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Shopsteward Volume 27: Special Bulletin

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Media Centre  |  COSATU Speeches

Notes for an Address to the French Rotary Club by Neil Coleman, Head of COSATU Parliamentary Office on Popular Anti-union Mythology

3 February 1998, Cape Town

When I am invited to speak to a forum of this nature, I am acutely aware of the gulf which exists between perceptions of the Trade union movement, particularly in the mainstream media, and reality as we experience it. Representing COSATU in Parliament, it is particularly shocking for me to observe the ignorance and misperceptions which exist despite the continuous inputs by ourselves on a wide range of issues. At times one wonder whether there are those in society who do not want to hear what it is we really want to say.

Experts on speech writing and communication advise that one should never be defensive and concentrate on the negative. Well I am going to ignore their advice !

The unfortunate reality is that perceptions particularly in the white community of COSATU are overwhelmingly negative. In our view these misperceptions are based largely on false information. I will attempt to correct a few of these

Trade unions in South Africa are not some anomaly, which need to be removed from our landscape; or an unpleasant reality which should be wished away. On the contrary the trade union movement is a critical factor in the success of both our political and economic transition. The trade union movement of the 1980's was the backbone of the democratic forces which saw the defeat of one of the most destructive social systems known to man. Trade unions in our country also constitute the most organised and disciplined segment of civil society. They hold the key to economic development and progress.

It should also be said that working people, and the organisations that represent them, are inextricably linked to the future of our country: they have no alternative but to build the South African economy. This is unlike many of the owners of wealth who can rely on the mobility of capital to find the most profitable outlet for their investments and, as recent events have shown, owe little loyalty or commitment to the development of the domestic economy. Working people will either sink or swim in South Africa - they have no escape route. It is therefore ludicrous to paint workers as some sort of mindless juggernaut intent on destroying the conditions for their own existence.

It is also worth remembering that the trade unions, while in the popular mind often being associated with strikes and mass action, are engaged on a daily basis in negotiations around countless issues, including workplace organisation , health and safety, pension and provident funds, housing and many others. The vast majority of these are resolved through negotiations

COSATU has a Shopsteward leadership layer of over 30 000 workers, who have led shop floor negotiations over many years and, in some cases, decades. This constitutes a vital layer of leadership to steer our economy through the transition. The trade union movement has put forward a range of alternative perspectives and strategies to deal with the legacy we confront as a result of decades of misrule, and destruction of our material and human resources Many of these strategies we believe are still viable to this day.

The main obstacle preventing their realisation is not the lack of practicality or, as some would have us believe, the 'new global international situation', but rather the fact that these proposals require powerful interests in our society to make adjustments and compromises where in the past they have been used to imposing their will. The political transition involved such compromises - the economic transition will certainly require the same.

I've been struck in my parliamentary work at how relatively minor changes have caused a huge outcry in the business community and other centres of power from the old order. One example that springs to mind was the requirement in legislation that workers have the right to a minimum of 50% representation on boards of pension funds. A basic democratic requirement which would hardly rise an eyebrow in other countries. Another was the attempt by the Minister of Health to introduce legislation aimed at cheapening the price of medicines which are apparently amongst the highest in the world, despite the desperate health conditions of the majority of our people.

The Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) was a comprehensive attempt by the trade union movement, together with our allies, to fashion a programme which would put our society and our economy onto a new footing, aimed at unleashing our human and material potential which had been suppressed for so many decades. Many would like to now pooh -pooh this as being unrealistic and na´ve (although it was fashionable to support it a couple of years ago). However, a hard objective look at the facts and the experience of the 20th Century, demonstrates that the path set out in the RDP has been the only successful path which has launched backward and war torn societies out of stagnation and into a phase of reconstruction and renewal. Every significant experience in the 20th century has shown this to be the case whether in America's New Deal , in post war Europe and Japan, or the Asian Tigers in the 60's and 70's.

Those who would like to relegate these experiences to history's dustbin, by saying that they belong to another era, are ignoring the weight of international evidence. The annual reports of the UNDP, which analyse the development of countries around the world, consistently find that sustainable economic development is directly linked to the level of investment in human development, to the level of investment in social services, the effectiveness of their public sector and the general quality of life of their people. If this is true in other countries, how much more is it the case in South Africa; where the vast majority of our people have been excluded from the mainstream of the economy, where their human potential has been systematically suppressed; and where the levels of inequality between the haves and the have nots is the highest in the world. ?

The RDP sought to systematically address this legacy not only on moral grounds but also as the basis on which meaningful and sustainable economic development could take place. There are many forces today who have been pressuring the government, both internationally and internally, to abandon the path which was set out in the mandate which the electorate gave to them in 1994.

This unsolicited advice is based on the prescriptions of international financial institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank, and based on the argument that the era of globalisation, particularly in the 1990's, leaves our government with 'no alternative' but to conform with what are allegedly now the unwritten rules of international economic intercourse.

Yet there is a debate raging in these very institutions including the World Bank as to whether the policies they have attempted to apply in developing countries, often with disastrous results, are the correct ones. Nevertheless, many of the prescriptions being given to our government, are completely inappropriate to conditions in our country and ignore the real needs of our people.

For example, is it appropriate to slash the public sector which has to deliver services to about 4 times the number of people it was servicing before, or to unconditionally throw open our industries to trade, when the removal of protection results in massive job loss and the downscaling and even disintegration of some of our industries?

Another area inappropriate for our conditions, is the arbitrarily imposed reduction in our budget deficit, forcing drastic cutbacks when we have a government which has inherited huge backlogs. It is ironic that in the European situation, despite the Maastricht treaty specifying a 3 % budget deficit for those countries, many countries were reluctant to accept this target given their 'high level of unemployment' .

The unemployment situation in South Africa is far worse than in Europe , yet we seem to be expected to blindly adhere to arbitrarily imposed targets. Such measures in our view fly in the face of the developmental and economic needs of the country. They will also lead to a further disintegration in our social fabric, particularly as a result of chronic poverty, unemployment and inequality. I don't need to tell you that there is a direct link between these social conditions and the problems of crime and violence which we experience today.

It is unacceptable to us that South Africa, which can hold its head up in the world as one of the pioneers of a peaceful transition from totalitarian rule to democracy, should be dictated to in this way by countries which did little to support our battle for human rights. In our view the democracy which we have won will be hollow if our duly elected government, is unable to exercise its sovereignty to implement the programme which that electorate mandated them on Of course our country is not the only one whose sovereignty is being undermined in this way. We hope that this matter will be sharply addressed at the upcoming Non Aligned Movement conference to be held in South Africa this year.

Without doing the work of our detractors I now want to present some of the major criticisms which have been leveled against COSATU, and address the misperceptions which give rise to these.


Firstly it is argued that unions are somehow an 'elite' who are benefiting materially and prospering at the expense of the unemployed who are the 'real poor'. Some in the media even claim that this is the greatest source of inequality in our country. I can't speak for other trade unions, but the majority of our members are living close to, or even below the breadline as determined by various institutions. They are supporting members of their family and their extended family, many of whom are unemployed and therefore their wage packet has to stretch to support the very people, who it is said they are profiting at the expense of.

Their communities, not those of our critics are devastated by the blight of unemployment, crime and other consequences which flow from it. COSATU's real constituency is in fact that of the working poor, which includes the majority of working people as well as their communities- the poor and unemployed both in the urban and rural areas. (Although it is true that the trade union movement is more concentrated in the urban areas)

The real elite in this country are those who use their unjustly acquired privileges to maintain a disproportionate share of wealth and income. It has been shown by the National Productivity Institute, which is hardly in the pocket of COSATU, that the lion's share of wages and salaries actually go to the high income earners, including management in this country. And therefore the issue of containing expansion in the wage and salaries bill is also largely related to the question of remuneration of high paid workers and management

When we raise this issue of massive inequality, which is higher in South African than any other country in the world, we are told that directors and managers are being paid competitive rates with equivalent strata in countries such as America and Europe. However when asked why workers aren't paid wages which are commensurate with what workers earn in these countries, we are told that workers here are competing with sweatshops in Indonesia and Mozambique!

There is no other organisation in this country with a greater interest in the creation of jobs as well as the improvement of income for the working poor, who constitute the majority of our membership. This will not be addressed by squeezing the wages of low paid workers and forcing them to work longer hours for less pay but will be addressed by a new approach to organisation of the wage and salary structures, by large scale investment in skills and human resources, and by the commitment of business to invest in this country rather than exporting capital abroad.


The second myth which is often repeated is that the wages of South African workers continues to outstrip productivity. The reality however is exactly the opposite. The F&T Weekly , again hardly a friend of COSATU, calculated in July last year that between 1992 and 1996 there has been an aggregate rise in productivity of 12.8 % and in the same period there had been a fall of 6.9% in unit labour costs. I hardly need to point out that this same period of massive increases in productivity also saw a large-scale loss of jobs. The latest report of the Central Statistical Service shows that job destroying growth continues to be a central feature of the South Africa economy.

This is based simply on the fact that increased output is not ploughed back into productive investment. Rather the main areas of investment in our economy are in financial speculation. To make matters worse, the large conglomerates have increasingly moved their operations out of the country, particularly since the advent of our new democracy.

More attention needs to be paid to the need to develop a patriotic business sector in this country. The need to develop new styles of management and more participatory forms of work culture; as well as the investment of significant resources into research and development, and skills of our people. Attempts by Government to do this, including the proposed introduction of a small levy on business to finance the training of workers, have been met by resistance from organised business.


The third myth is that the industrial relations system which is being developed under the new government is inflexible, dictated by the unions and is inappropriate for our conditions. The perpetrators of this myth have been strangely silent in the face of evidence that since the introduction of the LRA in late 1996 the loss of working time due to strike action has been radically reduced as a result of the new settlements mechanism, the CCMA, which was strongly supported by the trade union movement and is now averting many unnecessary and costly strikes.

It is also untrue to argue that our labour market and regulations which are being introduced make our environment too rigid and discourages investment. The reality is, as the recent in-depth study by the ILO demonstrated, our labour market while too rigid as far as the wages and salaries of management and the higher paid are concerned, is too flexible when it comes to the condition of low paid workers and the poor. The ILO study found that millions of working people still remain at the mercy of unscrupulous employers and recommended measures for more effective intervention.

It is recognised however that this needs to be done in a way which sets a basic floor to prevent exploitation, but at the same time allows employers and unions to negotiate conditions which are appropriate to the particular industry. This is something that COSATU and the trade union movement are committed to, and have for this reason strongly argued for the need for centralised bargaining institutions to enable employers and unions to bargain at industry level. This is important not only to put basic frameworks in place for wages and other conditions, but also in order to deal with the challenges of restructuring, such as are being confronted in the mining industry, as well as other industries facing international competition.


The fourth myth commonly advanced in the business press is that the trade unions of today have lost any strategic vision and that this is partially or largely as a result of the loss of leadership which went into the new government. While it is true that we lost some important and capable leaders to government, this was not something which was done against the trade unions' wishes, but was part of a planned process of deployment of leaders to reinforce the new democracy. I think if anything the Trade Union Movement has been remarkable in the way it has managed to sustain this loss of leadership and to replace this leadership with new leadership . This is the real story which much of our media has completely missed: the fact that the trade union movement has managed to remain as vibrant and dynamic as it has; that it has managed to sustain effective campaigns over the last few years; and has been able to put forward powerful strategies for transformation, as seen in the recent report of COSATU's September Commission..

This is testimony to the fact that the organised trade union movement remains a powerful and resilient constituency in our country. The middle level and top leadership which have occupied less high profile positions over the last 10 -15 years, have now come to the fore in leading the organisation.

Finally, COSATU has a clear vision, and is putting forward strategies aimed at realising this. The reality, however, is that the vision we are putting forward is not acceptable to those who wish to maintain the status quo. As a result they tend to rubbish us. The proposals in documents such as Social Equity, the September Commission, and various COSATU policy documents are cogent and serious interventions in the policy debates. I urge you to examine these proposals for yourselves, and accept them or reject them on their merits, rather than on the basis of hostile and jaundiced reports.