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26 July 2001
The Power of the Unions

I wonder how many government officials ever felt that dreaded feeling when the unions decide to call a dispute. Personally I don't have much to do with the unions, their representatives or their shop stewards though I do know a lot of workers belonging to these unions.

We are probably all aware of the fact that the unions "rule the roost" so to speak in a country that was predominantly surviving economically off the sweat of the black man and the savvy of the white. Unions have a place in the workplace. There are way too many (especially these days) rip-off artists around that is in dire need of being ripped-off themselves. However, with everything in life there is a limit to the extend you can force your hand.

The ANC had a bit of a problem when they came into power. There stallwart comrades were all involved in the unions. Slowly but surely the government started moving their friends out of the unions and into the government. Jay Naidu for one was running NUMSA (if my memory serves me right) and from there he went straight into the Minister of Telecommunications portfolio. The same with old Sam and a couple after that. No wonder the unions started feeling hostile towards the government. And that is probably where the "stand-off" started.

The unions mobilised their members quite effectively in the struggle against apartheid. Can they do the same now for poverty, unemployment and education? How far are they prepared to go against the ANC government?

All this union talk gets me to the latest protest - South Africa's major electricity provider is being threatened by striking workers. The dispute revolves around wages (what else). Strikes this year mostly revolved around wages. If not a demand for an increase in minimum wage, then a demand for a specific minimum increase in all wages.

The unions wanted 2 Percent higher increases than what Eskom offered. The big issue here is that Eskom announced the increases without consulting with the unions. They offered 7 Percent for the high-end earners and 9 Percent for the lower earners. The upped their offer after 20 000 workers went on strike though not to the minimum demanded by the unions. All of a sudden the unions are happy. We all know that we have to compromise so obviously Eskom through in a couple of bonusses like extended leave etc.

But let's look at the bigger picture here. How much is this all costing the country? Never mind the profitability and viability of the company targeted by the unions. The moment a company shows profit, the unions demand more money for their workers. Haven't they heard about the global slowdown? Don't they know about companies worldwide retrenching millions of workers, or is it simply a question of "don't care"?

Let's hope that the "fatcat" union bosses consider their workers more than what they do their inflated salaries and luxury lifestyles. When the workers strike, there is no pay for them though the bosses can still maintain their lifestyles.