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COLLECTIVE BARGAINING IN SOUTH AFRICA

BALANCING THE SCALES OR KILLING THE GOOSE?

Opinion piece
by Jaco Swart

 

A recent opinion piece by the executive mayor of Tshwane, Cilliers Brink, Tshwane strike action: what’s at stake for the country and coalitions?’ seemingly questions the continued appropriateness of the South African collective bargaining system and the ‘misuse’ of the system by trade unions.
 
This issue does not only arise within the Public Sector Bargaining Council, but in all collective bargaining structures. Bargaining councils are touted to be an ‘important cog’ in the South African collective bargaining regime and are seen as being sacrosanct by Government and trade unions. The rationale for the existence of bargaining councils, at least from a labour perspective, is that it equalises the power balance between employers and individual employees. The collective provides a stronger voice to employees and places them in a better bargaining position.
 
However, it seems that bargaining councils have had the unintended consequence that trade unions have become complacent, their survival all but guaranteed by their participation in collective bargaining structures. This has led to trade unions no longer servicing their members at plant level with the same vigour as previously witnessed.
 
This fact, as well as rising education levels of employees, and a number of other factors have led to a decline in trade union membership, not only in South Africa but globally and is threatening the very existence of the trade union movement.
 
Consequently, trade unions have to flex their muscles during collective bargaining cycles in order to show value to members. Unfortunately, due to low membership numbers and an unwillingness to participate in strike action by most employees, these muscles have become somewhat atrophic. The result of this is that trade unions have to revert to more drastic measures such as violence and intimidation in order to give impetus to their industrial action. This is exactly the scenario now playing out in Tshwane, where acts of violence and sabotage are being committed in order to force an employer to pay increases that will, almost certainly, lead to insolvency.
 
It seems that bargaining councils and trade union parties thereto have lost sight of the fact that one of the main purposes of bargaining councils is to bring stability to a sector, to promote orderly collective bargaining, and to create an environment where rational and realistic debate can be had, free from political and ideological influence, for the benefit of the entire sector. Instead, bargaining councils have become a breeding ground to promote political aspirations and populistic ideological mantras.
 
Trade unions have long since realised that mere lawful industrial action may not force employers to concede to unrealistic demands and that violence and intimidation must accompany strike action in order to obtain a result. The perpetration of violence by trade unions is, naturally, always vehemently denied, as if it is likely that some random persons will spontaneously decide to burn vehicles, damage property and intimidate people for a cause that they have no association with.
 
What trade unions and bargaining councils have lost sight of is that employers, initially, started a business, usually at great personal risk, in order to make a decent profit, and should that occur it is understandable that employees would want to share in the good fortune. However, the narrative for employers has completely changed to one of survival in an economic environment where growth and profit is nearly impossible. It seems incomprehensible that, under these circumstances, trade unions still insist on increases that will cripple employers and resort to violence to get their way, or that bargaining councils refuse exemption applications by employers who clearly cannot afford to pay increases.
 
It seems that the intended purpose of bargaining councils of equalising bargaining positions has gone too far and has granted trade unions immunity to do whatever they wish to get their way, without interference by political leaders or law enforcement and irrespective of the financial positions of employers. Employers are not being allowed to make sound, responsible financial decisions based on the state of a particular business, but are simply held ransom by trade unions who face no accountability.
 
In the words of Margaret Thatcher: “The problem with socialism is that you eventually run out of other people’s money.”Jaco Swart is the national manager of the National Employers’ Association of South Africa (NEASA).

Image source: Page 3 Online News; Daily Maverick
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