A tentative step towards curbing union destructiveness

William Saunderson-Meyer on the new secret ballot obligation on labour


It’s a “Stalingrad tactic”. It’s a “nightmare interference”, a ploy to take away the basic rights of our fellow citizens.

It’s “provocative” and “draconian” and will be fiercely resisted.

Yup, it’s the legal obligation on the unions to conduct a secret ballot of their members before embarking on a strike. This new requirement in the Labour Relations Act came into effect in January, but implementation was delayed to allow the Registrar of Trade Unions time to conduct information sessions for unions and employers’ associations.

It is now being implemented. Last week, in a notice sent to all unions, the registrar warned that their registrations may be cancelled if they do not comply with immediate effect.

On the face of it, not much reason for fuss and fury. The bedrock of participative democracy is the right to vote. The nub of the vote is that it is secret.

To this first principle, hundreds of thousands, through the centuries, have devoted their lives. Many, not least in South Africa’s recent history, have sacrificed their lives to achieve to that goal.

Without the second, democracy is an illusion. If your spouse, your neighbour, your boss, or the state security apparatus have sight of the choice you made on your ballot, you cannot exercise a truly free choice.

Which is exactly why some powerful players are opposed to the new law. Real trade union democracy will weaken their power to intimidate their opponents and manipulate their members.

The SA Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu) has threatened a general strike and intends approaching the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the Constitutional Court to try to block the law. Saftu’s biggest affiliate, the metalworkers’ union, Numsa, has threatened the kind of rolling mass action that once upon a time, many years ago, used to terrify the government and paralyse the country.

The combative mining and construction union, Amcu, is also strongly opposed, instead favouring a show of hands to decide strike actions. Further strong words must be expected at the Amcu congress being held this week — an event hastily convened to avoid deregistration for having “ceased to function” as a “genuine trade union”, in not having had a national elective congress in more than six years.

These unions are correct to be worried. Wildcat, destructive actions, unleashed at the whim of firebrand, self-aggrandising leaders, are powerful weapons precisely because they are unconstrained by any process that allows for a pause, alternative viewpoints and moderation before acting.

One must wonder, for example, how many Amcu members would have voted for — and continued voting to prolong — the recent strike at Sibanye Gold, instead of accepting the deal that had been struck between the miner and its rival, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM).

The Amcu strike lasted five months before collapsing without an improved offer. It will take the Amcu strikers, fodder in their union’s stratagem to displace NUM by being more radical, around 15 years to recoup their lost wages. Meanwhile, at least nine non-strikers were murdered and some 60 had their homes burnt down.

It is this bitter and violent rivalry between the newer, more radical unions and those of the African National Congress-aligned Congress of SA Trade Unions (Cosatu), that has caused the split in union views on the secret ballot.

While the registrar’s threats of legal sanctions have angered it, Cosatu says it is “not opposed in principle” to secret ballots. Its affiliate, NUM, says the secret ballot will “democratise the workplace”. Other, smaller and non-aligned, have expressed the view that the ballot will cut the incidence and length of industrial action.

Cosatu’s approach is driven somewhat by being painfully aware of its vulnerability to Saftu exploiting shop floor flash points to nibble away at Cosatu’s membership. It knows that it will benefit from a more measured process.

In the United Kingdom, it was the introduction especially of the secret ballot, strenuously resisted, that in the 1980s bridled the power of the British trade union movement. Today, secret strike ballots are unremarkable elsewhere in the world and have for at least two decades enjoyed the approval of the same ILO that Saftu is hoping will help overturn the new law here.

In SA, if the secret ballot law is implemented — meaning that fines are levied or deregistrations carried out — it would set us on course to drastically limit the economic and political chaos that the unions can unleash.

Unfortunately, that’s not going to happen. The secret ballot is open to fraud if not overseen by an independent entity, which is not the case here. More importantly, in terms of life, limb and property, unions must carry legal responsibility for the violence and destruction carried out by their members during marches, demonstrations and pickets. Again, that is not the case here.

Added to that, the ANC has an unhappy history of passing laws that it lacks the political will — never mind policing and prosecutorial resources — to implement.

Nevertheless, by their attitude to secret ballot actions, ye shall know them. Think of former president Jacob Zuma, when he feared that a secret ballot by the ANC’s national executive committee, would unseat him. And recall the Democratic Alliance, when it feared that a secret ballot of councillors would stymie its efforts to get rid former Cape Town mayor, Patricia de Lille.

Democracy is all well and good, as long as it delivers the results you want. If not, not.

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