Monday, May 26, 2014

Goebbels in the workplace

Winning the hearts and minds of a critical constituent of our economic wellbeing

Apart from journalists and students of history, there are possibly few who are familiar with the name, Paul Joseph Goebbels. As the architect and captain of Hitler’s mighty propaganda machine in war time Germany, he has become a lasting case study in communications theory.

Two things stand out as lessons for any aspiring dictator or autocrat: repeating something often enough increases its believability, and controlling all sources of information is the ultimate weapon of subjugation. I’m often reminded of the refrain “Goebbels, Goebbels, Goebbels”, when confronted with incessant repeats of adverts on TV. His second rule: that of controlling communication sources, explains our deep devotion to freedom of speech as an absolute of freedom itself and its revered status in democracy.

Few events in South Africa in recent times have illustrated this more powerfully and perhaps tragically than the platinum mine strike. Whatever the outcome of the resumed talks, the extended strike has left in its wake many significant firsts. One was when trade union AMCU went to court after the employer communicated directly by cell phone with Union members (see report here). Irrespective of the merits for and against the content of that message, closely guarded jealousies about who should talk to workers and what they are allowed to say are a serious problem in South African industrial relations.

Against this background, one has to take one’s hat off to AMCU and its President, Joseph Mathunjwa as an activist and champion of worker grievances. The “R12500” slogan has been broadly branded and endlessly repeated. Even the neutral perhaps less aware observer that at first could have baulked at its excessive level, may have begun to think “why don’t they just pay it!” Such sentiment is based less on the affordability of the increase than familiarity with the figure. Employers have conceded the strength of the brand by agreeing at one point to that level of entry pay, albeit spread over three years and inclusive of bonuses and other benefits.

Organised labour has always had a rallying strength far exceeding that of employers through ideological solidarity, chanting, dancing, marches, intimidation, a propensity for violence, and focussing on a specific grievance that can be repeated regularly as a clarion call and easily converted into a hypnotic chant. All of this goes some way to explain the puzzling paradox that workers will fight to the death for their freedom, but are quite willing to subject themselves to the authoritarian rule of a Union.

Organised labour is extremely adept at integrating genuine macro issues with worker grievances as AMCU has shown by linking extreme levels of executive pay to the plight of hard working underground miners. Those who up to now may have scoffed at pay disparities being a real issue need to take note. It is becoming a regular subject in wage negotiations and no doubt will increasingly give fuel to this highly destructive economic fire. Being disdainful about its economic logic will not make it go away.

But organised labour’s greatest triumph has been to virtually monopolise communication. This has been forged more by history than the barriers of language, culture, ethnicity and awareness.

Despite subjective assessments about whether his and his Union’s actions are in the interests of its members and indeed labour as a whole, Mathunjwa is simply a superb example of our war theatre expression of the workplace. That expression is cast firmly in an acceptance of the inevitable conflict between labour and capital; the commodity expression of labour, ideological paradigms of capitalism, communism and socialism; and huge, mostly inexplicable pay differences.

Those stark battle lines were drawn many years ago, going back to the Wiehahn commission in the late seventies, and the absence of broad political franchise. In this vacuum it was simply inevitable that political and ideological drivers that were reaching a crescendo in the Cold War would be strongly transferred to the workplace. Indeed, despite the collapse of the Berlin wall and the demise of communism, these out dated and counterproductive ideological differences are alive and well still today, exacerbated by capitalism’s own crisis.

It was something that I had not fully understood when I decided to leave broadcasting in 1990 to promote economic awareness in the workplace. Having lived through the consequences of Wiehahn and the tumult of inter union and union/management power struggles in the 80s’, I believed the key was simply awareness and communication. I was appalled at the extent to which management had already surrendered much of the communication task to organised labour. In part this was because they had never fully appreciated that it was an important management accountability. As one large store manager told me: “What do they expect me to do; run a store or communicate with staff!”

Direct communication with staff was mostly seen as much less of a priority than engaging organised labour and being part of the war game. For the most part, in- house industrial relations formed part of a strategy to take on the unions, supporting some and neutralising others. Engaging organised labour took priority over directly wooing individual employees to support a common purpose, common values and a sense of common fate.

The barriers I spoke of earlier, especially of language and culture were mostly seen as insurmountable, and the most important medium of all, that of direct communication between supervisor and subordinate was simply side-lined. Management reverted to surrogates such as electronic and print media, or ostentatious gatherings and walk-abouts by a mostly distrusted “sir” or “madam” from head office.

Organised labour did not have to wrest control of communications from management. They were simply given it. Goebbels could not have done better. Still today, as another of Marikana’s enduring lessons, employee communications is largely the Cinderella to the sisters of shareholders and the market.

Few things are more important to the South Africa economy at present than a greater degree of industrial harmony. This cannot be achieved without some balance in communication and improvement in employee awareness. Management simply has to restore full and effective communication with its workers. One essential is that it has to develop first line supervisors as the most credible and best armed source of information.

Above all, employee communication has to have more credibility. This rests on the understanding that its main aim is the development and empowerment of the recipient. It is not about manipulation. This was ultimately the undoing of the man called Paul Joseph Goebbels.

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