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Trade Unions

05 June 2012, 14:40

In 1894, Sidney Webb stated that a trade union "is a continuous association of wage earners for the purpose of maintaining or improving the conditions of their employment”. This is spot on – some things don’t change in 117 years. However, it seems that the roles of trade unions are now being blurred. Who are the unions protecting or helping? Are they helping? Finally, are the trade unions doing more good than bad?

In essence, the power of a trade union lies within its collective bargaining. It’s the workers getting together with one powerful voice to achieve a common goal. Most often, this bargaining is effected by a scary 6 letter word; strike. We know all about those! South African strike season. Season. Where else around the world can we look to find a time of the year devoted to striking? Yup, no-where. Are these strikes warranted? Are the strikes fair? Should we be having these strikes at all? 
Being able to strike is a human right. I don’t think anyone contends the theoretical value of a strike but there are many other factors to consider. But first, a history lesson and a look at why striking is indeed your right.

The first evidence of a strike dates back to ancient Egypt when tomb makers frightened Egyptian authorities into a pay rise. Strikes became increasingly important during the industrial revolution due to the need for mass labour. It was only in 1969 when the United Nations adopted the “International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights” that striking became a right. Why is this big deal? Well, it adds back some semblance of balance in the working world – otherwise there are just tons of slaves working for one man. Striking gives power back to people; it brings back humanity. Collective bargaining pits man versus collective man – equality.

It’s not easy for us to comprehend the magnitude of a strike. For instance – if unions want a 10% increase and the company is only willing to pay an 8% increase, why not just up it by 2%? Well, as you know, 2% of a massive expense is, well, a massive expense! For most people reading this, a strike is something they see in the news; you’re sitting pretty with a healthy job contract but you have to take a step back and consider your situation if you were part of a union.
Strikes in South Africa range from miners to teachers to nurses to bus drivers – we’ve got it all. One thing that these mass groups have in common is that their value (collectively) is way higher than their wages bill (collectively). Unions (in general) seem to be asking for an increase above inflation. What does this mean? Simply, the workers want a real increase – not just in line with inflation. Considering that these are some of the lowest earning people in our country, a real increase doesn’t really seem that unfair? Keep in mind that things like medical aid contributions and bonus cheques don’t usually accrue to these workers.
So, thus far, we can conclude that striking is fair and even an increase above inflation seems to be fair. So, unions are doing a good job? Where does it all go wrong?

Well, to start, consider this: due to the strikes normally being dragged out as long as they do, the workers gain nothing (in monetary terms) from these strikes and indeed if they go on long enough stand to lose money. This is because when striking, you don’t get paid. So, any increase you get (even above inflation) is void by the time spent dancing; striking. This is a lose/lose situation. The employer does not benefit as he loses production and it doesn’t benefit the worker as he is where he was before the strike.

So, these strikes don’t seem to make sense; they seem to be a neutral event for the worker and damaging to the employer who not only loses production but his payroll costs increase. There’s no winner.

Then, there’s the side of South African strikes which leaves the objective observer with a horrible taste in their mouth. So often we watch as strikes go from bad to worse to just plain ugly. The result is that the strikers alienate the general public. There’s a lot less pressure lifted off the big boss when the whole country changes its stance to stand behind him. The alienation process takes the form of violent action, unnecessary violent action. The most recent incidence is in Cape Town when municipal workers looted and destroyed street vendors’ stalls and intimidated the general public.

You’re better off banging your head against a brick wall covered with metal spikes. Striking, by itself makes a statement. There is absolutely no need for the strikers to take it upon themselves to cause general unrest and destroy private and/or public property. There is no need and these people should be dealt with in accordance with the law.
The union doesn't condone this action and often incites and initiates the violence. There is even inter-union intimidation if a member does not want to strike. This is completely unacceptable and infringes on constitutional rights – the unions are amiss in their ways and it’s dangerous.

Another huge criticism of unions is that they protect their own and bugger everyone else. Who’s everyone else? Outsider workers, consumers of the goods or services produced, and the shareholders of the unionized business; everyone else. There’s no better example than the events in Newcastle, South Africa, where unemployment sits at a staggering 60%. Textile factories in Newcastle used to employ over 16 000 people and today it’s no more than 7 000 people due to the pressures put in these factories by who? Unions. In May 2010 the union embarked on a "clampdown campaign" to enforce adherence to the bargaining council's minimum wages – the result? More factories being closed and more jobs being lost.

Now, obviously I’m not against having a minimum wage but we have to put things in context. The factory workers in Newcastle have no other option and have explicitly stated that they would rather work for less than minimum wage than no wage at all. If factory costs increase anymore, the factory closes and Newcastle’s unemployment increases. It’s an unfortunate set of circumstances but it is reality. So, we have the unions taking away jobs?

In South Africa we have one of the biggest discrepancies between what the man on top earns compared to the man at the bottom. Keeping in mind that the man on top comes from a previously advantaged situation and the man on the bottom from a previously disadvantaged place, we have to do something to close the gap – or else it’s just going to widen. Trade unions do have a place in our country, they must have a place as the voice of the workers but this must include all workers. Trade unions should be responsible and even held accountable for the actions of their members as there is a right way and a wrong way to achieve goals. It will be a good day when strikes in South Africa are short, peaceful and for the benefit of the greater good.

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