Changes in the South African labour market have created a shift from traditional mining and manufacturing sectors making up most of the work force to include more and more retail and service related industries. This does not change the potential for unions to operate but it does change who and why someone might join a union.
The mining unions have seen a shake up with the dominant National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) losing members to the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU). AMCU's more outspoken demands for higher wages during the strikes on the platinum belt last year would have played a role in that.
The complexities of not only the political situation but also the state of the economy will place pressure on unions. Depending on political affiliations, style of engagement with employers and the steady shift to information based occupations which make collective bargaining more difficult, it become more difficult for unions to attract enough members to retain their negotiating power.
Why did the split happen?
According to Cosatu, Numsa’s expulsion came as a result of several violations of the federation constitution, such as not supporting its alliance partner the African National Congress in the May general election. Meanwhile Numsa has in turn accused Cosatu of refusing to hold the special national congress requested by nine of its affiliates that would allow new leadership to be elected. However according to Free Market Foundation Economist Loane Sharpe, the real cause behind the split goes deeper than internal spats and points to more structural issues both for COSATU and the worker’s movement as a whole. Loane counts the dramatic losses of union membership, as one the biggest driving forces. More unions are becoming like businesses, while the age and wage profile of the workforce has resulted in a shift in priorities for leadership and members. Spurred by the growing black middle class the role and impact of the unions has changed. “The ANC – because of its links with Cosatu – is overwhelmingly in favour of the working class, yet the action of the 21st century is going to be the emergence of the black middle class. That is going to change politics, economics, society and everything,” says Sloane. For more on this issue and to hear the rest of Sharpe’s commentary click here.
By Colin Cullis and Kabous le Roux