White collar workers must learn the importance of belonging to trade unions

Union membership is declining both globally and in South Africa. But there are potentially thousands of members especially in the corporate sector, that must be tapped, writes BHEKITHEMBA MBATHA

The German revolutionary socialist, the great Karl Marx once said ‘Workers of the world unite; you have nothing to lose but your chains’. This was fuelled by the understanding that the capitalist system does not care about the worker. To a capitalist, a worker is but a tool for generating revenue and exploitative profits which the capitalist has no interest in sharing with the worker.

Unions have real and measurable successes that they can sell to any of the new industry workers and professionals, whose benefits are today being enjoyed by the very people as almost a natural phenomenon. All benefits that workers enjoy today, including one-hour long lunches, were heavily fought for and won by organised labour.

As Kavi Guppta puts it, ‘It’s because of collective bargaining and worker protests that some workforces today enjoy the right to argue for wage increases, access affordable healthcare, and improved working conditions within the workplace among many other achievements. In fact, Workers Day, a public holiday celebrated in many countries at various times of the year, was created at the insistence of organised labour unions’.

Over the years, however, what used to be a wage that could barely sustain workers and their families has now become modern-day slave wage where workers earn barely enough to honour their commitments to the workplace. Workers today earn barely enough for transport and food to sustain their work life.

One thing remains true now as it was then, government policy remains the main hope for real change in the plight of our workers. According to Statistics South Africa, the unionisation of the workforce was at its peak in 1997 at 45.2% of total employment and has since dropped to 25.4% in 2012. There are 3.2-million unionised workers, compared to 13 million employees in South Africa at last count.

As with other modernising countries, what has been quickening the decline has been the sharp drop in the manufacturing and mining employment as both industries are slowly upended by global competition and global demand. Unions are clearly alive to this decline in union membership. The breakaway of Cosatu’s biggest affiliate, Numsa, can easily be viewed as in part due to the lack of agreement on how to stop the decline.

Many South African employees will tell you that they have never been actively recruited by any union member. They often have to shop around for suitable unions to join within their sector. This inability to engage in wide-scale organising of new members in workplaces and offices has contributed to unions’ decline and losing their relevance.

One of the issues that would have been expected from Cosatu’s alliance with the ruling ANC was to push for laws that prescribe for everyone that enters the workplace to belong to some form of a trade union. This would have ensured that unions are required to come to workplaces regularly to present to workers the importance of union membership and their rights as workers.  This would have ensured that unions derive direct power from government to counter the forces of private businesses and their exploitative tendencies.

Employers must not be allowed to underestimate employees’ ability to organise and be part of the union force. This empowers workers to respond. As with other countries, no company should ever be allowed to respond aggressively to employees without significant penalties in the face of labour’s organising efforts.

In an article entitled “The Challenge Facing U.S. Labour Unions”, published on voanews.com, the author points to work done by Analyst Kent Long of the University of California, Los Angeles, in understanding challenges and growth opportunities of workers?

Kent Long points to a number of white-collar jobs that could provide new growth for unions. “The areas where unions have historically been weak are the professional employees [accountants, etc], among high-tech workers [and] among workers in the banking and finance industry,” he says.

In South Africa, just 15 companies account for one million private sector jobs. This included companies that are most likely not union friendly like Old Mutual, Standard Bank and Barclays Banks, insurance companies, Naspers among others.

It goes without saying that a paradigm shift is required for professionals to appreciate the importance and power of unions, and not only when they are being victimised in the workplace. Private companies need to encourage their workers to belong to unions and for unions themselves to embark on large recruitment to change the situation where only 15 companies account for one million unionised members.

Another area unions have not exploited is ensuring that whilst still at universities and TVET colleges, students – who are future employees – are made to appreciate the importance of belonging to trade unions. This is fertile ground because already our universities have proven to be highly political spaces.

The contradiction in other countries has been a decline of unions in the percentage of workers who are unionized relative to the total workforce and surveys which say many employees would actually like to belong to a union. The image of a unionised worker in overalls and riding an afternoon train needs to be rebranded.

The employee in the heady breeze of the high-rise offices on South Africa’s golden mile must be approached and given an opportunity to belong to the most powerful bargaining force known to men, a union.

Professionals must organise so that even if they leave a company, they leave a better workspace for others. The past generations have achieved so much through unions and we continue to stand on their shoulders today. It is time for this generation to take the baton, join trade unions and give other workers the dignity and protection to work in conditions that will allow them to thrive and feel safe.

Mbatha is South African Students Congress (SASCO) regional secretary in the Johannesburg region 

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