Trade Unions facing collapse

Chris Barron’s article ‘Something rotten in the state of unions’ (BD, 15 July 2018) quotes the just retired registrar of labour relations, Johan Crouse, as saying that ‘Trade unions are fleecing their members, and the government is making it difficult to hold them accountable.’ Although the article focuses on the situation in the Chemical, Energy, Paper, Printing, Wood and Allied Workers Union (CEPPWAWU), it makes it clear that the corruption and death of democracy exposed in this union is not unique and indicate a general situation of ‘rampant corruption and maladministration’ in the trade unions.

The corruption, maladministration and repression of ordinary worker members referred to in the article are aspects of a quite general decline and, in some senses, collapse of the trade unions. The Casual Workers Advice Office (CWAO) is one of a number of initiatives that arose out of efforts to confront the consequences this collapse has for workers. One of the obstacles we face in our work to support the development of new alternatives for organising worker struggles is the disbelief and denials that exist in relation to this collapse. In the rest of this article we share some key facts and figures about one aspect of this situation – the numbers.

In his 2014 review of the state of organised labour, Ian Macun noted that total union membership dropped from 4 069 000 to 3 028 400 between 2003 and 2012. This loss of more than a million members over a nine-year period would be a dramatic decline on its own, but it becomes a collapse if we take into account certain factors about the context. According to Stats SA, the number of workers grew from 8,9 million in 1994 to 15 million in 2014, which is a growth of 6,1 million people. In other words, the massive loss of members on the part of the trade unions happened against a background of a massive growth in the number of workers. The South African Institute of Race Relations therefore noted in 2014 that union density, or the proportion of the total workforce who are union members, declined by 20% between 1994 and 2014.

The other factor that helps us understand the scale of the collapse is the growth of the unions in the previous period. COSATU, for example, according to SA History Online grew from 500 000 members in 1986 to 800 000 in 1989 and stabilized at around 2 million around the year 2000. In other words, the federation grew by 400% over the decade and a half from 1986. The dramatic drop in union membership from the mid-2000s can be called a collapse when set against the even more dramatic growth in membership from the mid-1980s. This is perhaps illustrated most clearly in the crucial manufacturing sector.

Union density stood at 42% in 1980 in this sector according to Ian Macun. Ten years later it had risen to 70%, reflecting explosive growth of union membership among these workers. By 2012, however, union density in manufacturing had collapsed to 31%. In other words, in 2012 union density in this sector was 10% lower than it was at the height of Apartheid before the explosive growth in union membership.

The numbers regarding union membership and density reflect a dramatic decline or collapse that is consistent with the ‘rampant corruption and maladministration’ identified by the outgoing registrar of labour relations. Other factors that are more important than simple numbers are the capacity of the unions to mobilise broad sections of the working class in social justice struggles, and the degree to which the most marginalised sections of the working class identify with and participate in the trade unions. The details of these two factors should be dealt with in separate articles. It has to be said though that they reflect even more clearly the collapse of the trade unions, both in strength and as agents of social justice for the most exploited sections of the working class.

The situation demands reflections around the causes and consequences of this collapse as well as into possible responses. However, before these reflections can begin in all seriousness, the immediate task is to establish the mere facts of this collapse. Hopefully, the testimony of a first-hand witness such as the registrar of labour relations and the numbers shared in this article will contribute towards this.

Ronald Wesso works at Casual Workers Advice Office, an NGO based in Germiston Gauteng supporting the struggles of precarious workers.

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