demands.

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