If a union can determine a director-general’s stay in office, what’s to stop it from going further, asks Sipho Masondo.
‘Union-bashing’ is a phrase readers will have encountered over the past two weeks, following revelations in this newspaper that renowned academic and Umalusi head Professor John Volmink’s final jobs-for-cash report revealed widespread and endemic corruption in the filling of vacancies in the education sector.
Granted, there are cases in which unions are bashed unfairly, but more often than not, unions such as teachers’ alliance Sadtu invoke the time-worn “union-bashing” refrain as a pejorative tactic to divert attention from those calling them to account for how they deploy their power.
In its submission to Volmink, Sadtu accuses the professor of making baseless findings without a shred of evidence to support his conclusions.
Among other findings, Volmink submitted that cadre deployment by unions – and Sadtu in particular – weakened the education system.
The union protested against findings that it wields considerable power – to the extent of deciding which senior officials are appointed to which offices, and how long they stay there.
You do not need to be a rocket scientist to gauge Sadtu’s political clout, given its more than 260 000 members and monthly income of R18 million-plus.
In most cases, though, the union’s real power is concentrated in branch, regional and provincial leaders who have access to Sadtu’s rank and file in schools and can activate them to strike, protest or demonstrate at any time.
These leaders use such tactics in an underhand manner to pressure circuit and district managers and heads of provincial departments who refuse to toe the line or cooperate with the union’s demands.
The strategy is always the same: union bosses approach the circuit or district manager or provincial head with a list of demands for such things as tenders, the reservation of jobs or the promotion of certain comrades.
If the manager plays hardball, union bosses follow up with brinkmanship, threatening to strike for frivolous reasons.
If this fails, they put the manager on notice and up the ante with open hostilities. Usually, these involve demonstrations, sit-ins and disruptions in the manager’s office. Managers, in turn, are often faced with the tough choice of yielding to these demands or losing their jobs.
In 2014, Sadtu bosses in KwaZulu-Natal launched a spirited offensive against Ilembe district director Thembelihle Vilakazi and his Ugu district counterpart, Mfundo Sibiya.
They resisted the onslaught, but Sadtu has not given up on removing the two.
That the union’s powers lie in the provinces, regions and branches does not mean that the mother body is limp.
Sadtu’s national office tends to exert its influence during collective bargaining seasons. Such is the union’s influence that it can decide if a director-general stays or goes.
In 2014, the union demonstrated this by evicting the basic education department’s then director-general, Bobby Soobrayan, from office.
This followed the union’s 2013 demands that Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga and Soobrayan leave office for a slew of reasons, including their “refusal to implement collective bargaining decisions”.
When things got too heated, Motshekga appeased Sadtu by delivering Soobrayan’s head to the union.
She suspended him and several investigations into his conduct were initiated. He was cleared of all charges and returned to work, only to be “redeployed” three months later.
The week before Soobrayan was redeployed, a senior administrator in Motshekga’s office told me what was about to happen, saying that Sadtu had to be appeased to restore normality to the sector.
This was a seminal juncture in Sadtu’s existence: the union had used its influence to uproot a director-general – a first in South Africa’s union history.
This watershed moment could have been what influenced its enterprising branch, regional and provincial leaders to start operating like quasi-mafia outfits.
No other union in this country can lay claim to having forced a director-general out of office. Even metalworkers’ union Numsa, with its superior numbers of well over 340 000 members, can only dream of ejecting a director-general.
Sadtu’s formidable powers also derive from its vantage position in the tripartite alliance: It is the only affiliate of labour federation Cosatu to be found in every corner of the country and in every ANC branch.
This gives the ANC a powerful and well-organised campaign resource during elections. It is for this reason that the ANC will have no incentive to mess with Sadtu.
While some of Sadtu’s leaders have captured provinces for personal gain by influencing who gets positions and tenders, the mother body’s lethal grip over the system is blocking much-needed reforms.
The union has unbridled veto powers, which it uses to reject laws, policies and regulations it does not want.
These powers have been amassed through winning small but telling victories at the Education Labour Relations Council.
So resistant is Sadtu to reform that the union even blocks policies that would not necessarily affect its members adversely. A case in point is Sadtu’s rejection of Motshekga’s proposal to implement a biometric clocking system to monitor teachers’ comings and goings.
Other reforms that Sadtu has successfully blocked include testing teachers’ and principals’ competencies, the periodic evaluation of teachers, performance contracts for principals, performance-linked pay, making education an essential service and the introduction of inspectors to monitor the delivery of the curriculum.
Sadtu’s denial of some of its members’ wrongdoings rings hollow in the face of research which shows that worldwide, most education unions are the same.
Sadtu has good company in US labour unions such as the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, and in Mexico’s National Coordinator of Education Workers.
These unions have striking similarities. Over and above wielding astonishing powers, all run the education systems in their respective countries.
And all reject proposed progressive reforms.
In addition, Mexico’s above-mentioned union has members who sell jobs for cash – union bosses have admitted as much.
Teachers affiliated to this union also reserve teaching jobs for their children to inherit.