We need our own Margaret Thatcher to handle toxic unions - 15th April 2013.

John Kane-Berman, the CEO of the Institute, says that unions such as Cosatu and Sadtu "are fond of posturing as revolutionaries. But when it comes to opening up opportunities to the black jobless, they are the most reactionary force on the block."

Perhaps the most interesting of the articles that appeared in South African newspapers last week about Margaret Thatcher was one by S'Thembiso Msomi in The Times. Recalling her "smashing" of the power of British trade unions, he suggested that the "destructive behaviour" of the South African Democratic Teachers' Union (Sadtu) - embarking yet again on action undermining the schooling of black children - was enough to turn a "dyed-in-the-wool social democrat into a rabid Thatcherite".

 Msomi has planted the seed of an idea bound to grow. Sadtu is no doubt so imbued with the sense of its own impunity that it fails to realise that millions of parents, schoolchildren, and others would rejoice if a South African political leader were to do to it what Thatcher did to Arthur Scargill and his National Union of Mineworkers. 

 One of the bitter ironies of South African industrial relations is that sections of the black trade union movement have become a toxic factor in social, political, and economic life. When that movement was struggling for recognition in the 1970s, it behaved with such restraint and self-discipline that it won the moral high ground against hostile government and hostile employers alike, helping it win the statutory rights it had been seeking for decades.

 Now the unions not only have such rights, they also benefit from labour legislation tilted in their favour. In addition, they enjoy membership of the National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac). And those in the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) have access to government via their membership of the ruling tripartite alliance with the African National Congress (ANC) and the South African Communist Party. 

 Yet they now abuse these privileges. Not only do they veto the liberalisation of labour law without which millions of young people are condemned to lifetime unemployment, they also trash the streets and deal out death, with impunity, to those refusing to obey their dictates during strikes - in which 140 people (excluding those shot at Marikana) have been killed in the last 15 years. This behaviour is partly because some unionists are communists of whom Scargill would be proud.

 As a one-time unionist himself, ANC deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa knows their weak spots. Perhaps he will one day earn himself a place in history by cutting Sadtu and Cosatu down to size. Workers who are deserting some of these unions are in fact already cutting  them down to size. Registered union membership as a proportion of the economically active population has thus dropped from 35% in 1997 to half that, while recent polling shows that worker trust in unions is waning.

Thatcher not only broke the British mining union on the streets, she ended the post World War II consensus in terms of which the union movement was a de facto partner in government, irrespective of whether government was Labour or Conservative. She was bold enough intellectually and brave enough politically to recognise that this partnership was part of the reason for the country's decline, not a way to reverse it.   

However acrimonious it might sometimes be, a similar partnership exists here in the tripartite alliance, supplemented by Nedlac.  

One of the flaws in the National Development Plan (NDP) written by the National Planning Commission is its call for a "social compact" - despite the fact that such a compact will perpetuate the power of organised labour and organised business in institutions such as Nedlac to the detriment of opening up the labour market to the unemployed.

Apart from Nedlac, numerous mini social compacts at industry level in the form of bargaining council agreements give unions and organised business the power to set wage levels above what small business can pay and unemployed workers are willing to accept.   

Cosatu, Sadtu, and similar unions are fond of posturing as revolutionaries. But when it comes to opening up opportunities to the black jobless, they are the most reactionary force on the block. Fortunately, they are busy overplaying their weakening hand.     

(This article was first published as a column in Business Day on 15th April 2013.)

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