COMMENT

Like the Mafia protesting against organised crime

John Kane-Berman writes on COSATU's planned national strike against job losses

Cosatu's planned strike against job losses is both destructive and ludicrous

For the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) to be planning a national strike against job losses is like the Mafia protesting against organised crime. Nevertheless, Cosatu's central executive last week "instructed all unions to start mobilisation in both the public service and the private sector for the anticipated battles ahead". Having "instructed" all its affiliated unions to get ready for battle, the Cosatu executive decided that the organisation's 13th national congress next month will decide upon the date for the strike.

The executive noted that the congress would be held on the back of "persistent low economic growth that has left millions of workers facing unemployment, inequality, and deepening poverty". Recent talk of retrenching public servants was "the last straw". Reacting last month to the latest unemployment statistics, Cosatu expressed "deep distress" that the official unemployment rate was now more than 27% and the expanded rate more than 37%. Unemployment, it said, was "likely to get worse".

These figures are tragic. But Cosatu's response is comic. Although there are many reasons for high unemployment in South Africa, Cosatu's own antics are among them. The organisation no longer dominates the labour scene, but it established a pattern of behaviour that has helped to cause employers in the private sector to reduce their dependence on unskilled labour. "Replacing workers with machines will make the plight of workers worse," says Cosatu, heedless of its own role in bringing this about.

Even though labour law contains generous provisions protecting the jobs of workers called out on strike, almost half of strikes fail to follow required procedures to qualify as "protected". Interdicts are often ignored. Coercion is common. Mandays lost in strikes this year are running at double last year's figure.

For almost all of the last 20 years, unions have negotiated wage settlements above the inflation rate. This benefits members able to retain their jobs, but the price is paid by those who are eventually laid off and by those who do not get jobs because they are priced out of the labour market. Cosatu has been in the forefront of organisations demanding a legislated national minimum wage. One of the predictable results will be a continuation of what it now complains about –"replacing workers with machines".

Cosatu laments "the crises of poor service delivery manifested in often violent community protests". Yet the behaviour of its own members – often lawless and sometimes violent – is one of the reasons for "poor service delivery". The shocking state of public hospitals is partly the result of the behaviour of one of its largest affiliates, the National Education Health and Allied Workers Union. Another big affiliate, the South African Democratic Teachers' Union, helps to keep the country's schooling system in the doldrums and so helps to ensure an unemployment rate of 73% among black African youth.

Demanding a meeting with the "top six" of the African National Congress (ANC), Cosatu says it will not compromise on its demand for the economy to be "restructured with a bias towards labour and the poor".

Yet the entire labour relations system has been structured since the ANC came to power  

with a bias towards organised labour, but against the unemployed. The bargaining council system discriminates in favour of organised labour (and organised business) by empowering these groups to impose minimum wages upon smaller businesses unable to afford them. Cosatu also wants to stamp out labour broking, even though labour brokers have provided millions of first-time jobs.

Cosatu now rails against the ANC, but it has used its position in the alliance with the ANC and the South African Communist Party to secure privileges for unions. It is no coincidence that unemployment on the expanded definition has exploded from 3.2 million when the ANC came to power to 9.6 million this year. Absurdly, Cosatu is demanding that "big business abandons its investment strike". South Africa already has plenty of disincentives for investment, including Cyril Ramaphosa's latest threats to property rights. When Cosatu and so many other unions stage strikes at the drop of a hat, they simply add another disincentive to a lengthening list.      

* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the IRR, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom. If you agree with what you have just read then click here or SMS your name to 32823.