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Cosatu's survival tactic: Target laws and minimum wage

Matuma Letsoalo, Charles Molele

Senior Congress of South African Trade Union leaders have called for drastic labour law changes, including the amendment of the Labour Relations Act.

Unions affiliated to Cosatu are not ready to wave the white flag just yet despite the increase in splinter organisations. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

They also called for setting the minimum wage higher than that of the Lonmin Marikana settlement reached this week, in a bid to deal with illegal strikes and prevent the formation of splinter unions.

The Lonmin strike has called the credibility of Cosatu into question, after its largest affiliate – the National Union of Mineworkers – failed to negotiate a better wage settlement, forcing thousands of members to look elsewhere, including joining the breakaway Association of Mining and Construction Union.

The Lonmin workers this week managed to force the company to increase their wages by up to 22%, a move that Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi warned could set a dangerous precedent.

In an interview this week, Fikile Majola, the general secretary of Cosatu's health union Nehawu, said the only way Cosatu could restore its integrity in the eyes of many workers and prevent the formation of splinter unions was if the federation pushed for a minimum wage in the mining industry and other key sectors of the economy.

"There is no doubt that there is populist mobilisation targeting vulnerable sectors of the economy. That campaign is going to continue. I must admit, we are concerned about splinter unions. We [Cosatu leaders] are going to spend more time on this.

"The Marikana situation will have massive ramifications across all sectors of the economy," said Majola.

He warned that wildcat strikes might result in the dismantling of the labour dispensation.

Not good for Cosatu
"It [Marikana wage settlement] says to people that they can work outside unions and use violence to meet their demands. Why would workers belong to unions if they get such massive salary adjustments? That's not good for Cosatu.

"This also sends the wrong message to service delivery protesters: that you can achieve things without leaders. Service delivery protest is going to be emboldened. That will apply to many sectors. I am deeply concerned. Cosatu needs to respond to this immediately to protect bargaining. Cosatu must agree to a minimum settlement across the board. It must be better than Marikana."

Vincent Masoga, spokesperson for the South African Transport and Allied Workers' Union (Satawu), told the M&G that renegade elements were targeting the union for illegal strikes, but that leaders were doing everything in their power to prevent this. Last month, Satawu's former president Ephraim Mphahlele quit to form a splinter union called the National Transport and Allied Workers' Union.

"We have received information that the illegal strikes that happened in Marikana, Goldfields and Anglo will spread from mining to transport, cleaning, security and the public sectors. They will target the delivery of coal to Eskom and Transnet's delivery of mineral exports," said Masoga.

To prevent members becoming disgruntled, the union had decided to stick to higher wage demands.

"We are going to make sure that we don't oppose what our members want. But, equally, we are not going to make promises that we can't deliver," said Masoga. The union was going to prioritise negotiations in the security sector in particular because it was more sensitive than the others.

Breakaway unions
"So far we have rejected the 5% offer by the employer in the security sector. Our members are demanding 10%," said Masoga.

National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) president, Cedric Gina, told the M&G that Cosatu would push for the review of the Labour Relations Act, which would make it harder to form a union. "Cosatu is taking the matter of breakaway unions very seriously. We believe that we should look at reviewing the Act because we have noticed that it has become too easy to form a union. People have grievances with their unions and a week later they are allowed to form a new one. It is unacceptable that a country of 50-million people has more than 400 unions.

"We think maybe that's the first area where we need to engage our government [in order to deal with union formation]," said Gina. "We also think we must help our affiliates in Cosatu who might have problems servicing members. We also have to address the capacity of our shop stewards to be able to represent our members correctly. Lastly, we must invest resources in ensuring that each and every shop steward of Cosatu is able to deal with issues of workers at all times."

General secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers Frans Baleni said the union would meet with the Chamber of Mines this week, with the aim of bringing forward wage negotiations in the gold, diamond and coal sectors.

He said the union was also pushing for the establishment of a bargaining forum in the platinum sector, which would allow for a minimum wage agreement.


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