In the wake of the deregistration of the Media Workers’ Association of South Africa (Mwasa), one trade union is floating the idea of forming a media bargaining council.
Information Communications and Technology Union (ICTU) spokesperson Thabang Mothelo said this week that a media bargaining council — with the backing of Sunday Independent journalist Piet Rampedi’s Forum of Journalists for Transformation (FJT) — could be on the horizon.
Bargaining councils deal with collective agreements, solve labour disputes, establish various schemes and make proposals on labour policies and laws. Statutory councils are formed by registered trade unions and employers’ organisations to manage labour disputes.
Before embarking on retrenchments, an employer must consult a bargaining council. In a media sector in which retrenchments are common, a council could be a powerful tool for the people running it.
With about 5 000 members, the ICTU is still a relatively small union. It has also historically drawn its membership from companies in the telecoms sector and only recently began making inroads in media, taking on media giant Tiso Blackstar over salary freezes and retrenchment plans at the group.
To bolster its numbers and drive the credibility of a new bargaining council, ICTU is eyeing Mwasa’s members. That union has about 3 000 members — a far cry from the 17 000 members it boasted in its heyday. Previously known as the Writers Association of South Africa, it was established after the Union of Black Journalists was banned by the apartheid government in 1977.
Mwasa general secretary Tuwani Gumani said that, prior to its deregistration (effective as of July 30), the union had indicated its willingness to transfer its members to another union, aligned to the South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu).
Mothelo said ICTU had been in talks to absorb Mwasa’s members.
But Gumani — who questioned the relevance of a bargaining council — said there are three other unions in Saftu that have members in the sector. Many of the unions in the young federation are splinter unions that have broken away from unions affiliated to trade union federation Cosatu. He said that Saftu is pursuing the principle of “one sector, one union”.
Labour registrar Lehlohonolo Molefe told the M&G that Mwasa’s registration had been cancelled because the union had failed to submit its financial statements, going all the way back to 2013.
Gumani told the M&G that Mwasa’s deregistration occurred as a result of its financial woes, as the costs of running the union “increasingly outweighed its capacity to meet growing obligations to the fast-shrinking numbers of members across the media sector”.
“Mwasa exclusively relied on membership subscription fees to fund its obligations to members, creditors and to the registrar of labour relations,” he said.
“Increasingly, the union represents victims of unfair dismissals and retrenchment. Litigation is increasingly the preferred mode of dispute resolution in this country.”
According to Gumani, Mwasa is sustaining individual cases that each involve substantial numbers of applicants, with several matters remaining unresolved before the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration and the courts, as far back as 2012.
Rampedi confirmed his support of the formation of a bargaining council. He told the M&G: “We [the Forum of Journalists for Transformation] believe that the ICTU’s initiative is noble, and deserves our unconditional support.”
He added: “The bargaining council is important in that it will ensure that, whether media businesses live or die, journalism has a life of its own. In other words, journalism as a profession must have a life of its own regardless of the dying or living of the companies to which titles belong.”
Rampedi is a divisive figure, who has recently launched a petition calling on President Cyril Ramaphosa to establish a judicial commission of inquiry into the alleged capture of the media.
“As a consequence of the media veering away, we have observed countless cases of mainstream journalists behaving like political players, serving biased news and coverage, narrative-fixing by some media ‘cabals’, doing positive spin for some and negative spin for others,” the petition reads.
Rampedi has also come up against the South African National Editors’ Forum (Sanef), accusing the forum of being complicit in the capture of the media. In the absence of strong trade unions, Sanef is the most dominant organisation in the sector. A bargaining council could challenge this dominance, but forming one would be a massive task, requiring different media groups — and both their journalists and owners — agreeing to its formation.
Sanef has launched its own independent inquiry into media credibility and ethics. In a statement, Sanef said the launch of the inquiry was “triggered by several apologies made by The Sunday Times correcting mistakes over stories such as the so-called “rogue unit” and the Cato Manor death squad stories”.
Rampedi, whose FJT was formed in 2015 as a foil to Sanef, was one of the journalists who wrote the original Sunday Times “rogue unit” report.
The current divisions in the media are “self-created and are as a result of collusion by some members of the profession with actors within the political arena”, Rampedi said.
He said the bargaining council would discourage editorial interference by media owners and help journalists “insulate themselves from political influence”.
Sanef executive director Kate Skinner said she could not comment on the proposed bargaining council, because “there is nothing on paper”.
She added that the forum does not deal directly with labour issues, but emphasised its belief in the importance of building strong unions to stave off the onslaught of retrenchments in the sector.
Mothelo said “bickering” between Sanef and the FJT could slow the unions’ efforts to form a bargaining council.
But Mwasa’s Gumani challenged the relevance of forming a bargaining council at all, especially given the domination of global tech companies over the media.
“How do you even begin to think of the concept of a bargaining council?” he asked. “What is wrong about this thought process is that there is a preoccupation with maintaining the status quo. The status quo no longer exists. So bargaining councils are not just irrelevant, they are no longer necessary.”