Organised Labour Needs to Change Form

Gavin Lewis MPL

DA Gauteng Spokesperson for Economic Development

Speech delivered during workers’ day debate

Organised labour does not represent the working classes in South Africa. Organised labour represents about 2.5 million workers, just under 2 million of them in COSATU. There are 12.8 million workers in South Africa. Yet COSATU largely determines government policy on the economy. The DA won 3.5 million votes last year. Why does the DA not have a veto over labour regulations? So we have replaced a government run in the interests of a racial minority under apartheid, with a new apartheid, between trade union members and the rest of the country.

In fact organised labour represents a minority of workers. Yet post Polokwane, and in the run up to Mangaung, Zwelimviva Vavi has a de facto veto power on governments’ regulation of labour. This cannot be either just or healthy for growth and employment in South Africa, as the National Development Plan itself points out. In fact, in the education system organised labour, in the form of SADTU is the single biggest cause of poor school performance, casting a blight over generations of our young people for years to come, and crippling our skills base on which our economy depends for faster growth and employment. The ANC Alliance is thus caught in the contradictions of its own internal dialectics.

Nor does the COSATU leadership necessarily reflect the views of its membership. In a thought -provoking article by Philip Hirschsohn, of the University of the Western Cape,” The Hollowing out of trade union democracy in COSATU”, it is pointed out that as unions have grown, so a bureaucratic elite of full time official has become distant from the workers, taking on oligarchic characteristics. This leads in turn to lower levels of worker participation, and the effective demobilisation of mass worker activism in South Africa, with a monopoly of political leadership lying in the hands of the leadership. Direct democracy is dying in COSATU, as SACP aligned leaders drift further away from workerist principles, suffering under top down political directives rather than bottom up mandating channels. The result in the Western Cape since 2004 has been that only 20% of COSATU workers said that they would still vote for the ANC Alliance, rather than for the DA and Cope. As you reap, so shall you sow, the biblical saying goes. In the fullness of time pro SACP COSATU leaders might become so estranged from their base that a split will occur, and the rest will be history.

In the meantime, just last year the IMF pointed out that reform was needed in the wage negotiating structure in South Africa if SA was serious about creating jobs. Yet COSATU stubbornly blocks any attempt to lower the hurdles for first time entrants to the economy. Instead an entrenched labour aristocracy, increasingly dominated by public sector workers, has pulled up the draw bridge for the rest of South Africa. In this way COASTU blocks initiatives such as Pravin Gordhan’s (and the DA’s) youth wage subsidy.

The public service wage bill now leaves only 60 % of our national budget for infrastructure investment, and its share is growing all the time. In fact, the two fastest growing sections of our national budget now are public sector wages and repayment of our climbing debt.

Economist Mike Schussler points out that, after Sweden and France, South Africa has the highest paid civil service in the world. What’s more labour productivity, on which mooted wage increase should be based, is down to 82% of what it was ten years ago. We will never reach governments own targets of 5 million new jobs this way.

We have shed 2 million permanent jobs since 2000 . This process began way before the international financial crisis, on which the ANC now attempts to blame all our recent poor economic performance. Thus are doomed the majority of South Africans who are unemployed to blighted lives as a permanent underclass, foraging for scraps on the outskirts of our glass cities.

Organised labour is a vital part of South Africa’s industrial landscape, but not in its current form. At the moment we sit with a country that not only has one of the highest recorded unemployment rates in the world, but simultaneously one of the highest strike rates in terms of man days lost. And our strikes are increasingly violent and always highly confrontational. Clearly we need a different way ahead, including looking at the example of Germany’s social contract which sees labour represented directly on company Boards. We must rescue organised labour from itself. We must restore it to being a shining example of non racialism, support for democratic and open government, and as a central player in a robust, democratic, peaceful and healthy political landscape. Otherwise we are nearing the point at which public money, and public borrowings will finally run out, and our hinterland will be contemporary Greece – if we are lucky.

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