Collective Bargaining

The union movement has grown tremendously over the last 15 years. Over one million workers have joined unions in Cosatu. These unions employ over one thousand full-time officials to carry out their work. A shop steward movement has been built which includes over ten thousand people.

All people in our country have felt the power of this movement. For decades the working class has been utterly suppressed under harsh apartheid laws. Now mass action of any kind, including protests, marches, stayaways, strikes and sit-ins, have become common activities. Now the working class in an organised force engaged in negotiations with the state over amendments to unacceptable laws, starting cooperative factories and worker colleges and sending scores of workers abroad to interact with the international worker movement. And yet, with every advance, there are new problems and new challenges the movement must face and overcome if it to play a progressive role in the lives of its members and the lives of working people in general in our country. The central challenge facing the union movement at present is whether it is to be an independent movement or not.

What is union independence?

The fight for the right to independence is essentially a fight for the right to criticise both employers and government freely on behalf of the members of our unions. Unions have, in general, been established with widespread independence from employers. The changes that South Africa is currently experiencing are unlikely to affect the union movement’s independence from employers, so I will not discuss that issue in this article.

The key area that is worth analysing, however, is the relationship between unions and government. Whether the government is prepared to tolerate union opposition to its programmes and policies is what makes the government a democratic one.  What makes the union movement an independent one, however, is whether it is prepared to risk to anger the government in pursuit of its members’ mandate. Until now there has been no doubt that we are prepared to risk angering the government. We do so every day. In the past, when the government was more openly hostile to the union movement, our opposition meant banning, house arrests, detentions and even assassinations. Today, even though the government might find it more difficult to openly attack the union movement our attitude has not changed. We remain fiercely protective of our members’ rights irrespective of whether this makes the government angry.

Independence after Apartheid

The issue that we must address is: what will happen after apartheid is gone? Let us say the people’s government rules our country. Let us say the laws that they pass are better and generally more progressive than the last government. Let us say this government was voted into power with significant support from organised labour. In such a situation will the union’s struggle be at the end? Will we say that, now the people’s government protects the workers’ interests, unions should not make the tasks of that government more difficult by pressuring and threatening mass action?

Will we support the government in saying that the workers must recognise the broader goal and not pursue sectional interests? Will we explain to the member that no matter what happens they should not rock the boat because the government is doing its best? Or will we remain an independent force? We are not the first hopeful working class to deal with such problems. In the Soviet Union, for example, the dictatorship of the Tsars was overthrown and the revolutionary government came to power. Workers were so excited at this victory over the forces of the oppression under which they have lived that they did not worry about their trade unions. The union fell under the control of revolutionary party. It has taken workers in the country 73 years to recover from that mistake.

Danger of the Alliance

Over the last year or two there have been a number of development s in the trade union movement which have been extremely worrying to all people who are seriously committed to independence within the trade union movement.

In Cosatu a resolution has been adopted which declares it to be ‘in alliance with the African National Congress and the SA communist party’. There are huge pressures to use the union movement, and the large organisational base it represents, to recruit members for both these organisations. On a whole range of issues Cosatu has simply echoed policies of these organisations. Cosatu almost never contradicts major policy statements of the ANC         , even when on paper there are substantial differences between the two organisations. On the one hand these developments are hardly surprising. There is a widespread agreement in the trade union movement that the unions ought to play a prominent role in the downfall of apartheid. There is broad acceptance that we are not by any means the only force against apartheid, and that our struggle for the end of minority rule should be linked to the work done by such other organisations. On the other hand, these developments represent major dangers to the independence of the trade union movement in a post-apartheid society. It is possible, if we go on blindly with the present rhetoric, that the union movement will simply degenerate into being the labour wing of government. It is possible that union leadership will, in time, be regarded by union members as being responsible for all bad planning, poor laws and all social evils brought about  by a post-apartheid government because the union movement is so bound up in the ‘alliance’. While I do not wish to dismiss these dangers, there are a number of developments in Cosatu and its affiliates, which indicate the union movement is unlikely to become a passive junior partner of an ANC- led government after apartheid. Three examples will suffice to demonstrate this.

Workers’ Charter as proof of the resurgence of union independence

The debates within the union movement about the content of the Workers’ Charter show a developing consensus about union independence. While the SACP and the South African Congress of Trade Unions (Sactu) quickly produced Worker Charters after the ANC Constitutional Guidelines were produced, Cosatu did not follow the route. Instead affiliates agreed that there should be a number of workshops to discuss the charter. From these a commission was established which has drawn many workers into discussing idea of a Workers Charter, by mixing mass campaign work with a lot of study on worker rights in various other countries.

Equally importantly, the commission has facilitated much debate between senior union leadership from different unions created the opportunity for a really carefully considered formulation of worker rights in a post-apartheid society to emerge. While we are perhaps still several months away from a charter being drawn up in Cosatu, we are already at a point where the major unions are developing a consensus that an important part of this charter ought to be a contribution to the new constitution for the country.

Minimum Wage laws or free collective bargaining

In the discussions over minimum wage laws, too, a view is emerging which supports the independence of unions. Recently there was a significant disagreement over the issue of whether the unions should pursue a demand for minimum wage legislation. A number of unions argued that in a post-apartheid society it should be possible to persuade a democratically elected government to pass a law that all workers should be paid above a minimum standard of living. There was further debate over the amount this should be. Those arguing for this view were concentrating their effort on a figure of R 700 per month. The above argument can be attacked in many ways. One could question whether the effect of such a law would not be nullified very rapidly by a galloping inflation. However, debate in the union movement focused on the question of what effect such a law would have on the rights organised workers to bargain for them. In the end, many unionists accepted that it is not desirable to have the state setting wage levels in the industries where unions are engaged in the collective bargaining.

Dual leadership under attack

The third example I would like to discuss is the issue of Cosatu leadership turning out to be at the same time the leadership of the ANC and the SACP.

Some union leaders have argued that there is no difficulty in serving two masters within the alliance. They argue that when they are representing the union they will put forward the mandate of the union. When they are representing the SACP or the ANC, they will put forward the mandate of that organisation. Provided they always clarify which hat they are wearing, no confusion will arise. To other union leadership this is incorrect. They feel strongly that wearing two hats represents a fundamental surrender of the independence of the union. In all fairness it must be noted that several of the union leaders who are wearing two hats have indicated that they see themselves as being active only on the interim structures, which will develop next year for the ANC and the SACP, will depend on the outcome of the debate over dual leadership within the union movement.

Collective bargaining institution an independence base for trade unions

I have argued that the central challenge for union is to maintain their independence. The reason for this is that unions will not vanish in a post-apartheid society. They will either function as the labour wing of a governing party or affect the workplace primarily through influencing that government on legislation affecting labour, or they will function as free and independent organisations primarily influencing the workplace through their collective bargaining and other independent activity. If the unions chooses the former options (i.e. a labour wing of the government relying on the legislation to affect the workplace) it will be the death knell for democracy in a post-apartheid society. When institutions of civil society become a tied up in the workings of the government that they become an integral  part of the state machinery there is less and less space for any criticism of the manner in which the state operates. If the trade union movement is to maintain its independence, it is not enough to simply adopt an ideology of the independence. We will also have to map out an alternative vision of a just society in which unions play an important role, which is fundamentally independent of the state

The union programme

Such independent institutions could develop out of the activities of Cosatu and its affiliates, and the practice of collective bargaining as it has developed over the past ten years, if we build them carefully. But we will only succeed if we compel employers to change their attitude to collective bargaining. I would like to discuss briefly the possibility of struggling for two basic institutions as the platform where unions can substantially influence the developing of South Africa, if we have the will to do so.

National industrial councils

The most powerful base, which unions have, is the platforms they use for collective bargaining. If these platforms remain, as they are now, bargaining will continue to be limited to short-term changes in the wages and working conditions. In general, the content of these negotiations will not be affected by a new post-apartheid environment.

Accordingly, any major contribution the union movement might seek to make to society will not find expression through collective bargaining with employers. If employers persist in this view, and prevent unions from using collective bargaining to deal seriously with the social and economic concerns of their members, unions will have two choices. Either they will have to abandon any attempt to represent the social and economic concerns of their members, or they will have to focus their attempts on developing close ties with political parties which will give them access to state power. This of course will take us back to square one. Unions will see that the only way forward is to tie them even more closely to the state and to seek to influence society through political machinery.

There is, however, a far more workable alternative. We could adopt a system where there are national negotiations in each industry rather than the irrational and patchy arrangements we currently have. Enormously creative opportunities would then open for unions.

National negotiations with employers

Finally, I would like to focus on an area of trade union success. This is the area of the Saccola negotiations. These discussions started off badly and with widespread and well-documented allegations against Saccola of bad faith bargaining. Cosatu and Nactu combined a strategy of negotiations and mass pressure.

A number of points of agreement have now been reached, and accusations of bad faith bargaining have not been made for some time. These positive results led to the first cancellation of a national stay-away by Cosatu, in September 1990. While there may be many things, which these negotiations have so far failed to produce, they have given unions a vision that this is the way to go in order to influence the government on laws affecting workers. This bargaining process could be expanded in future and develop further functions such as choosing the judges for the future Industrial Court, and approving future labour legislation.


I have focused in this article on the key challenges facing the trade union movement in a new South Africa: its relationship to political parties once its members have the vote. I have argued that unions to maintain a complete independence from political organisations and for government. In order to do this we need to build up institutions that will provide an independent base for trade unions to influence a new South Africa. Historically, socialists have been fixated on the idea that the state is crucial institution for transforming the quality of life of workers and oppressed.