The Big Read: More labour pains ahead

11 November 2014 - 02:01 By Justice Malala
BRANCHING OUT: A Numsa member watches thousands of his union's workers march in Randburg during a wages protest
BRANCHING OUT: A Numsa member watches thousands of his union's workers march in Randburg during a wages protest

So it has come to pass. The National Union of Metalworkers of SA has been expelled from the giant labour federation Cosatu after 29 years.

Numsa's more than 350000 members are no longer part of the Cosatu family that numbered 2.2million members and held massive power over our politics, the economy and society.

There is no doubt about it: it is the end of an era. What does it all mean and what lies ahead?

The winds of change are now sweeping across organised labour in South Africa. The repercussions will be massive. Power relations will change; political alignments will be redrawn; and a turbulent new era underlined by union rivalry and contestation might be in store.

Yet, in all this change, there is massive opportunity. Politically, the governing ANC might finally find itself with the opportunity- presented by a weak Cosatu - to implement the dramatic structural reforms needed to revitalise an economy that has been in thrall to its trade union allies over the past 20 years.

The certainties of the past 30 years, born of the trade union consolidation of the 1970s and the emergence of Cosatu in the 1980s, are being challenged.

New players are emerging. Old stalwarts such as the National Union of Mineworkers are being brought to their knees by new players like the radical Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, which this year mounted the longest, most violent and bitter strike in the history of organised labour in South Africa.

Fragmentation is being felt across the labour spectrum. The president of the long-standing SA Transport and Allied Workers' Union jumped ship and launched the rival National Transport and Allied Workers' Union.

Amcu is increasingly attracted to sectors beyond mining. Numsa is itself being challenged by a new spoiler union, the Metal and Allied Workers' Union. There is evidence of shifts, mutinies, breakaways and mergers across the labour sector.

A recent example is the raging battle between Numsa and Satawu at Ngqura, the Coega port in Eastern Cape, as Numsa began muscling into new sectors.

None of these shifts, however, portends as much change and turbulence for the country's economy as the expulsion of Numsa from Cosatu at the weekend, and Numsa's resolve to start a new political party to challenge the ANC in the local elections in 2016 and the national polls in 2019.

Numsa and its cohorts - at least nine other unions in the federation - might split right down the middle as some members choose to stay within the ambit of Cosatu.

A new trade union federation will be formed. Significantly, a new political party will also be formed. In the meantime, an emboldened Amcu is hungry for expansion.

Having completely destroyed the NUM in the platinum sector, gold mining is its next target.

The key concern is that the changes occurring in labour now do not address the key challenges facing South Africa - the creation of a dynamic labour system based on a partnership between business, the government and labour designed to avoid strikes, drive up job creation, increase productivity, attract investment and provide skills.

Instead, South Africa's "unruly" labour market might prove to be too much to stomach for potential investors, leading to increased joblessness.

What happens now?

A split in Cosatu will divide the federation along private sector (Numsa) and public sector (Nehawu, Sadtu) lines. Cosatu will most likely become a sweetheart federation aligned to the ANC government. It will be packed with public sector unions which will sing President Jacob Zuma's praises at the top of their voices.

It is possible that these public sector unions will attempt to continue to extract significant, above-inflation wage increases from an ANC government.

There are also likely to be radical changes to how wages are set, how strikes are conducted and how workers are treated. This is the beginning of a post-Marikana era in which there will be turbulence in labour relations.

Politically, a left-wing political party supported by Numsa will emerge to challenge the ANC. However, my view is that such a party will not be able to ignite interest from the general public unless it "modernises" from the radical Marxist-Leninist rhetoric currently used by Numsa leaders.

There will be clashes on the shop floors of many companies. This is because the radical Amcu, after its success on the Rustenburg platinum belt, is most likely to follow the Numsa example and organise in other sectors. Amcu is loosely affiliated to the moribund National Congress of Trade Unions but might also find favour with Numsa.

A long period of labour unrest lies ahead, inspired by the Marikana strike in 2012, the fissure in Cosatu and the platinum miners' strike in Rustenburg. Labour expectations, as seen in the platinum strike and in public sector wage negotiations in 2010 and 2012, are at very high levels.

Tighten your seatbelts.