More support for a South African 'accord'

Wednesday, September 7, 1994

By Norm Dixon

JOHANNESBURG — Support for a "social accord" between the government, unions and business has come from intellectual circles close to the South African trade union movement. At the same time, establishment figures have continued to push for such an agreement to achieve wage "restraint" and end the country's "adversarial" industrial relations.

In a column in the Sunday Times on August 14, Karl von Holdt, editor of the influential South African Labour Bulletin, wrote that a "broad social accord" was needed to eliminate workplace inequalities caused by apartheid. Referring to the current wave of strike action, von Holdt pointed out that the tone of strike demands had altered from previous years.

"Workers want change in the workplace — change to match the political changes in the country. Strikes are not the problem. The problem is the crisis of relations in the apartheid workplace of which strikes are only the manifestation." Von Holdt said demands by unions such as the National Union of Metalworkers (NUMSA) for training, a narrowing of wage differentials and upgrading workers could potentially overcome the crisis and make industry more competitive. This would make South African industry more attractive to investment, he said.

"Wage restraint is not a viable option for the unions. Members would reject it and it would result in serious internal conflict. More importantly, wage restraint on its own would not solve the crisis of workplace relations. What is needed is a substantial redistribution of power and wealth away from the elite who control the economy and workplace, towards the masses excluded under apartheid", von Holdt said.

To achieve this, von Holdt proposed "some form of co-determination in the workplace, and a broad social accord at the national level". This reconstruction and development accord "would have to contain provisions for: an incomes policy; establishment of workplace reconstruction and development councils; price subsidies on some basic foods; social regulation of investment; an expansion of the social wage; and the establishment of a monitoring body".

He said a variety of mechanisms could regulate investment from "wage-earner funds based on the Swedish model, to an active credit policy on the part of the state". "Co-determination" in the workplace would help end the monopoly of white managers over decision making.

"At a recent Labour Bulletin seminar", von Holdt wrote, "Professor Wolfgang Streeck, a world authority on co-determination, stressed that co-determination is a legally supported system. This means that the rights and powers of workplace councils are established in law, and this means a corresponding limitation on employer prerogatives."

Wisconsin University sociology Professor Streeck was a little more candid about what such a accord would involve for workers when he addressed a meeting of the Wits University Sociology of Work Project, a body influential among intellectuals employed by the trade union movement. The meeting was prominently reported in South Africa's major financial daily, Business Day.

Streeck told the meeting that unions with strong centralised bargaining traditions could be persuaded to enter a negotiated national wage "compact" with their "social partners". The aim would be to freeze wage increases to an inflation-linked index in return for unions gaining "maximum non-wage concessions — such as education, social security and skills development". It was the equal responsibility of unions to stop driving up the nominal wage, which made South Africa less internationally competitive.

He added that countries throughout the world were restructuring industries to remain competitive. A key component of this restructuring was to "extract the highest possible performance from workers", Streeck admitted.

Just a day after Streeck's comments were reported, Labour Department adviser Leslie Maasdorp echoed the same views. A social accord between "government, business and other stakeholders" was necessary for the successful implementation of the Reconstruction and Development Program, he said. It was essential to move away from the adversarial nature of industrial relations toward co-determination and increased worker participation.

Maasdorp said that the RDP was based on building partnerships between government, business, labour and community organisations. Economic policy decisions based on a negotiated compromise were now needed. "The relatively stable political transition we have experienced would indeed be shortlived unless we are able to construct an inclusive social accord on the broad outlines of economic policy."

The calls for an accord are an attempt by capitalists to restrain wages in order to boost profits. They argue that this is the only way to finance new investment and new jobs and increase tax revenue, which will then boost funds available for the RDP. This line, which appears regularly in editorials in Business Day, is being pushed in opposition to calls for the RDP to be funded directly from profits.

Big business described as "impractical" a proposal put forward on August 16 by the National Union of Mineworkers that workers and bosses agree to forgo 10 public holidays and donate all wages and profits earned from those days — an estimated R10 billion — to the RDP fund.

All of a sudden Anglo American, which for months had been demanding that the government reduce the number of holidays, said workers would have to be consulted on their willingness to give up holidays. What irked big business was not that workers would have to work on public holidays for no pay, but the prospect of having to give away the profits generated.

Business Day, intent on sending a message to all workers, pompously lectured the NUM: "Rather than indulge in grand public gestures, the NUM might make a greater contribution to the success of the RDP by negotiating productivity improvements with employers ... now is the time for wage concessions by the union in exchange for skills training agreements that allow workers to improve their productivity and enhance their contribution to the RDP. That could be a lasting benefit to the country as a whole".