Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

S. African Trade Union Pact Is Seen as a Historic Shift

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

S. African Trade Union Pact Is Seen as a Historic Shift

Article excerpt

AFTER decades of industrial and political conflict, South Africa's powerful black trade unions and captains of industry have begun forging a new style of labor relations in a climate of economic recession and political transition.

In several recent landmark wage pacts, trade unionists have acknowledged the developmental demands of the post-apartheid South Africa - and the need to sustain economic growth during political transition.

The agreements - in the mining and steel industries - represent a departure from the previous trend of wage settlements and the highly polarized atmosphere in which bargaining had been conducted.

"We've agreed for the first time to share in adversity, and we've set parameters for sharing in prosperity," says Adrian du Plessis, industrial relations manager at the Chamber of Mines.

Mr. Du Plessis, who is chief negotiator for South Africa's powerful mining houses at the annual wage negotiations, was referring to a landmark deal reached July 31 with the 250,000-member National Union of Mineworkers (NUM).

The historic deal followed weeks of negotiations between an NUM delegation headed by former NUM General-Secretary Cyril Ramaphosa - now the secretary-general of the African National Congress (ANC) - and a delegation of mine bosses headed by the Anglo American Corporation's Bobby Godsell.

The talks were held against the backdrop of a crisis in the gold industry brought on by rising costs and a sluggish gold price. In the agreement, the mineworkers accepted a low increase in the basic wage, bonuses linked to the faltering price of gold, and productivity agreements that still must be negotiated at individual mines.

The agreement also incorporated a charter of industrial conduct that seeks to end violence in industrial disputes, entrenches trade-union rights, and gives workers a greater say in the management of their living conditions.

A narrower bonus-related deal reached in June between NUM and the Anglo American's Ergo mine, which was faced with closure because of the low gold price, prepared the ground for last week's industry-wide deal - the first national wage agreement based on productivity bargaining.

"For the first time the union has formally acknowledged the crisis in the gold industry," Du Plessis says. "The compromise we have reached is that the union has agreed to sacrifice present earnings against the promise of future earnings."

But Du Plessis cautions that the new maturity that characterized wage talks in the mining industry does not mean an automatic smooth ride. The agreement was forged out of economic necessity and because the union had taken a realistic view of the industry's plight. This did not mean that partnership between capital and labor was imminent in a broader context, he says.

Nevertheless, the agreement raises the possibility of moving towards a broad partnership between capital and labor closer to Japanese and German models.

"If it proves successful, it will provide a model for the future and could become a turningpoint in trade union relationships in the country," Du Plessis says. …

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