Trade unions must adapt to change

Labour relations registrar Lehlohonolo Molefe intends to cancel the registration of Amcu as a trade union.
Labour relations registrar Lehlohonolo Molefe intends to cancel the registration of Amcu as a trade union.
Image: ALON SKUY

Such used to be the power of the organised working class that May Day used to be an important date on our political calender.

Important policy statements were pronounced at May Day rallies or in reaction to such gatherings. In an election year, Workers' Day rallies would even be used to gauge the level of support for various parties going to the polls.

These days, there are still rallies, for sure, but they are no longer well-attended and political leaders no longer have sleepless nights over poor turnouts.

All of this points to the waning influence of the once mighty South African labour movement.

At one stage, trade union federations such as Cosatu, Fedusa and Nactu had over 3-million in combined membership. We would be stretching it today if we put the figure of organised labour at more than 1.5-million members.

Much of the decline in membership is due to the jobs bloodbath brought about by an underperforming economy. But unions, too, should take the blame for failing to adapt to this era of industry disruptions caused by technology and innovation.

Too many local unions are stuck in the "Struggle mode" of the late 1980s and are proving useless in servicing the needs of workers whose jobs are increasingly being taken over by computers, or are moving to rival markets.

Tomorrow, members of various federations and their affiliated unions will be gathering across the country to celebrate Workers' Day. Their leaders will issue various demands to government and business, which will most likely be ignored. This is the state of our labour movement today - big on slogans and "revolutionary talk" but woefully unprepared to protect their members in light of a rapidly changing labour environment.

After all the sloganeering, all the campaigning for political party X or Y, it would serve our labour movement well to do some introspection on whether, in their current forms and practices, they are really able to service their members. Without this introspection, organised labour's power will continue to diminish.

And that would be an unwelcome development because trade unions do have an important role to play in a system that remains highly exploitative and thrives on racial inequality.

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