Trade unions also referred to as ‘organised labour’ or ‘bargaining agents’ play a fundamental role in the South African economy and society at large. In addition, they have substantially influenced the landscape of employment law in South Africa. This is evident in the inclusion of workers’ rights in section 23 (2) of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996 (“the Constitution”). 

Despite their imperative function, trade unions may be perceived as unhelpful by most people, not just employers. Further adding to this notion is the reality that workers are unaware of what their workplace rights actually entail and the historical background which gave rise thereto.

A historical overview

As a starting point, one has to look at the history of South Africa’s labour and employment laws. Prior to our current Constitutional dispensation, Non-white workers were not afforded the same opportunities, rights and/or wages as their white counterparts. The earliest trade unions which operated in South Africa at the time were exclusively for white workers and precluded non-white people from joining. It was not until 1919 when the Industrial and Commercial Union (“ICU”), which later amalgamated with the Industrial Workers Union, was established in order to promote the interests of non-white workers from both a social and political standpoint. The ICU became the first of its kind and operated as the largest union of non-white workers in South Africa during the early 1920s.

At the same time, large-scale industrial unrest erupted among white miners and the police due to the miners’ growing dissatisfaction with their wages and working conditions. A shift had occurred where white miners were gradually being replaced by non-white labourers and miners, who were paid a fraction of the wages their white counterparts received. This ultimately resulted in what is now called the Rand Revolt of 1922. The administration of the time responded to the unrest by enacting racialised legislation which had far-reaching effects on the labour structure in South Africa at the time. These included inter alia, the Industrial Conciliation Act 11 of 1924 (as amended and later renamed the Labour Relations Act of 1956, “LRA”), the Wage Act 27 of 1925 and the Black Labour Relations Regulation Act 48 of 1953. The effect of these pieces of legislation was that it created an entirely separate legal framework for non-white workers and predominantly dealt with, job reservation, the registration of white trade unions and employers’ organisations, the establishment of a framework for collective bargaining through industrial councils or conciliation boards, as well as dispute settlement systems, amongst others. 

It was only later, particularly in the 1970s and 1980s that major role players such as the Commercial, Catering and Allied Workers Union of South Africa (CCAWUSA), the South African Allied Workers Union (SAAWU) and the National Union of Mineworkers (NUMSA) were launched. Many of these unions later went on to form the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), which was inaugurated with the objective, inter alia, to organise on a larger scale and to ensure worker participation in the struggle movement for peace and democracy in South Africa. 

Trade unions in the current Constitutional dispensation

Trade unions and their members have not always enjoyed the rights and freedoms unions are afforded under our current Constitutional dispensation. In accordance with section 23 (2) of the Constitution, every worker has the right to (a) form and join a trade union, (b) participate in the activities and programmes of a trade union, and (c) strike. Employers are similarly afforded the rights to (a) form and join an employers’ organisation and (b) participate in the activities and programmes of an employers’ organisation as provided for in section 23 (3) of the Constitution. As a result of these basic rights, and in part due to the movements of pre-democratic unions such as those previously mentioned, union membership went from being racially exclusive and sector-specific to being all-inclusive with every worker having the Constitutional right to join a union of their choosing. 

Furthermore, albeit racialised, it is the legislative framework of the 1920s to 1950s that became a backdrop for existing laws and dispute resolution forums. Today, statutes such as the Labour Relations Act 66 of 1995, as amended and the Basic Conditions of Employment Act 75 of 1997, as amended, both aim to advance economic development and social justice, thus giving effect to the fundamental rights conferred by section 23 of the Constitution. In addition, the LRA strives to regulate the relationship between employees, employers and collective agents such as trade unions and employers’ organisations in an orderly and equitable manner, which was not the case before. As John Grogan so eloquently puts it, this legislation “reflects a change in the philosophy of employment from that which views work as a simple commodity exchange of service for remuneration to that which recognises the desirability of joint decision-making and responsibility for the common good of the enterprise and economy as a whole”. Moreover, they serve as “an instrument by which democratic values are infused into the employment context”.

Just as the aforementioned statutes have bridged the gap between past and current labour practices, so too have trade unions bridged the gap and championed the legislative and policy advancements we now enjoy under the current Constitutional dispensation. 

Comments and conclusion

In spite of the crucial role trade unions play, I remain cognisant of the issues that plague many unions today. These include inter alia, the proliferation of unions, the growing culture of theft, corruption, mismanagement, union bureaucracies, political conflict of interest and ignorance of the law. In my view, these impediments have somewhat diluted the ability of unions in the workplace and may have caused unions to become possibly less organised and less effective. This is one of the major differences between the unions of then and the unions of now. It appears the focus has shifted from safeguarding workers’ rights and encouraging active economic participation, which was previously the objective, to furthering political interests and acquiring wealth. Although these tactics are not entirely new, in recent years we have seen them yield devastating results including fatalities and a plummet in economic activity. 

Nonetheless, it is important to commemorate trade unions for their role in the South African liberation movement and employment landscape. Some may believe commemorate is too strong of a word but, we have become desensitised to the importance of trade unions. It is largely due to their succour that we relish the workplace rights we boast today. Their contribution has given all workers a fair opportunity to become economic participants rather than commodities. Not only does this affect an individual’s standing in society but it further impacts one’s human dignity. 

With that being said, there is an overwhelming amount of room for growth and improvement within trade unions. It is not only the future sustainability and effectiveness of unions that rely upon this, the advancement of society and the economy depend on it too. 

Andrea Miguel