Ignoring the fact that our labour relations work
Date Released: Wed, 16 October 2013 11:40 +0200
Not for the first time, a vast gulf has opened up between the country in which we live and the one in many people’s heads.
In the wake of BMW’s statement that its South African operation lost a new model because of the motor components strike and an International Monetary Fund report partly blaming industrial action for below-par growth, the air is again thick with lamentations about the damage strikes are said to do to the economy.
We have heard all of this before. But that we are hearing it this year means that most of us have not noticed one of the success stories of this year — that our labour relations system has shown, despite dire predictions to the contrary, that it is up to the task of handling conflict in our workplaces.
As this will sound strange to people who have convinced themselves that we are overwhelmed by strikes, look at the evidence. Last year, after the Marikana killings, we were told that the bargaining system was collapsing as worker militancy threatened to hold the economy hostage.
There was good reason to believe we were headed for a very rough bargaining season this year.
Conflict on the mines, in transport and on the farms signalled that the gap between what workers feel they need and employers are willing to pay was widening dangerously.
The costs of our failure to deal with poverty and inequality were hidden when the global economy was healthy, but the party is over. Workers are battling to repay loans, which enabled them to feed jobless dependants or to maintain the standard of living that earns respect in this society, or both, and employers are insisting that they cannot afford the ensuing wage demands.
On the mines, pressure was enhanced because the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) had recruited thousands of National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) members by promising that it could win workers a better deal. It seemed inevitable that Amcu would have to call a lengthy strike to show it could achieve what it promised and that the NUM would have to do the same lest it continue to lose members. And in the back of some minds were fears of another public-sector strike.
Given all of this, the performance of the bargaining system has been remarkable. Yes, we had strikes, but those on the mines were very short, defying all expectations. Those in industry have not reached anywhere near the expected levels. There were few reports of strike violence, possibly because it becomes more likely the longer strikes last and most strikes were quickly over.
So the system works. It might operate oddly at times as unions demand huge increases and then happily settle for modest raises. But it settles most labour disputes. Last year’s breast-beating has been revealed for the hysteria it was: workers continue to be represented by unions, which negotiate compromises with employers. This is one of our key assets.
So why doesn’t the debate recognise this? Because prejudices about workers and unions remain deep-rooted. The way in which strikes are covered by our media contributes to this.
Specialised labour reporting seems dead. One of the casualties is that media are no longer willing to interview strikers to find out their side of the story. At most, they will interview union leaders, who make stock statements about workers’ need for more money but add nothing to understanding why people strike.
It seems likely that, if anyone did bother to talk to strikers, they might tell a different story. They may point out that, during strikes, workers lose pay, which they need, and the decision to withdraw labour is not easy. And they may also point out that, as the rise in unsecured lending suggests, they are struggling to meet their obligations.
It is vital that these stories are told not because they would show that workers are right and employers wrong. Besides telling both sides of the story, they would probably show us that the reason we have strikes is not because unions and their members are greedy and irresponsible, but because there are real pressures on workers’ pay, which are symptoms of weaknesses in the economy.
If that were understood, unions and the bargaining system should come to be seen as what they often are — not a vehicle for troublemakers feathering their nests at the expense of everyone else but protections against the conflicts we have to face because our economy cannot yet balance demands for a fairer society with ensuring that the market system flourishes.
Research tells us that without unions and our bargaining system, conflict in the economy would be far worse: where unions collapse in workplaces, the result is more chaos, not more production. Last year’s events on the mines confirmed this.
If all of this were allowed to sink home, we might spend more time discussing how to protect our bargaining system than trashing one of our core assets.
Friedman is director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy.
BY STEVEN FRIEDMAN
Article Source: Business Day