Trade unions serve an important role in a free and economically prosperous society.
However, a line can be crossed when we assign too much weight to trade union demands.
In South Africa, our bending over backwards has caused unprecedented unemployment and stagnant economic growth.
The unions’ recent reaction to Finance Minister Tito Mboweni’s economic recovery plan illustrates quite plainly to South Africa why we need to stop listening to them, at least for now.
The Cosatu-affiliated Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union has expressed its “alarm” at Mboweni’s generally level-headed and lucid (something rare for government policymakers in South Africa) proposal for a growth conducive policy environment.
The union avers that the proposal “is no different to what the Free Market Foundation [FMF] has demanded” in the past.
The union claims it has defeated the FMF in these demands.
Cosatu itself has lambasted the proposal and regards it as an attack on collective bargaining.
To Cosatu, the unions have already won their fight against the FMF and Mboweni’s proposals seek to “undermine” that victory.
The only agenda the FMF has been advocating, which the unions condemn, is to make it easier for ordinary South Africans to pursue their own economic affairs.
Principally, the FMF is concerned with the plight of the 10 million unemployed, who are unable to find jobs because of the high barriers to entry into the labour market set by interventions such as the minimum wage and labour laws.
Small businesses, that in line with international experience should be the largest employers in South Africa, struggle to comply with the multitude of ideological and self-serving laws and policies introduced on the back of union demands.
The Constitution is (supposed to be) the foundation of all public policy in South Africa.
The rights set out in the Bill of Rights must be seen as a comprehensive whole, all of which must be observed, respected and advanced by all arms of government.
Given the trade unions’ involvement in the governing party’s tripartite alliance, they have played a pivotal role in the formulation, and particularly the acceptance, of public policy.
Their singular focus, however, is on only one right in the Bill of Rights: section 23, which sets out labour rights.
Other rights, such as the right to full and equal enjoyment of freedom in section 9(2); the right not to be deprived of freedom arbitrarily and to be free from all forms of violence in section 12(1); the right not to be forced into, or out of, labour in section 13; the right to freedom of association in section 18; the freedom to choose one’s trade, occupation or profession in section 22; and the right to security of one’s private property in section 25(1), are not only ignored by the unions, but actively undermined.
To a trade union, all that matters is that the interests of their members are elevated.
The 10 million unemployed South Africans, and the small business owners and entrepreneurs who struggle daily to eke out a living in a repressive regulatory and labour law environment, are at best irrelevant to the unions and, at worst, enemies to their cause.
This is how the FMF has come to be regarded as the unions’ chief opponent even though the FMF wants nothing more than to find agreement with the unions on the crucial reality facing South Africa: that we need economic growth, and, in particular, need to allow the masses of jobless people to find employment.
The unions have stood in the way of South Africa embarking on much needed reforms, such as the privatisation (or liquidation, as a last but necessary resort) of state-owned enterprises like SA Airways and Eskom.
They have made it difficult, if not impossible, for our bloated government, which spends too much public money on unproductive civil servants, to cut excess fat.
The money we waste on our public sector wage bill could be better utilised back in the pockets of taxpayers and funding the healthcare or education of the needy.
The unions, perhaps most unfortunately of all, have played perhaps the most pivotal role in retarding educational outcomes in South Africa by blocking schools from disciplining or firing incompetent teachers.
Unions have a rightful place in our constitutional democracy. The role they played in establishing the said democracy can also not be forgotten.
But they have overstepped, and we have allowed them to overstep.
The rights unionists helped fight for during apartheid are now being undermined by the unions.
The prosperous society that is imperative in the post-apartheid context cannot be attained for as long as we allow ourselves to be led by the nose into economic catastrophe by ideologues who missed the end of the Cold War in 1989.
Martin van Staden is head of legal policy at the Free Market Foundation. He is pursuing a Master of Laws degree at the University of Pretoria and is the author of The Constitution and the Rule of Law: An Introduction (2019).
This article was first published in City Press on 16 September 2019.