Labour Unions Need to Return to Basics

Fred Nel MPL

DA Gauteng Spokesperson for Local Government

Speech delivered during the workers’ day debate in the Gauteng Legislature

It is believed that the original trade unions started out in medieval times in Europe and were outlawed in the mid 14th century until the middle of the 19th century when unions gained political power and were able to bring about basic labour law as well as the codification of the employer employee relationship.

This was borne out of a need to ensure that workers were protected especially during the industrial revolution.

Labour unions were founded primarily to protect workers by ensuring:

* Workers were not exploited;

* Working conditions was safe;

* Workers were trained and skilled to do their jobs and advance in the workplace as they further developed their skills; and

* [They] provided a range of benefits to insure members against unemployment, ill health, old age and funeral expenses. In many developed countries, these functions have been assumed by the state; however, the provision of professional training, legal advice and representation for members is still an important benefit of trade union membership. ( Later on unions evolved and their powers expanded to include collective bargaining, the development of political influence, especially in the formulation of labour law, legal industrial action, involvement in party politics and formal participation in government processes in some countries.

Today in South Africa we see that the role of trade unions is ever evolving as they themselves became major investors in private sector companies whilst taking on various causes.

It is at this juncture that one has to pause and ask the question whether in modern society labour unions still fulfil their primary role of protecting the basic rights of workers.

It seems as if unions are becoming less and less relevant to the well-being of their members as they have shed the role of developing the skills of their workers to advance themselves in the workplace. Another responsibility taken over, rather unsuccessfully, by the state in establishing SETA’s.

Labour unions seem to be more interested in using workers as leverage in achieving their own political objectives.

The converse is also true in that union members may be using unions to obtain leverage to promote their own selfish ends.

Allow me a couple of examples of this symbiotic relationship that has the potential of wrecking our economy.

Labour unions seem to use any excuse to let their members embark on strike action in order to flex muscle with their political alliance partners. An example of such a strike was the SAMWU strike almost a year ago when, despite an agreement already being in place, SAMWU embarked on a nationwide strike crippling municipalities. One cannot help but being cynical about this effort and wonder what political concessions were negotiated behind the scenes by union leaders with their governing alliance partner, the ANC, while municipal workers had to go without pay.

It was recently reported that teachers in the Eastern Cape took leave on the first day of the new school term because they were tired from participating in a sport event. The union merely informed the department that the teachers would not be attending school.

These are examples of how unions are increasingly using their members to increase political power while members also abuse unions to do less for more.

I do not dispute that unions have an important role to play in our society when it comes to protecting the basic rights of workers. But are they are losing sight of the basics?

The time has come for the worker to regain the central focus of our society as the basic building block of our economy.

But workers need to be empowered in order to contribute towards economic growth. They require proper education and further education and training that offer them opportunities, not just to obtain jobs but also to advance in the workplace.

This is one area where unions can become more active in helping of their members to explore opportunities to advance themselves. This would create opportunities for new entrants into the job market thus assisting in addressing unemployment.

Unions should also assist in instilling and restoring a sense of responsibility and diligence among workers instead of fostering a culture of entitlement and ducking work at every opportunity. Hard work provides a competitive edge to our economy.

We need to look toward the future and realise that we are part of a continent that is becoming increasingly more competitive. If we lose our competitive edge it will have dire consequences for our ability to create new job opportunities for South Africans.

In an environment where we have a 24% official unemployment rate, everybody needs to pitch in to contribute to economic growth. Without which we cannot create jobs.

This workers day we should not be celebrating labour unions and their political aspirations, we should return the focus to the real heroes of our economy, the workers.

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