Edition: May/July 2018
Labour’s clear voice
Approach of Fedusa leader encourages optimism for collaboration with the private sector and government in national challenges ahead.
To spend time chatting even briefly with Dennis George, the Federation of Unions of SA general secretary, is to offer promise that adversarial relationships between organised labour, government and the business community can be cracked on issues of national import.
Resolutely committed to the interests of labour, he enthusiastically propounds the bigger picture of working together in the interests of all. His cordiality defies the stereotype of a unionist speaking from oneupmanship and spoiling for a scrap.
Basic to his thinking is “industrial democracy”, so much so that he’s completing his PhD thesis on the subject. The essential partnership, as he describes it, is for companies to provide the entrepreneurship and for savings institutions such as pension funds to provide the capital. “Our role as stakeholders is integral,” he insists.
Exciting for him, with President Cyril Ramaphosa having set out a vision previously lacking, is the impending jobs summit (“we cannot allow it to fail”) and the Youth Employment Service or YES initiative (“where the question is how we invest to counter the scourge of youth unemployment”). The former cannot succeed without labour participation and the latter without pension funds’ contribution.
Ever the activist, George has articulated the Fedusa argument for the appointment of labour representatives to the board of the Public Investment Corporation. In support, he cites the founding declaration of Nedlac for government, business and labour together to (amongst other things) “increase participation by all major stakeholders in economic decision-making – at national, company and shopfloor level – to foster cooperation in production of wealth and its equitable distribution”.
Obviously, the PIC is the bedrock because it manages assets of the Government Employees Pension Fund that is often the largest single shareholder in the major JSE-listed corporates and supports black-owned enterprises besides. The role that the PIC can play is an activist shareholder is catalytic, and the more it does so the more it fires the torch for pension funds overall.
Moot is whether the PIC has been sufficiently and successfully activist. The reasons for its failure to have anticipated the Steinhoff debacle can long be debated, but does illustrate that its present assertiveness needn’t escape review. And unions might be less disgruntled were their representatives to share responsibility.
Parliament’s standing committee on finance, George points out, has already decided that there should be “appropriate representation” of GEPF members’ trade unions on the PIC board. To solidify unity of purpose, he believes, nominations must be done through Nedlac after consultation with trade unions represented on the GEPF.
The questions he wants asked are the number that will be appropriate and the criteria that will be required. As with unionists on the boards of retirement funds, he acknowledges, they cannot come with union mandates.
“We sit at Nedlac. We don’t want to talk only to government but also to stakeholders and civil society. We believe that the way we’ve engaged with the ratings agencies was a strength for SA,” he says.
Probably because it’s in an electoral pact with the ANC and SA Communist Party, Cosatu is louder in shouting causes and grabbing headlines. Also, because of affiliated unions in the public sector, its membership is larger than that of Fedusa’s some 700 000 who aren’t in a voting alliance.
He laments that the new union association under Zwelinzima Vavi isn’t also there, jointly with the large federations, to speak collectively for organised labour.
What of George himself? His relatively low profile perhaps reflecting his modesty, his stature as a negotiator is high. He holds an MSc (in the management of technology and innovation) and takes pride in helping effectively to build trust “across business, government, labour and community constituencies to produce wider economic, social and environmental benefits for SA society as a whole”.
He represents Fedusa in international fora including the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and the International Labour Organisation. National Treasury invites him to meetings with the ratings agencies.
The Fedusa general secretary since 1998, he’s come a long way since he started out 20 years ago as a Sanlam marketing consultant.