Edition: November 2018/January 2019


Time for a more democratic workplace?

Yes, says President Cyril Ramaphosa*. Drawing on surveys conducted amongst COSATU shop stewards over a 30-year period, this recently published study** concludes that hes probably right.

Contrary to popular stereotypes, not all shop stewards see themselves in permanent opposition to managements. Some 30% of respondents in 1991 and 33% in 2012 agreed with the statement that management and workers have the same aims and objectives. Given the high levels of conflict within SA industrial relations, this comes as a surprise.

In spite of the high degree of cooperation between management and labour, identified in both surveys, the idea of workers’ control of the economy is deeply entrenched among these shop stewards. However, the questions are not comparable across the surveys.

In the earlier survey, respondents were asked to choose among the options of nationalisation, regulation and private ownership of key sectors. In the later survey, they were asked whether they agreed or disagreed with each.

In 2012, some 65% agreed with nationalisation (i.e. government owning and controlling companies in key sectors of the economy) while 73% favoured government regulation. Notably, a related question was comparable across the two surveys: the proportions of shop stewards feeling that workers should share in the profits of companies was 95% in 1991 and 84% in 2012.

At the core of the concept of workers’ control is the independence of the trade union and the right to strike. The 93% majority of those interviewed believed in retaining this right in the 1991 survey and 97% in 2012. Relatively few respondents in the 2012 survey (24%) agreed or strongly agreed that there are times when it is necessary to use violence against non-striking workers.

A far higher proportion in the 2012 survey (71%) agreed or strongly agreed that, while violence is unacceptable, non-striking workers should be taught lessons in non-violent ways. Most shop stewards (82%) felt that there should be political engagement with non-striking workers to convince them to join strikes. Only 39% agreed or strongly agreed that non-striking workers should be left alone to go to work if they so choose.

Shop stewards’ responses seem to indicate a tension between their strategic need to cooperate with management in their day-to-day work, on the one hand, and their long-term objective of establishing greater worker participation and control on the other. Their responses leave open the form of worker participation that should be implemented.

Worker control is an ambiguous concept. It is not clear whether our respondents conceive of it along the lines of the German system of co-determination, or a more thoroughgoing radical transformation of ownership, control and indeed society.

In other words, where plant-level bargaining existed, shop stewards were engaged in collective bargaining but they all participated in broader decisions around workers’ grievances and even joint problem-solving. Shop-steward committees thus performed a dual function: they engaged in collective bargaining and participated in joint problem-solving where problems arose in production.

In 1995 the Labour Relations Act was amended (at Chapter 5) to allow for the formation of a workplace forum when there are more than 100 workers in a workplace. The purpose of the forum is to promote workers’ interests by consulting and making joint decisions. Employers must provide relevant information to these forums.

A majority trade union -- one or more trade unions whose members comprise a majority of the workers employed -- may start the process of establishing a workplace forum by applying to the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation & Arbitration. The functions of a forum are to promote the interests of all workers in the workplace, to enhance workplace efficiency, for workers to consult with the employer and for workers to be part of decision-making.

Instead of following this path of institutionalised co-determination, the labour movement has opted for engagement with employers on the basis of a union agenda and union independence. The aim is to transform and democratise the workplace.

Webster...crucial findings

At the centre of this strategy, as the instrument for worker participation at plant level, is the shop steward. Although we found a surprising degree of cooperation with management among many shop stewards, the attempt to transfer a German-type system of co-determination -- envisaged in Chapter 5 -- has failed. Instead, we’ve identified a multiplicity of union–management participatory structures at workplace level.

Our ethnographic account of participation at plant level suggests that workers feel disempowered and unable significantly to shape decision-making.

The loss of majority status by the National Union of Mineworkers on the platinum belt may signal a broader trend towards multi-unionism in the workplace.

This opens an opportunity for discussion around how a multi-union participatory structure could be established in the workplace for unions to make common demands and interact with management. It may also be a way in which the growing social distance between union leadership and ordinary membership could be reduced.

Clear from our findings is the need for the current low-trust dynamic between management and workers to be systematically addressed.

*For comments by Ramaphosa, see ‘Boardrooms’ in this TT edition.

**The study was conducted by Prof Edward Webster, Christine Bischoff and Themba Masondo. Webster now heads the Southern Centre for Inequality Studies (SCIS), the first research institute of its kind in the global south. It draws on the intellectual resources of Wits University, with partner institutions in SA and beyond, to host an interdisciplinary research and policy project focused on understanding and addressing inquality in the global south. Although there are a number of centres for the study of inequality worldwide, they are almost exclusively in the global north particularly the UK and US. “We believe that there are distinct drivers and characteristics of inequality in the south,” says Webster.