The State of the Unions

The Congress of South Africa Trade Unions (COSATU) voted to expel the National Union of Metal Workers of South Africa (NUMSA) from the organisation following Numsa's withdrawal of support of the ANC and the SACP. Along with Cosatu they make up the Tripartite Alliance.

The split of South Africa's largest trade federation will have implications for the trade union movement and the role they play in SA politics, but to understand that you should know how big the unions are.

The size of unions in South Africa

There are 176 registered trade unions operating in South Africa. Together they represent 25% of the SA workforce with over 3 million members.

Cosatu is the largest of the federations with 1,8 million members from 21 affiliates.

Numsa was the largest affiliate in the federation with 338 000 members.

What unions do.

Unions principally represent members in negotiations with employers to ensure their workers are treated and paid fairly.

The main areas are:

  • Working conditions
  • Salaries, benefits and deductions

Cosatu was founded not only to look after workers' rights, but also as a means to challenge the Apartheid Government. Unions are still invested in addressing historical imbalances and so still play a political role. The split was in part because Numsa no longer believes the alliance with the ANC and the SACP are working politically for the benefit of workers.

The future of unions

Changes in the South African labour market has created a shift from traditional mining and manufacturing sectors making up most of the work force to include more and more retail and service related industries.

This does not change the potential for unions to operate but it does change who and why someone might join a union.

The mining unions have seen a shake up with the dominant National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) losing members to the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU). AMCU's more outspoken demands for higher wages during the strikes on the platinum belt last year would have played a role in that.

The complexities of not only the political situation but also the state of the economy will place pressure on unions. Depending on political affiliations, style of engagement with employers and the steady shift to information based occupations which makes collective bargaining more difficult, it would suggest that unions will have their work cut out attracting enough members to retain their negotiating power and earn enough dues to run the union effectively.


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