Thursday, September 25, 2014

Labour lawlessness.

The case for holding Union leaders accountable for violence and intimidation.

If someone who has a grudge against you says “If you don’t do as I say, I’ll find you in the shebeens. I’ll come to your home,” it is blatant intimidation and tantamount to extortion. Yet this is what Zwelinzima Vavi, the reinstated General Secretary of the country’s largest Labour umbrella organisation (Cosatu) did in support of actors fired from the SABC soapie, Generations, after a pay dispute. According to this report in Channel24 he went on: “"Don't cross the picket line. Don't make yourself scab labour. Don't add salt to the wound," adding that the names of those auditioning for the series would be made public.

It always amazes me that in collective coercion little thought is given to the rights of the individual who may want to work for whatever reason but whose rights are simply trampled on for what is perceived to be “the greater good”. The slogan “an injury to one is an injury to all” then rings hollow.

I’m not sure what motivated Vavi to make such threats publicly and in a live broadcast of an open media conference. Perhaps he needed to flex his muscles and beat his chest after the embarrassing events that led to his suspension. Perhaps too, Cosatu wants to whip up a frenzy amongst their red shirts, in response to the more radical presence of AMCU’s green shirts – all reminiscent of the behaviour of the brown shirts, or Hitler’s storm-troopers.

We know that there is a fine dividing line between striking, marching, picketing and intimidation. Just as fine is the line dividing that from violence, disruption and property destruction. One tiny step further and you have bodily harm and death. A few leaps further and you have a Marikana. We are a violent society and for too long we have tolerated violence when it is perpetrated by angry collectives such as protesting communities or striking workers. Not only is it difficult to identify the perpetrators within the pack, but seldom are they then held fully accountable.

Just as questionable is the involvement of those who hide behind the collective flag, those in leadership positions who are quick to condemn overt acts of destruction and violence, but conveniently ignore the atmosphere they themselves create through incitement and rabble rousing. This alone should mean that they cannot escape some accountability for the routinely tragic, destructive and disruptive outcome of most industrial action in this country.

Labour has many valid and long standing grievances. Not only is this broadly acknowledged and understood, but it is also shared to a greater or lesser extent by a large section of the working population. What has not helped the labour cause at all is the contextualising of these grievances into outdated ideological conflict and cold war rhetoric. That cause is tarnished further by a callous disregard for two highly significant victims of their actions – consumers and the unemployed. What is at issue is not labour’s cause, but its actions.

Regular readers of The Human Touch will be aware that I have been an avid champion of labour as statistically the biggest contributor to the creation of wealth. Of course, that is labour in the broader sense and not restricted to the emotive term of “the working class”. Most people are “workers”, or doers who find more meaning in being that than in being owners or “employers”. Many are both.

Those categorisations, including that of “capital” serve only to institutionalise individuals into abstracts; enhancing divisions and conflict and indeed denigrating the vital role that labour plays in the creation of wealth. It’s an environment that not only encourages the formation of combative collectives, but the emergence of megalomaniacs jockeying for power to lead them, whatever side they represent. What routinely escapes them all is that you can never enhance your value and indispensability to an activity by withholding your contribution from it.

I have spent some fifteen years closely engaged with workers at all levels and in many different companies in enhancing their understanding of the economic environment and the companies they work for. The key stumbling block in achieving a sense of common purpose and common fate is the commodity expression of labour, particularly at lower levels. This expression inevitably leads to the routinely destructive haggling about benefits and rewards, and a complete alienation of labour’s contributory role to the common purpose of serving customers upon which wealth creation to the benefit of all so self-evidently rests.

Perversely, that common purpose is mostly fully understood, endorsed, sometimes even championed at an individual worker or manager level. But when they become absorbed into a collective called a Union or “employer”, or worse still the abstracts of “labour” and “capital” that enthusiasm morphs into becoming a belligerent battle between claimants of wealth distribution. It’s a familiar battleground that both sides seem to prefer, and that fuels ambitions for power.

There is little need in this article to repeat the many economic analyses that have shown indisputably that labour unrest and disruptive industrial action are severely harming our economic well-being. It has again been highlighted in the recent Global Competitiveness report (see Moneyweb report here.)

Far from behaving like proud contributors to wealth creation, Labour has become South Africa’s economic Achilles heel. And there’s a highly poisoned arrow of self-destruction heading straight for it.

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