Cosatu rules over a shrinking pool

Dwindling numbers have seen rising competition between the unions. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

Dwindling numbers have seen rising competition between the unions. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

South Africa's traditionally strong trade unions are facing a number of challenges. From the emergence of non-aligned unions, such as the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) in the mining sector and more recently the National Transport Movement at national carrier SAA, to a decline in union representation in the workforce and a drop in the number of bargaining councils in recent years.

The use of bargaining councils declined by 39% between 1996 and 2011, and the number of individuals registered with a trade union as a proportion of employed people went down from 31% in 1994 to 23.3% in 2010, according to the South African Survey 2012, released by the South African Institute for Race Relations. Data was taken from the labour department and Statistics South Africa.

But some sectors of the labour movement are bucking the trend. Cosatu's affiliate membership grew by 19% between 2006 and 2012 to reach nearly 2.2-million members, according to its 11th congress secretariat report released last year. Its penetration was highest in the mining and quarrying sector at 78% and second highest in the public sector – at 60% in community, social and personal services and 56% in electricity, gas and water supply, according to the trade union federation.

Some small, non-aligned unions such as Solidarity have also seen similar membership growth from 37 000 to about 140 000 in the past 10 years, according to its deputy general secretary, Dirk Hermann.

Cosatu's spokesperson, Patrick Craven, attributed its growth to the "strong, public and militant stance" that Cosatu had taken on a wide range of issues including e-tolling.

But he questioned the evidence that union representation was on the decline. He said, although that was the case internationally, Cosatu was not aware of a local decline.

Frans Baleni, general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), the largest Cosatu affiliate with more than 310 000 members, agreed. Developed countries had seen declines in unionisation because of an ageing workforce and the attrition of union numbers as older workers retired.

Job creation Jonathan Snyman, a researcher at the South African Institute for Race Relations, said the financial crisis of 2008 and extensive job losses had contributed to the declines in membership numbers, and a rise in unemployment combined with the slow pace of job creation had aggravated it. "Unions have lost through unemployment while South Africa has experienced jobless growth," he said.

The decline in bargaining councils could be explained by the amalgamation of many of those at regional level, Baleni said. But the labour movement was working to establish national bargaining councils with sub-sectors for each industry.

The total number of trade union members in the country was slightly more than three million by 2012, according to the department of labour. The Federation of Unions of South Africa (Fedusa) and the National Council of Trade Unions reported membership figures of 362197 and 139726 respectively.

The membership of some Cosatu affiliates, such as South African Clothing and Textile Workers' Union, declined, which Craven attributed to the effects of the financial crisis and the emergence of labour broking and outsourcing.

More than half of Cosatu members earned R5 000 a month or more, according to the secretariat report. Its best-paid members were in public service professions such as education, health and policing.

Loane Sharp, an Adcorp labour economist, said unionisation within the state had reached "saturation point" – it was 76%, or roughly 2.15-million registered union members out of the 2.83-million workforce. v Unions were turning to the private sector to renew their membership growth but, given declining unionisation rates, they were "competing for a shrinking market". Unions had faced a growing "crisis of relevance" in different ways, he said. Independent, non-politically aligned unions were re-engineering what they offered to members to address the decline.

Macro-enterprises Solidarity, which organises predominantly among white Afrikaans workers, has emphasised the continued education and training of its members, particularly in areas where skills were scarce, according to Hermann. This was to ensure that its members would remain employable as the economy moved from one dominated by large, macro-enterprises to one reliant on smaller, skills- and knowledge-based enterprises, he said.

Sharp said that the politically affiliated unions were increasing their involvement in political campaigning on issues such as e-tolling and electricity hikes, which were not core to union activity.

But Craven said issues such as e-tolls directly affected its members because rising transport costs increased workers' cost of living. Similarly, campaigns concerning education and health were aimed at workers, who had the same rights as any individual to health services and good schools for their children.

Craven said that, although other sectors, such as manufacturing had experienced heavy job losses during the crisis, and because of outsourcing and labour broking, these factors were not as prevalent in the public sector. The South African Democratic Teachers' Union is the largest union within the state.

Dennis George, general secretary of Fedusa, attributed the high levels of union representation in the state to agency-fee agreements, which require employees who benefit from collective bargaining to pay a fee if they are not a union member. This paid for the costs of collective bargaining and had encouraged rising union membership, George said.

Bargaining council There were fewer agency-fee agreements in the private sector and the smaller unions struggled to gain recognition at bargaining council level, which had contributed to tensions between unions, George said.

Events such as Marikana and the farmworkers' strikes in the Western Cape have thrown up questions about a breakdown between union leadership and workers at grass-roots level. But that was "not 100% correct", Baleni said. Unions had proliferated in a conducive environment post-1994 and personal ambition also played a part in the rise of rival unions. The NUM had seen more than 11 former members start up their own rival trade unions.

The relative youth of workers in the NUM was also a factor. The average age of Cosatu members was 40 years, Baleni said, and 54% were between 20 and 35 years of age. Younger members were far more impatient about the pace of negotiations.

But a responsible trade union could not negotiate rapid and high wage increases if it would lead to closure of a company and job losses over time. "The relationship between trade unions and capital is a transformative in nature," Baleni said. "But it is not intended to abolish capitalism."

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