Negotiate is the way forward for unions

2011-08-16 00:00

THE editorial of August 5, points out that strikes are not an appropriate way of resolving wage disputes given the high level of unemployment in the country, the state of the economy and the need for South African businesses to be competitive. There is no doubt that strikes do not benefit the country as a whole and certainly do not help with job creation. Unfortunately, in South Africa, management and trade unions have become locked into a confrontational and drawn-out bargaining process. It invariably starts off with the trade union demanding an excessive increase (say 15%) and the management offering an obviously unacceptable low increase (say five percent) then the two parties play the bargaining game in which they make small concessions until they reach an agreement that is predictably somewhere near the middle. If they can’t agree, the dispute is usually referred to a bargaining council or the CCMA and if there is still no agreement the union might resort to strike action.

So what alternatives are there? The government’s New Growth Plan suggests that all workers should automatically be granted a wage increase of, say, two percent above inflation each year. It’s an eloquent solution but is unlikely to be accepted by trade unions because it would largely eliminate their reason for existence. The editorial suggests that managers and trade unions should rather use lateral thinking to resolve disputes, which is also a good suggestion, but simply thinking laterally will not be enough. The answer seems to be the joint decision-making approach that is used successfully by some Nordic countries. If this were applied in South Africa both management and trade unions would move from their old-fashioned souk-style bargaining to the more sophisticated joint decision-making approach that involves a high level of co-operation. This is not going to be easy because, a) the bargaining approach has been practised for more than a century and is part of trade union culture, b) many individuals involved in negotiations haven’t been trained in the necessary thinking skills and c) the Labour Relations Act (LRA) entrenches bargaining as a negotiating technique. For example, it talks of “collective bargaining” and sets up bargaining councils.

Joint decision-making is not a new concept in South Africa because the LRA provides for workplace forums to become involved in joint decision-making with management, but such forums must be established at the initiative of the trade unions and since there is no incentive for trade unions to establish them, very few exist. If the government were serious about creating a more constructive labour relations environment they could amend the LRA by replacing the term “bargaining” with “negotiating”, scrapping workplace forums and encouraging joint decision-making and problem-solving between trade unions and management. This would provide a legal basis for bringing about the change as well as promoting employee participation in decision-making in the workplace, which is one of the declared purposes of the LRA.

However, this legal change could take years, so management and trade unions should take the initiative, change their mind-sets and apply joint decision-making and problem solving to come up with win-win solutions. To start with they would find it helpful to learn analytical and systems-thinking techniques, which incorporate lateral thinking and form the basis for this more creative and constructive approach.

 

 

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