Johannesburg - Unions need to be more vigilant when doing their work and talk about the state of labour relations, Labour Minister Mildred Oliphant told the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) on Thursday.
"The starting point, I guess, will be to recognise that our labour relations environment has always been, and will always be, a contested terrain," she told the union at its national congress in Boksburg, east of Johannesburg.
"The balance of forces always shapes the tone of labour relations at a given point."
Oliphant said that in countries where trade unions were strong, the labour relations barometer often tilted in favour of workers and the opposite happened where trade unions were weak.
"For some of us who grew up in the tradition of a strong and vibrant Cosatu, it never crossed our minds that one day there could be any union that could compete with a Cosatu affiliate in the manner that we have observed recently."
She was referring to the mass loss of NUM membership to the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu).
'We need trade unions that are strong'
Oliphant said she was concerned that labour relations' institutional arrangements would collapse if unions became small and fragmented.
"To sustain our systems we need trade unions that are strong, not only in terms of numbers, comrades, but also in the level of sophistication."
Union density in recent years had declined from 36% in 1997 to about 24% in 2013.
This meant that 76% of workers were unorganised.
There was also the emergence of many new rival unions which were often set up by union officials who were once leaders of the same union they sought to destabilise, said Oliphant.
"Unions are focusing on the 24% of workers that are already organised and paying little or no attention to the 76% pool of the unorganised which often leads to tensions between and among the unions.
"How do you explain the fact that today, there are 23 registered labour federations, 179 registered trade unions in South Africa, yet only about 18% of workers are covered in collective bargaining of one kind or the other? This means that only 2.7 million workers out of 15.1 million workers as at end 2014 benefit from collective bargaining," she said.
Oliphant pointed out some issues which needed to be focused on by the union.
'Strikes have become a fashion statement'
She said unions were quick to call for strikes, even in cases where the action had no real potential of producing results.
"Strikes tend to be protracted, yet workers are often no better off than they would have been if the strike was somewhat shorter," she said.
"Why go out on strike for several weeks or months if the final settlement is a mere half a percent?
"Strikes that last longer than is necessary, yet you hear union leaders bragging about how long they were able to sustain a strike, with zero recognition of the post-traumatic stress that often visits members after the strike."
Oliphant said it did not seem that strikes were considered the last resort.
"Well, others are saying strikes have become a fashion statement and are often used as something to prove a point to rival unions, rather than a tool to get what members want.
"I am truly of the view that whilst it is understandable that there is some sacrifice that goes with any strike, but once the strike begins to severely hurt the very workers that it seeks to help, or when the losses far outweigh the benefits, that will be the time when the leadership needs to rethink," she said.