A union key to a really democratic future

| Terry Bell
Terry Bell

The bloodbath at Lonmin’s Marikana mine served to alert more of the public to aspects of feuding and tension that have been ongoing for years and not only at Lonmin and in the mining industry generally. In particular it has highlighted the stresses, strains and battles for power and position within the trade union movement and opened up a number of debates about the way forward.

Trade unions comprise perhaps one of the most important groups if South Africa is to emerge from the present economic and social crisis as a truly democratic and united entity. Another crucial entity is the religious communities. Together with the unions, they make up the largest networks of community organisation in the country and both are in the Marikana spotlight.

Through such bodies, organised and united, and within the framework of the Bill of Rights, democratic control could be extended and strengthened. The tradition of unions is after all — however much distorted over time — intensely democratic. And equal rights and egalitarianism tend to be preached by all religions.

But both of these mass organisations need to divorce the sectarian interests they harbour in order to best serve the best interests of the majority. This may require some intense introspection and open and transparent debate that is still, by and large, lacking.

The Anglican bishops of Pretoria and Natal, Jo Seoka and Rubin Phillip have pointed out that to see the tragedy at Lonmin in isolation from the other, almost daily, upheavals around the country would be a mistake; they all stem from similar causes. All unions need to join this chorus because the desperate poverty among many miners and their families is the same desperate poverty that afflicts millions, mainly in the rural areas and squatter camps of South Africa.

Unfortunately, that most laudable principle of labour, worker unity, is all too often being touted by sectarians claiming to providing the only true way forward. They undermine democratic systems and usually defy another principle of labour: never lie to the workers.

However, the reason that this is happening should not be surprising: many trade unions today are big businesses and function accordingly. Investment companies play a part in this, but are not the sole reason.

Within government-allied Cosatu, union positions are also seen as stepping stones to political positions and power. As the federation’s general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi noted this week: “Union leaders are cultivating the possibility of attaining the highest office and not cultivating the workplace.”

So, much like government ministers, mine managers and captains of industry, such union leaders have an interest in not admitting responsibility for any avarice, arrogance, neglect or stupidity. They are in the business of burnishing their images, proclaiming the most laudable of motives while often using the most highly dubious of methods.

They wish to protect their positions and do so by often fudging their earnings and benefits while professing dedication to the workers and the working class. However, this is a fairly recent development within modern South African unionism.

Twenty-five years ago, there existed a strong rank and file demand that union leaders earn no more than the highest paid union member. Pay increases to the executive were also to be linked to those of the workers. In several cases, this was applied in practice at a time when wages were low and union memberships were still growing.

Today, South Africa boasts one of the highest rates of unionism anywhere and, as a rule, trade union subscriptions amount to 1 per cent of a member’s wage. So, if an average wage is R4 000 a month, each member contributes R40.

The biggest union in the country, is the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) with a claimed 300 000 membership. If the R40 contribution applied, this would mean a subscription income of R12 million every month or R144 million a year.

Unions that recruit more highly skilled workers — the National Union of Metalworkers is a good example — enjoy a higher per capita income, with average wages for the claimed 216 652 members in excess of R6 000 a month. At a conservative estimate of R60 a month for subscriptions, this gives a monthly income of just short of R13 million.

Against this background, the incomes of union officials are also often not made readily available to members. NUM, for example, has instituted an internal inquiry to try to discover who leaked information about the recent R44 000 a month pay rise to general secretary Frans Baleni.

The level of subscription income, often bolstered by funding from investment companies which, say critics, exploit other workers in the name of workers, allows for often handsome pay packages for trade union leaders. In some cases, this also filters down — an example of the trickle down theory of liberal economics — to shop stewards and hand-picked acolytes.

The chosen few among the lower ranks tend to aspire to the higher echelons and are usually the delegates to various conferences and workshops. Gone are the days of meetings in community halls with tea and sandwiches for sustenance; conference centres and three and four-star hotels are the venues, accompanied by gifts that go well beyond the traditional T-shirts.

In this environment it is scarcely surprising that members of some established unions turn to other unions that promise a return to democratic norms or offer better service. Increasingly, however, many workers express disillusionment with all unions.

This general disillusionment seems to be a strong current among strikers at Lonmin and one that various political groupings — along with the demagogic Julius Malema — are attempting to capitalise on. Like street corner evangelists of earlier days, they promise pie in the sky by and by, in the hope of winning the power of labour to their cause.

As a result, some union leaders have realised that this is the time to work toward establishing unity and not to indulge in sectarian feuding. But that will require a major shake-up throughout the movement.

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TOPICS:  Labour unions

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