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Strengthening unions may be better than trying to destroy them

Strike season begins from May Day to September each year in South Africa and, after a harrowing strike year in 2012, it does us well to reflect. South Africa today has 193 unions, of which 110 are not affiliated to the main four federations. We had a situation, beginning with democracy, of the government and business poaching talent from unions and promoting them.
In many big companies shop stewards are an elite, they are paid junior manager salaries and don't have to ever get their hands dirty on the shop floor.

Our approach to unions over the years has done two things; left us with weakened union structures, but also created an impression that to be a union official is a career path straight to middle management or higher. This has led to a plethora of unions competing for the same workers and driving up tensions in the workplace. Not a year goes past without more unions being created all competing for a smaller pool of workers. And there are often less-experienced unionists - and managers - dealing with complex labour laws.

COSATU at its recent conference on 15 March spoke of unions poaching from other unions in the federation and this has led to damaging infighting within COSATU. It's also acknowledged that it no longer services its members adequately and some of this has to do with the creation of a union elite.

Growing anarchy in the workforce

Strategist Clem Sunter recently complained: "Hard times in the global economy, combined with the growing anarchy in the workforce, where even established unions are no longer listened to by employees, have seriously squeezed many of our resource businesses, which are a prime element of our economy."

There is an old adage that you must be careful of what you wish for. Lots of companies hoped for weaker unions, or no unions, but what we are finding, and the conflict at Marikana is a vivid example, is that weak unions lead to volatility, and sometimes tragic results. It is imperative that companies regularly send not just human resources managers for regular training in labour laws, emotional intelligence and conflict resolution, but senior managers. A manager confident about the law is a better negotiator, more capable of defusing conflict, and more confident in the workplace.

The agricultural strikes in the Winelands displayed that no unions are as dangerous; workers will make demands that employers cannot hope to meet. In that instance we saw mass dismissals and the likelihood that many of those farmers will turn to increased mechanisation rather than experience the sort of violent strikes that occurred last year and early this year.

In addition, a policy of the government and business promoting union leaders had led to people in this work-poor country seeing unions as a way to fast-track their careers and to achieve wealth and status without worrying about tertiary education or company loyalty, and slogging your way up the ranks.

I also caution against overstating the damaging impact of labour unrest. Sometimes we speak as though we do not live in a globalised world. South African pessimism does more to damage our future than almost anything else. Platinum mines announced sharp losses for production during last year's strikes, but they have just announced that platinum production in February this year is 66% higher than in February last year. Overall mine production was up 7% in 2012.

As another example, Aveng Construction complained about losses to strikes at Medupi last year, but the company recently announced 30% profits and this during the world's worst recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

South Africa is a country of remarkable opportunity. We need to focus more on telling the world about that, than in overstressing short-term challenges.

Here are some tips for more thoughtful negotiations this labour season:

  • Send managers on labour-relations courses, conflict resolution, and emotional intelligence courses.
  • Focus on the positive; praise workers where due, and highlight superstars.
  • Good working conditions often count for more than high pay. Ensure that staff has clean, comfortable working environments and training opportunities for career development.
  • Establish binding relationships that are sturdy and long term. Disputes may ultimately be resolved in a more cordial manner when the parties have a stake in maintaining a mutually beneficial shared future.
  • Clarify how you will handle future misunderstandings by creating dispute-resolution clauses.
  • Draft your agreement in accordance with industry standards and set the bar at a mutually agreed height.
  • Insure yourself against non-performance by the other party through intelligent risk management.
  • Use an expert to draw up a contract in easy-to-understand English. And remember the longer an agreement is, the more likely it is to be broken because one side is going to forget the all-important clause 146 or 297.
  • After both parties have signed, celebrate together. These acts emphasise and solidify the relationship, while placating any ruffled feathers.
  • Think beyond the agreement. Both parties want commitment, performance, and durability. An intelligent agreement should reflect these attitudes.

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