Test of unions' credibility

Union leaders are going have to rebuild their credibility the old-fashioned way. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

Union leaders are going have to rebuild their credibility the old-fashioned way. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

The established trade unions are in a vice - they repudiate the violence that won increases of up to 22% at Lonmin and the breakdown of bargaining processes, but they are under immense pressure to remain credible with their members by delivering similar gains elsewhere.

Many workers now believe violence is justified, indeed necessary. Some, notably in the transport union Satawu and the municipal workers' union Samwu, have long been willing to break heads.

Appearing tough enough to convince workers while ensuring sustainable bargaining outcomes is going require a level of honesty and boldness by union leaders that will test them to the limit. For example, they know that the Constitutional Court has held Satawu responsible for damage caused during a security guards' strike in Cape Town.

It was not enough, the court held, for union leaders to argue that it was not their members but agents provocateurs who were responsible for it. "The organisations are intimately involved in the planning, supervision and execution of the gathering, but potential victims are not. Because of this, the organisation would be in a better position than innocent victims to identify individuals or institutions which caused the violence," the court said.

This is an extremely important precedent. It will no longer be enough for union leaders to condemn the violence glibly without taking steps to end it. Brutal posturing in the streets by them and their members that leads to violence and damage courts massive liabilities - legal, financial and political.

Union leaders are going have to rebuild their credibility the old-fashioned way - by being close to workers, pushing managers hard on pay without breaking companies' ability to be profitable and avoiding ANC factionalism.

That is not an easy assignment but it is the only one on offer.

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