LABOUR unions punch above their weight, but they are also said to be facing a “crisis of relevance”.
As the unions prepare to celebrate Workers’ Day on Thursday, they should take a hard look at themselves and reassess their future, say experts.
On the surface, it may seem that unions have a chokehold on business, but this could be the last kick of a dying horse.
Union membership has been falling over the past 20 years due largely to increasing distrust among their members.
Latest figures from Adcorp show that since 2006 unions have lost 459 625 members.
Total union membership plummeted from 3.5-million in 2006 to 2.9-million in 2014.
In the past 12 months alone, membership has fallen 9.3%, wiping out millions in income.
Since 2006, unions have lost R99-million a year in membership fees.
Although 183 trade unions are registered with the Department of Labour, most of them are inactive. The department has also deregistered some due to their failure to comply with regulations.
The loss of union membership is due partly to the younger generation not seeing union membership in the same way as people of the older generation.
Older workers preferred collective action, whereas people of the younger generation believe in individual action.
Younger employees prefer to be rewarded based on their personal contribution rather than that of their peers, according to Adcorp labour economist Loane Sharp.
Sharp says that trade unions find it hard to justify charging members a monthly fee of R75. This might also account partly for Cosatu wanting to keep younger people out of the workforce by opposing the youth wage subsidy.
At the moment, the unionisation rate for the entire workforce stands at 23.4%: about one in four workers is unionised.
This is heavily concentrated in government and mining. The rate in the public sector is 81%; in the private sector it is 78%.
Solidarity spokesman Johan Kruger says that his union has more than 250 000 members. The formerly Afrikaner union was founded on June 22 1902 .
Kruger says it is hard for new unions to make inroads among workers.
So he is not surprised that unions such as the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) have taken radical steps to attract members from rivals.
Solidarity’s general secretary, Gideon du Plessis, says that local unions need to learn from Europe and the US that “when you deal with a worker you are not only focusing on the workplace — you are dealing with the citizen of the country”.
Du Plessis also thinks trade unions need to brush up their image.
However, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) national treasurer Mphumzi Maqungo claims that membership numbers are swelling — despite all the job losses and rising unemployment.
Maqungo says that during the 2008 and 2009 global recession union membership was hit hard with companies retrenching, but his union has been working to recruit new members.
According to research conducted by the South African Social Attitudes Survey at the Human Sciences Research Council, this is proving difficult because the trust of South Africans in trade unions is withering.
In 2011, more than two-fifths of the population (42%) said they trusted trade unions.
In 2013, this had fallen to 26%, with 42% of those surveyed saying they distrusted trade unions and the remainder choosing to be neutral.
The researchers, Steven Gordon, Benjamin Roberts and Jare Struwig, say that with building a working-class consciousness being one of the central themes of the South African trade union movement, the rise of active distrust among these groups should be cause for deep concern in the labour movement.
Another concern should be that membership participation in strikes has also been thinning over the years.
Adcorp says that the variance in strike attendance among members is between 0% and 8.8% due to factors such as goals, duration and the time of year of the strikes.
Since 2012, when there was a spate of illegal strikes on the mines, union members have begun to voice unhappiness with union leaders.
Then striking workers at Gold Fields, Aurora, Lonmin and elsewhere accused trade union leaders belonging to the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) of being too close to management and too willing to compromise on workers’ demands in 2012.
Many mineworkers have dumped the NUM for Amcu, but with the platinum mining strike this year dragging on for three months, reports suggest that some of the disgruntled miners are returning to the NUM.
South Africa has also been hit by a trend of protests bypassing trade union structures.
The violent 2012 protests by farmworkers in the Western Cape were just one example of union impotence, signalling a breakdown in trust.
Union membership benefits are also under the microscope of members.
Most published studies have found that on average South Africa’s unionised workers are earning wages that are about 20% higher than those of nonunion workers
However, this may not be entirely correct, according to University of Cape Town research. The director of the university’s school of economics, Professor Haroon Bhorat, argues that most of the studies do not adequately take into account that wage levels are determined by a multitude of factors.
Bhorat and his team of researchers discovered that when the type of work, firm characteristics and non-wage benefits were taken into account properly, the wage premium associated with union membership was significantly lower, at between 6% and 7%.
This should be a sobering conclusion for union members, with members questioning the benefits of trade-union affiliation.
This week, Amcu and platinum producers failed to break the deadlock over the R12 500 wage demand, and it looks like efforts to end the costly strike have not succeeded.
Nedbank chairman Reuel Khoza believes the strike has affected the mining sector more negatively than people realise.
He says investment in the country is being trampled on by people who are ideologically driven and abusing democracy.
Khoza says the unions need to understand that when they have made their point, and the war is over, anybody who continues to fight “winds up losing”.
• This article was first published in Sunday Times: Business Times