Trade or no trade

Week 34 – 24 August 2012

The forming of trade unions was a spontaneous response to the industrial revolution that was seen as a thread to the craftsmanship of the artisans. Those were the people who have acquired a certain skill by working for a master craftsman.

The Industrial Revolution was a period from 1750 to 1850 where changes in agriculture, manufacturing, mining, transportation, and technology had a profound effect on the social, economic and cultural conditions of the times. It began in the United Kingdom, about a 100 years after Van Riebeeck landed in the Cape, then subsequently spread throughout Western Europe, North America, Japan, and eventually the rest of the world. (From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)

Machines were taking over the jobs of the craftsmen and the craftsmen felt threatened by this. Although their position in the industrial revolution was well defined as no machine could be designed to do the work of the artisan without the input of the artisan, the same person who had to train apprentices how to operate this machine. In order to keep the knowledge of their trade protected against industrialists, they formed unions. Union members were well trained artisans who were masters at the work they were doing.

The situation, especially in South Africa, has changed considerably. Union members are not necessary skilled artisans. Unions like NUM and Cosato represent anything from un-skilled and semi-skilled workers to a limited number of artisans. These unions’ interest are not to promote or embrace the craftsman skills, but rather to use its members and all that wants to join in, in a political way in order to control the government. Even unions operating within civil departments have their own political agendas.

Why should there be a different union for municipal workers and another for municipal managers and executive officials? They all are municipal workers being paid with rate payers’ money. If they have the same body to fight for their salaries and working conditions, the situation where municipal managers and mayors receive outrageously high salaries, comparing with those of ministers and the president, while low class workers struggle to survive, would never be reached. In this case, the grievances of the lower paid workers could not be used to disrupt services and annoying rate payers.

The slaughter that was experienced last week at the Lonmin Mine in North West can mostly be attributed to political clashes between two aspiring unions, each with its own agenda, each wanting to outdo the other in their representation of the workers. The only losers in this battle are the mineworkers that are either loosing their jobs or getting killed in the cross fire between the police and the sangomas that supply them with powers to become invincible as well as the lost work opportunities if the mine should be forced to close down.

These unions will in the end be either the downfall of the government or will lead to the total destruction of the South African mining industry. One of the main reasons for this is that unions never bothered to educate their members about the role of a sound economy in terms to provide jobs for all. It is also highly unlikely that these unions have any detailed records of the skills of their individual members on file.

There are luckily unions that still value the craft of the artisans and who have a detailed list of their skills. The situation in South Africa can still be reversed. It is up to the government to take the decision in which union(s) to support, and which workers to use for the different skills required.