Case for salami-slicing away union powers is as strong as ever - Business Day, 10th June 2013.

John Kane-Berman says that the likely capitulation of the ANC to Cosatu over labour law amendments this week confirms that the battle of ideas to liberalise the country's economy will continue for some time. It will, however, be won in the end.

The likely capitulation of the African National Congress (ANC) to the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) over labour law amendments in Parliament this week confirms that the battle to liberalise such law will be as long a haul here as it was in the UK. It is therefore essential to continue hammering away at the idea of liberalisation, irrespective of reverses along the way.

UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s victories at the pit heads and against the flying pickets during the coal miners’ strike in 1984-85 were vital. But so too were the changes to employment law she put through Parliament in terms of her secret "stepping stones" strategy.

Her legislative changes, incorporated in four acts of Parliament spread over her term of office, were astute in how they incrementally sliced away the power of the unions. She also subordinated them to the law.

It took her 10 years to level the playing field the unions had tilted in their favour. She outlawed secondary picketing, forced unions to hold secret ballots before striking, steadily whittled away their immunity privileges, made them liable for damages and finally threw out the closed shop.

The ANC’s current reactionary stance should not allow anyone to suppose that South Africa can achieve the employment targets in the National Development Plan (NDP) without a similar process by which the overweening power of organised labour is salami-sliced away.

A ban on labour broking, which ANC MPs apparently now plan to impose, will mean the end of the NDP’s dreams of reducing unemployment to 6% by 2030.

The first requirement in slicing away union power is to stop intimidation and violence. Union leaders inciting violence during strikes should be imprisoned. If they pull teachers or children out of school they should be charged with assault. Unions should also be forced to pay up for damage they cause in violent demonstrations.

Workers who choose not to strike should have their right to work protected against pickets. Pickets should involve only the employees on strike at the particular workplace and should take place solely outside those premises. No picket should be allowed anywhere near a school.

Next on the reform list is to scrap the cartel-like system in terms of which agreements reached in bargaining councils are extended by ministerial fiat to cover employers and workers not party to them. The Free Market Foundation is commendably challenging this system in court. It is also being contested in the clothing and steel and engineering industries.

It needs to be replaced with a system in which agreements reached in bargaining councils bind only those who voluntarily sign them.

Legislation stipulating that strikes must be sanctioned by secret ballots is also essential. Moreover, such ballots should be independently supervised and held only after employers have had the opportunity to point out the risks that strikes may incur.

Strikes for so-called "socioeconomic" objectives should enjoy no protection at all. Nor should strikes in essential services — teaching among them — be protected.

Furthermore, closed-shop agreements should be outlawed. No worker should be compelled to join, or pay dues to, a union against his will. Employers should also be free to hire temporary, casual and other forms of "atypical" labour for as long as needed. They should also be entitled to dismiss employees simply by giving whatever period of notice has been agreed in the particular employment contract.

Though the ANC might be on the point of capitulating to Cosatu again, it is essential that ideas and policies such as those just outlined are kept alive. Sooner or later they will find their way into some brave and prescient minister’s bottom drawer, to be extracted and enacted when the time is ripe.

As Cosatu and other unions continue to abuse their power, wreck property, intimidate, kill (140 in the past 15 years), and imperil investment, growth, and jobs, the tide will turn against them and their appeasers.

First published in Business Day on 10th June 2013.

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