7 February 2013

South Africa: Address By the Cosatu General Secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, to the NUM Collective Bargaining Conference


It is always a pleasure to be addressing my home union. To be amongst mining, construction and energy workers is always a special thrill for me. And it is a special pleasure to be amongst you when you are discussing the nitty-gritty, the bread and butter, of trade unionism - that is, how to improve the wages and working conditions of your members.

We have to deliver on wages and working conditions for two good reasons. The first is that COSATU members have already told us in the NALEDI Workers’ Survey conducted in 2012 that this is one of the two most important reasons that they have joined a COSATU affiliate. The other reason they have given us, by the way, is to be protected against unfair discipline. Only 3% of our members have said that they join our unions mainly because of benefits.

The second reason that we have to deliver on wages and working conditions is that this is the best way to build workers’ power to transform our industries and society as a whole. If we can’t stand together in our individual unions and in the Federation as a whole to demand – and win – significant improvements for our members, then we will not be able to stand together to win other social demands.

2012 was an extremely tough year for you and your union as a whole. In many ways, as spelt out in the COSATU Congress Special Declaration on Marikana you were bearing the brunt of a society and economy under extreme strain, in the context of global capitalist crisis. Capitalist crises always produce bosses who scramble to restore their profitability at the expense of workers. In the case of the Platinum sector, this took the form of undermining trade union rights including collective bargaining, sub-contracting and labour broking, retrenchments, and strategies of divide and rule.

At the same time the bosses continued to reward themselves with grotesque salaries and bonuses. As indicated on page 35 of the “NUM Bargaining Spear” document you received yesterday, in 2012 it would have taken a general worker in Implats 219 years to earn what the CEO earned, and in Lonmin it would have taken 194 years.

What the bosses of course didn’t bargain for was that their clumsy scrambling, combined with greed, was going to blow up in their faces, doing serious damage to all of us as a society, as the Federation, and as the NUM, in the process.

But we can analyse a situation until we are blue in the face. What is important is to find a constructive and united way forward to rebuild our collective power and our capacity to deliver to our members. This is why the message of the Amplats comrade who spoke at the Conference yesterday was so critical. He talked of learning from mistakes, of identifying weaknesses, and most importantly of all, of getting in touch with workers and members.

It is also why the dignity that your President Comrade Senzeni Zokwana has been displaying at the Farlam Commission is so important, and it why the unity in action that is being displayed across the Federation in the North West, such as the march on this Saturday, is absolutely critical. Clearly from the reports that we are getting from Rustenburg this approach of re-building is beginning to pay off, with significant numbers of workers returning home to the NUM.

Of course the road ahead is not going to be easy. But the work that you are doing over these two days will help put the building blocks in place for moving forward.

There are some critical challenges that the Federation faces in organising, collective bargaining and servicing, which I would like to highlight. These are shared challenges faced by all of our affiliates, but the NUM, as the biggest affiliate, has a special role to play, and will hopefully come up with some of the answers in this Conference. I hope very much that the NUM will also give active input into the COSATU Organising, Collective Bargaining and Minimum Wage Conference which is taking place in mid March.

Let me spell out some of the challenges:-

The first challenge is trade union membership and density

The first challenge is that while the Federation has grown enormously over the years to reach 2.2 million members, we are still a long way off our 2015 target of 4 million members. South Africa has a trade union density rate of 30%. That means two out of every three workers are NOT organised! We have a huge task ahead as a Federation, especially amongst the most vulnerable and exploited workers.

The mining sector has the highest union density at 78%, which perhaps is part of the explanation for AMCU’s desperation to win members away from NUM. But that still means that out of every four workers, there is still one that is not organised into any union. And while the mining sector has the highest density, the construction sector has the lowest union density, apart from farm workers and domestic workers. In construction only 12% of workers are organised. And in electricity, water and gas supply union density is just above average at 44%. This means that the NUM has a lot to do in its sectors.

And the Federation needs the NUM to help recruit into other affiliates. Without strength in numbers across all sectors we are not going to succeed in our task of improving wages and working conditions.

The second challenge is service to our members

Our members have told us in the NALEDI Workers’ Survey that the most important reason for joining a COSATU union was for protection against dismissal and unfair discipline (38% of our members), followed by improving wages, benefits and working conditions (33% of our members). The remaining 29% of members told us that they joined the union to change society (9%), or because of peer pressure or a closed shop (5%) or because of union benefits (3%). The Survey results for NUM are roughly the same as for COSATU unions overall, except that the percentage putting improved wages and working conditions on top was 37% - a little higher than for COSATU.

This tells us that we have to put our efforts first and foremost into successfully defending workers in disciplinary cases and into wage bargaining. And yet the statistics we have from the CCMA show us that only 46% of cases referred by COSATU affiliates to arbitration were won in favour of workers.

Our members have indicated that they are reasonably happy with the way in which unions are taking up disciplinary cases, health and safety issues, retrenchments (here NUM came out at 70% satisfied compared to the average of 62%), racism, discrimination against women, and supporting people living with HIV and AIDS.

But our members are not satisfied with the outcomes of wage negotiations (only 40% are satisfied across COSATU and 50% in NUM) or with skills development (only 51% satisfied), or our support for temporary and casual workers (50% satisfied), or with our fight for better child care (48%). And they’ve given us the real thumbs down on how we are taking up public transport (31% satisfied). What our members are telling us is that we have to pull up our socks in all areas of service.

The third challenge is that of trade union representation and democracy

We had a lot of good news from the NALEDI survey of COSATU members but also a lot of not so good news. On the one hand it was encouraging to almost three quarters of members felt they could influence their shop stewards to act on their behalf – with NUM coming out higher at 80%. But that does mean that one out of every four member feels disempowered. It is this disempowerment, combined with dissatisfaction with service, that creates conditions for workers to follow opportunistic individuals. We have so much work to do to reverse the tide of tiny powerless unions springing up all over the place. There are presently 193 registered unions in South Africa, with multiple unions mostly in the sectors that are the least organised.

So we have to step up our shop stewards’ education programmes. NUM is going reasonably well, having trained 1673 shop stewards in 2011. But how many shop stewards received no training at all? The NUM places much more responsibility on shop stewards than most other affiliates, as it has a much lower ratio of organisers to members. So the training of your shop stewards is all the more important. But it must be training that responds to the needs of the shop stewards.

Another worrying indicator is that 65% of our members have told us that there has not been a shop stewards election in their workplace in the past four years. NUM has a slightly better record than average at 67%. But this non adherence to our unions’ constitutions is a recipe for problems.

Perhaps the most serious indicator of a problem in systems of representation and democracy is that one third of our members have told us that they have not attended a union meeting in the past year. Although the occurrence of general meetings is much higher for COSATU members than for members of other unions, this is still not good enough. We should be having general meetings in all work places at least once a month. The general meeting lies at the heart of our mandating and report-back processes. These general meetings should not just take place during wage negotiations – they should take place on a consistent basis. There will always be plenty to fill an agenda – whether its developments in skills, collective grievances, health and safety, or whatever. In big work places, it is a good idea to break the regular general meetings into smaller sectional meetings, giving workers the opportunity to air their views. General meetings should never be a one way street of reporting by shop stewards.

On pages 47 and 48 of your “NUM Bargaining Spear” there is a very useful checklist of Trade Union Development Indicators, covering Representation, Internal Democracy, Solidarity, and Social activism and dialogue. There is much in this proposed strategic framework for assessing union actions that could very usefully be borrowed by all other COSATU affiliates.

Our next challenge is corruption

Corruption in our ranks is something that we don’t really want to talk about. But our members have spoken through the NALEDI survey, and we have an obligation to tackle it. “Corruption” for our members can mean many things, from selling out to management without any financial exchange through to the abuse of union funds, creating privilege for leaders and being bribed by management.

It is of huge concern that one third of our members across all affiliates allege that there is corruption in their union, and 12% say they have actually personally seen it. The highest allegations are in SATAWU and NUM, with 43% of NUM members believing there is corruption and 20% saying they have actually seen it. Now whether or not this statistic is a reflection of reality is not the point. If such high numbers of members think there is corruption, then we must be worried about trust. And we must leave no stone unturned to find out the truth in every instance where an allegation is made. We cannot be calling on government to take action against corruption and then sweep it under the carpet in our own house.

It is encouraging that your union is, as I understand it, conducting a review of the conditions and responsibilities of your full time shop stewards, as part of a response to perceived corruption. It would be excellent if the NUM could encourage other affiliates to do likewise.

We must accept that where trust is low, relationships in the organisation, and the organisation itself, becomes unstable. Transparency in all matters of money in our affiliates is a must.

But getting back to the agenda of the day, that is collective bargaining, we face a number of socio-economic challenges that we have to tackle, partly through our collective bargaining strategies.

On low pay and minimum wages

The spotlight has been on low pay in the past year like no time before.

You know about low pay in your own sectors and have been talking in your Commissions about strategies to reverse this. But I want to direct your attention to low pay in other sectors too.

While the minimum rate for farm workers has now been raised by 52% to R11.66 per hour (or R525 a week or R2274.82 a month) this is still way below a living wage. Independent research conducted by the University of Stellenbosch for the parties in the farm worker negotiations has shown that a family of 4 (2 adults and 2 children) needs to spend R2307.96 a month on food if it is to have a reasonably balanced diet and a reasonable (though still insufficient) intake of energy. Instead poor families are forced to live on a diet of maize porridge, bread, sugar, tea and milk in order to meet their other basic living costs. The research shows that even if the demand of R150 a day was met, workers would still be in poverty and unable to afford a balanced diet.

The recent increase in the minimum wage of farm workers brings it up to more or less the same level as the minimums for wholesale and retail workers, taxi workers, hospitality workers, security workers and contract cleaning workers. However, domestic workers have been left behind, with a minimum wage of R8.95 an hour (or R402.96 a week) in the Metros and bigger towns, and R7.65 an hour in other areas.

Now I’m not saying that because wages in your sectors are far higher than these, that your wages are acceptable. They are not. And you must continue to fight for decent pay. But at the same time I want to appeal to you to join the fight to beat poverty through decent pay for all workers. Low pay is not helpful to an economy. As the research on food requirements shows, workers who are paid starvation wages do not buy. And if millions of workers have no purchasing power, then production suffers. If production suffers, then jobs are not created. So we have to use our collective strength as a Federation to persuade our government that a radical shift in wage policy is needed. We have an excellent example to draw on in the form of Brazil, where radical increases in minimum wages have resulted in job creation.

This is one of the key things we will be discussing at the COSATU Collective Bargaining Conference in March.

We also face a huge challenge in wage gaps

Not only does South Africa have the title of most unequal society i.e. between the richest and poorest, which I talked about in the beginning, but we also have other serious gaps to contend with.

We have a gap between minimum wages set by Sectoral Determinations, and those agreed on through collectively bargaining. The average negotiated minimum in 2011 across sectors was R3405 a month, whereas for Sectoral Determinations it was R2118.

In most sectors we have big gaps between the lowest paid in the bargaining unit and the highest paid in the bargaining unit

Our strategy of going for annual percentage increases across the board has increased these gaps, to the serious detriment of lower paid workers. It is time we consider strategies to close these gaps, including making across the board Rands demands, which are also easily understood by workers.

Finally (for today at least!) we face a challenge of there being insufficient centralised bargaining

The number of workers covered by bargaining council agreements has been reducing. Only 2.4 million of the workforce is covered by bargaining councils, and many of these councils are not national. More workers are covered by Sectoral Determinations than by bargaining council agreements, i.e. 3.5 million workers.

There is also an ongoing battle with government to get bargaining council agreements to cover non-parties.

According to information provided by NUM to the NALEDI Report on the State of Affiliates Survey to our 2012 Congress, around 76% of NUM members are covered either by Bargaining Council agreements or by a Bargaining Forum, 10% are covered by a Sectoral Determination, and 13% are covered by work place agreements. While NUM is better off than most unions (e.g. 96% of SACCAWU’s members are covered by work place agreements, putting a huge burden on the union), we all know that the absence of centralised bargaining in the platinum sector was a big contributing factor to the turmoil of 2012.

We therefore need to campaign for compulsory, wall-to-wall centralised bargaining in all of our sectors. This is another issue up for discussion at the COSATU Conference in March. But of course centralisation must be accompanied by the democratic processes that I spoke of earlier.

To end off, let me give you the details of the COSATU Organising, Collective Bargaining, and Minimum Wage Conference. The dates are 12th to 15th March and the Conference is to be held in Johannesburg. There will be around 600 delegates, including some non affiliates, representatives of our Allies, Labour Service Organisations, and international guests. Based on your membership, you will be entitled to 35 delegates, as least half of whom must be workers, and one third women. You should also make sure that you have fair representation of all three of your sectors.

We will be using the conference as a platform to reflect on our strengths and weaknesses in recruitment, organising, servicing, and collective bargaining. We hope to use it to begin to develop best practice in recruitment and collective bargaining, based on shared ideas and experiences, and to identify the key tasks in building a culture of solidarity across the Federation. And as important as any one of the other aims, we hope that the conference will give all delegates an opportunity to participate and have their voices heard. I really look forward to having the NUM’s input at the COSATU Conference, based in large part on your deliberations over your own two days’ Conference. We dare not fail in our obligation to meet our members’ expectations of us.

Comrades, I want to thank your office bearers for inviting COSATU to this very important event. I wish you well in your remaining deliberations.

Copyright © 2013 Congress of South African Trade Unions. All rights reserved. Distributed by AllAfrica Global Media (allAfrica.com). To contact the copyright holder directly for corrections — or for permission to republish or make other authorized use of this material, click here.

AllAfrica publishes around 2,000 reports a day from more than 130 news organizations and over 200 other institutions and individuals, representing a diversity of positions on every topic. We publish news and views ranging from vigorous opponents of governments to government publications and spokespersons. Publishers named above each report are responsible for their own content, which AllAfrica does not have the legal right to edit or correct.

Articles and commentaries that identify allAfrica.com as the publisher are produced or commissioned by AllAfrica. To address comments or complaints, please Contact us.