Tinkering with labour law no solution to conflict

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THE real problem with bargaining between employers and unions here is not the rules that govern it but the society in which it happens, which is why changing the bargaining rules will solve nothing.

Last week’s events at Lonmin’s mine at Marikana confirmed that strikes are now the key cause of negativity about our economic prospects. Like most panics, this one overstates the problem — strikes are less widespread or damaging than sentiment suggests. They are costly to workers and employers and so there is a limit to how long they last and how often they happen.

Despite that, we can all agree that our labour relations trigger too much conflict. This is why it has become fashionable to demand changes to the way bargaining happens. Suggestions range from complex proposals by labour lawyers to vague appeals to the bargaining parties to behave better. Most aim to make life difficult for unions, which receive most of the blame.

None of these proposals are likely to make conflict between employers and unions more manageable. Experience around the world shows that if workers are determined to strike, the law cannot prevent them — all it can do is to turn the strike into a crime, raising tension further.

Moralising about how much damage is done by using power to settle industrial disputes is even more futile. We have conflict because a wide gulf separates the parties; preaching will not bring them any closer together. So labour strife is a symptom of something bigger than the way the two sides bargain. Until society tackles the larger issue, serious conflict in the workplace will remain a problem.

It has become almost trite to point out that a key reason for conflict is that workers’ pay also supports the unemployed. In any economy, wages feed not only workers but their dependants. But pay packets in SA may be stretched further than in other societies — research suggests that, on average, each wage is distributed among eight or nine people.

So, while it is common to claim that bargaining between employers and unions produces cosy insider deals at the expense of the poor and unemployed, the evidence suggests the opposite. It seems increasingly likely that bargaining has been shielding large numbers of the poor and unemployed from the worst effects of their plight.

This in turn suggests that a key reason for conflict is that the gap between what workers need to feed all their dependants and what employers can afford to pay is widening. This means the pressure that society’s economic realities is placing on bargaining is becoming more difficult to bear.


There is another way in which present labour developments are a symptom of broader problems. A key cause of the pressure on unions is the gap between the pay and conditions of union officials and union members.

This is a symptom of the degree to which union office has become a route into the middle class. In a society in which a middleclass lifestyle is a status symbol, but in which few have the means to attain it, any opportunity to advance will be grabbed — at the expense of those to whom it is unavailable.


Changing the bargaining rules will not reduce the pressures on workers’ pay or the gap between the middle class and the rest. If labour conflict is a symptom of poverty and inequality, only a strategy that deals with the wider issues will reduce tension.


This means that the issue is not how unions and employers talk to each other across the bargaining table, but whether they talk to each other about these bigger problems. No economic solution will work unless it is endorsed by the major economic interests — trying to address our inequities by imposing one side’s solution on everyone else will increase conflict.

And so we need business and labour — and the government — to move beyond their sectional interests to take seriously the needs of the economy. But that does not mean a different type of labour relations — not yet. It means a willingness to negotiate compromises that will allow us to address the poverty and inequality that causes conflict while ensuring the economy continues to grow.

 Over time, this may change bargaining. If the key interests begin making deals, the harsher edges of conflict may soften. But patterns of bargaining are a consequence and not a cause of our economic difficulties.

This explains why proposals for labour law changes promise more than they can deliver. Those proposed by legal specialists suggest limited and technical changes, which won’t do much to change behaviour. Those suggested by zealots who long to close down the unions promise to trigger far greater conflict than we face now.

Both fail to see the present strikes as a symptom rather than a cause — and to see that seeking compromise solutions to the poverty and inequality that is the key reason for labour conflict is a far greater priority than tinkering with labour law.

By Steven Friedman

Friedman is director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy.

Source; Business Day