Unions, violence and inequality before the law

By Zakhele Mthembu BA Law LLB (Wits) is a legal researcher at the Free Market Foundation.By Zakhele Mthembu BA Law LLB (Wits) is a legal researcher at the Free Market Foundation.

South Africa is hailed as the country with the most progressive of labour regimes. We have a constitution that has explicit labour relations rights in section 23. We also have a myriad of supporting legislation such as the Labour Relations Act and the Basic Conditions of Employment Act, amongst others. However, what is hardly spoken of is the effect of union proliferation not only on union employees contrasted with non-union ones, but also on the broader economy.

Unions, historically, have always had a strained relationship with the law. Given their penchant for militancy against employers, they have been charged with damage to property and other crimes of violence in jurisdictions such as the United Kingdom. Unions represent the freedom of anyone to associate. As such, they will never be opposed, a priori, by any proponent of liberty. The problem is that unions have shown repeatedly, protected by the ‘law’ at times, that they do not respect the freedom of others not to associate with them or their members.

In South Africa it is common to hear of ‘igundwane’; being killed for daring to cross the dreaded picket line. The term is a direct translation of ‘rat’ and essentially means that someone is a traitor.  Scenes of employees who choose to go to work when a union is having a strike being beaten or worse are commonplace in South Africa.

It must be made clear that in a free society, freedom of association is an integral part of daily life; this includes the freedom to join or start a union. In a free market economy, no one should be forced to join a union and equally, and no one should be barred from joining one. One is, in general, opposed to the culture of violence and preferential treatment from the state prevalent among South African worker unions, rather than the idea of unions in general.

Whenever the horrid Marikana massacre is spoken if, it is always within the scope of blaming the company and the State – I am sure they are not free from blame. Yet the conduct of workers is not considered. How some of the workers, in their revolutionary zeal, not only barred other workers who did not associate with their grievance from going to work but went to the point of murdering some of them; this side of unionism is not spoken of.

South Africans have normalised the fact that a strike will be accompanied by either violence towards person or property. Even though there are laws against such conduct, the general environment in society and the attitude of the state is that union activities are righteous. When one mentions that employers too have rights and are not more or less deserving of protection than workers and unions are, you get laughed out of the room. It seems that in South Africa, unions are the child that can do no wrong.

These rose-coloured glasses when looking at unions are explained by their being an important organising force during the anti-apartheid struggle. A confederation of unions, as well as the Communist Party, are part of an alliance that with the ruling party that administers National Government. Therefore, even suggesting that unions are not saints is anathema in government.

The laws of the country chose a side a long time ago between workers, and by extension unions as well as employers. The legislative environment that enables unions to come onto an employer’s property and have their meetings there whether the employer agrees to that or not is just one example of the clear slant favouring employees and their unions. The lack of justice, seen or unseen, in the prosecution and punishment of those unions and their members who commit acts of violence against other non-union workers during protests and strikes is telling.

The labour environment which sees the prosperity of labour unions in South Africa (exemplified by the investment arms of the various unions) has an ‘other side’; mainly, an economy that does not inspire confidence nor give incentives towards the hiring of new employees by businesses. Scenes of stoppages to production, for days, weeks or even months, do not inspire confidence in potential investors, local or international, looking to grow their capital.

When conversations about what is needed to turn around the South African economy are had, the power that unions have should be considered. This power is usually exemplified through violence. Failing this, the country will continue down its road to serfdom.