Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The labour power vacuum.

Can management restore legitimate power in the workplace?

On the surface it seems to be about some unassuming Trade Union offices at the now familiar Marikana platinum mine near Rustenburg.

But that’s clearly understating the breadth and depth of the issues at stake – issues that are much wider than even the Farlam commission of inquiry into the Marikana shootings will finally cover.

This onion in South Africa’s economy and labour relations has many layers that at their heart are challenging a myriad of assumptions, not only about organised labour but about power itself.

The first layer is about the battle for recognition between AMCU (The Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union) and NUM (National Union of Mineworkers). The mine owner, Lonmin has confirmed that AMCU now has a membership of 70% and NUM about 20%, reflecting a significant shift in representation in the last year or so, and challenging the latter’s right to office space at the mine. That’s a thin layer of onion in itself – but pungent enough to have triggered another “wild-cat” strike at the mine recently.

The thicker layer underneath of course, is union rivalry reminiscent of the 1980’s when there was a scramble for membership by unions who had been formed after Nic Wiehahn’s famous freedom of association reforms. They in turn were in no small measure prompted by the absence of a political franchise and the belief that some form of expressing majority aspirations was needed, and that the place to do this was in the workplace. That gave an extremely risky onion layer in the form of politicising the workplace – which explains the extreme degree of political expression in organised labour in South Africa, including the tripartite alliance between the ANC, COSATU, and the SACP.

Which bring us to a deeper layer – the centralisation of power politically, economically and in the labour movement. With that centralisation comes an increasing level of interaction and collusion with other powerful constituents such as government and big business, leading to compromise and a softening of former populist and intransigent positions. On the surface this may appear to be a good thing, were it not for the fact that with greater centralisation of power, one also finds increased corruption, nepotism, very strong personal jockeying for positions and a growing degree of alienation with rank and file membership. This alienation is exacerbated by unrealistic expectations created by the power mongers themselves.

There are clear signs of a fragmentation of centralised power in the support base on the political and labour fronts. Even capital globally is experiencing a strengthening wave of resistance to the centralisation of economic power in big corporates. The chronic civil unrest that has given South Africa the dubious title of “protest capital of the world” rests on a litany of broken promises and unrealistic expectations.

Disillusionment with power and fragmentation of support amongst workers has created a vacuum that has quickly been seized upon by rival and more radical unions such as AMCU against the NUM and BAWUSA vs. FAWU in the farm-workers protests.

But even here, despite their growing membership, these alternative players no longer have the absolute support of workers, leading to an increasing number of spontaneous, wild-cat, and illegal stoppages. In response, the rival unions are again at war with their most important weapon being false promises and the further entrenchment of unrealistic expectations. In a clear attempt to out-trump AMCU, the NUM’s current wage demands in the gold and coal mining sectors must rank as one of the more outrageous leaving its mark on the financial markets.

Current labour trends, including unemployment are clearly untenable and are challenging many of our long held assumptions about collective and centralised bargaining, the Labour Relations act itself, but the most important of all, this obscene haggling based on an assumed adversarial and competitive relationship between the three economic estates of labour, capital and government – a stance that is jealously guarded by vested interests in those groups.

All of this rests on a flawed understanding of the true nature of power, which is at the core of the onion. People submit to power willingly when it is seen to have their interest at heart. That is the key condition that makes power legitimate and sustainable, and distinguishes it from control based either on seduction or coercion which is mistakenly seen as synonymous with power.

The only group that can exercise legitimate power in the workplace on a day to day, minute to minute basis is management itself. They have ultimate control of those factors that forge employee trust and loyalty. The Chamber of Mines knows this. They have the results of extensive research done in the gold and coal mining industries in the 80’s that showed that trust in the workplace was based on the care and development of subordinates at all levels of employment. In turn a key element of that was dependent on the relationship between the subordinate and the immediate supervisor.

Trade Unions and their shop-stewards simply don’t have the ability to replicate that trust. They are mere surrogates whose primary weapons are false promises, seduction and coercion. These are instruments of control, not legitimate power.

This is the messy, difficult and complex aspect of industrial relations. South African business has generally failed dismally in applying it. The pillars of power in the workplace rest much more on engagement and involvement than on incentives such as pay. The latter is seduction, not power. Threats of lay-offs are coercion not power. They are control instruments that give Trade Unions their succour.

The World Economic Forum ranks South Africa’s labour relations as the worst in the world. Large employers may have found it expedient up to now to work within a commodity expression of labour, and an assumed adversarial relationship between labour and capital. After all, with layoffs being its final nuclear device in part to protect profit maximisation, it has been dealing with labour on familiar and uncomplicated terms.

“Labour relations are at a crossroads”, says Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan. Employee engagement and involvement are the only real and tangible instruments left that can restore legitimate power in the workplace. It may be a long and hard slog, but it has to start with acceptance that the current system is simply inappropriate, untenable and unsustainable. We need reminding perhaps of how Germany and Japan were able to create sustainable and exemplary participative industrial relations out of war trauma and deprivation.

Despite its frightening features, a labour power vacuum creates an opportunity for management to reclaim legitimate power through sound servant leadership practices.

And they can do so independently of the big constituents.

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