The German revolutionary socialist, the great Karl Marx once said ‘Workers of the world unite; you have nothing to lose but your chains’. This was fuelled by the understanding that the capitalist system does not care about the worker. To a capitalist a worker it’s but a tool for generating revenue and exploitative profits which the capitalist has no interest in sharing with the worker.

Unions have real and measurable successes that it can sell to any of the new Industry workers and professionals, whose benefits are today being enjoyed by the very people as almost a natural phenomenon. All benefits that workers enjoy today, including 1 hour lunches, were heavily fought for and won by an organized worker.

As Kavi Guppta puts it, ‘It’s because of collective bargaining and worker protests that some work forces today enjoy the right to argue for wage increases, access affordable healthcare, and improved working conditions within the workplace among many other achievements. In fact, Workers Day, a public holiday celebrated in many countries at various times of the year, was created at the insistence of organized labor unions’.

Over the years however, what used to be a wage that could barely sustain workers and their families has now become modern day slave wage where workers can barely earn enough to honor their commitments to the workplace? Workers today barely earn enough for transport and food to sustain their work life.

One thing remains true now as it was then. Government policy remains the main hope for the change of the plight of workers. According to Statistics South Africa, The unionization of the workforce was at its peak in 1997 at 45.2% of total employment and has since dropped to 25.4% in 2012. There are 3.2-million unionized workers, but 13-million employees in South Africa at last count.

As with other modernizing countries, what has been quickening the decline has been the decline in the manufacturing and mining employment as both industries are slowly upended by global competition and global demand. Unions are clearly alive to this decline in the union membership. The breakaway of Cosatu’s biggest affiliate Numsa can easily be viewed as in part due to the lack of agreement in how to stop the decline.

Many South African employees will tell you that they have never been actively recruited by any union member so that you almost have to look around as an employee for a union. This inability to engage in a wide scale organizing of new members in workplaces and offices has contributed in unions decline and losing their viability as workers work for years. 

One of the issues that would have been expected from COSATU’s alliance with ANC as the ruling party is to push for laws that require everyone who enters the workplace to belong to a union. This would have ensured that Unions are required to come to workplaces regularly to present to workers about the importance of union membership and their rights as workers.  This would have ensured that unions derive direct power from government to counter the forces of private businesses and their exploitative tendencies. 

No employer should ever be apathetic about employees ability to organize and be part of the union force. As with other countries, no company should ever be allowed to respond aggressively to employees without significant penalties in the face of labor organizing efforts. In an article entitled, ‘The Challenge Facing U.S. Labor Unions’ published at voanews.com, the author points to work done by Analyst Kent Long of the University of California, Los Angeles in understanding challenges and growth opportunities of workers?

Kent Long points out a number of white-collar jobs that could provide new growth for unions. “The areas,” he says “where unions have historically been weak are the professional employees (accountants, etc), among high-tech workers (and) among workers in the banking and finance industry.”

In South Africa, Just 15 companies account for one million private sector jobs. It goes without saying that a paradigm shift in professionals to appreciate the importance and power of unions needs to happen and not only when they are being victimized. Private companies need to encourage their workers to unionize and for unions themselves to embark on the wide recruitment scale. 

Another area unions have not exploited is to ensure that while future employees are still at universities and TVET colleges, they are made to appreciate the importance of worker unions. This is fertile ground as universities have proven to be highly conscious and highly political.  The situation in other countries has been a decline of unions in the percentage of workers who are unionized relative to the total workforce and surveys which say many employees would actually like to belong to a union. 

Unions also need to be embark on rebranding what people understand and know about union workers. What springs to mind is the stereotypical union worker in overalls and riding an afternoon train. These stereotypical notions of what union workers resemble must shift. Union membership should not only be limited to certain working class groups but should also be extended to high rise offices on South Africa’s golden mile and be given the opportunity to belong to a union. 

The past generations have achieved so much through unions and South Africans continue to stand on their shoulders today. It is time for this generation to take the baton, join the union, and give the worker the dignity and protection to work in conditions that will allow them to thrive and feel safe. 


Bhekithemba Mbatha is South African Students Congress (SASCO) Regional Secretary for the Johannesburg Region. 

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