Industrial relations is all about power. Employers usually want to pay their staff as little as they can, while workers want to earn as much as possible. The parties battle it out, sorry ‘negotiate’, until they come to an agreement.
We have seen a wave of industrial action lately, with even doctors learning to toi-toi to further their demands for more pay.
It does seem that Cosatu has a new sense of importance in Jacob Zuma’s South Africa and are using the opportunity to assertively take their members’ demands forward.
The construction workers’ strike has hit the headlines both locally and internationally. CNN ran reports in their sports news that the Fifa 2010 World Cup could be disrupted next year because work had stopped on many of the stadiums to be used at the event. This only a few hours after the strike had started.
There have been many strikes over the last decade where workers have asked the Minister of Labour to intervene. I can’t remember the last occasion when he did – but the high profile nature of the world cup might be one reason why Minister Mdladlana has taken a direct role in negotiations between the National Union of Mineworkers and construction sector employers.
He was joined by Cosatu secretary general Zwelinzima Vavi and Lumka Yengeni who heads parliament’s portfolio committee on labour issues.
The Labour Minister does have the power to set a minimum wage level for a sector so he does have a powerful ace up his sleeve. However the due process requires research and public hearings so it couldn’t be implemented quickly. The proposal to employers is probably, ‘make a significant pay increase now or we’ll institute a Sectoral Determination for your sector’.
As is often the case, the difference between the parties is just a few percentage points. Employers are offering 10.5% and the union wants 13%. As the Deputy Public Works Minister said yesterday, a 10% increase is reasonable for a well paid worker, but not for those who are earning R2 000 a month.
With 70 000 workers on strike over the 2,5% difference the haggling is over something in the region of R500 000 per month or R6 million per year. A lot of money in isolation, but a tiny fraction of the R10 billion that the World Cup stadiums are likely to cost. And of course the strike includes many other projects as well as soccer stadiums.
The tight deadlines for the 2010 construction projects do give more power to unions in their wage negotiations. The calls to their patriotism have so far been unsuccessful. It might seem unfortunate that construction workers are holding the country hostage, but if I was earning as little as R2 000 per month I would also use any leverage that I had!
How about you?