In the context of South Africa’s prevailing industrial relations tensions, views expressed by leading US labour personality Andy Stern, who visited South Africa earlier this month, are worth airing and contemplating.
Stern is the former president of the 2.2-million member Service Employees International Union, which, under his leadership, grew into North America’s largest union, representing cleaners, security and food service workers, as well as healthcare and provincial workers.
Currently associated with Columbia University, in New York, Stern has also served on President Barack Obama’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform and also collaborated on a recent Council on Foreign Relations report on the role of trade in the global economy.
One of his key messages for business and labour is that “countries are teams” competing in the global economy for investment and employment. Therefore, “your other stakeholders are team mates” and a job-centric collaboration between business, labour and government is “now an economic necessity”, not merely a nice to have.
It’s message that doesn’t even fit well with Stern’s own natural anti-business and anti-establishment inclinations, with his own mother having described his union involvement as a job for a “juvenile delinquent”.
But merely fighting business “doesn’t really work well for workers,” he shared in an interview.
Controversially for a labour leader, Stern now tends to eschew old distinctions between left and right ideology. “What is more relevant may be right and wrong strategies for growth and sharing in success.”
Given the pace of change and innovation, the reality of global-isation and the emergence of an entirely new world of work, where the concept of ‘one job in a lifetime’ is less and less realistic, Stern argues that it is incumbent on labour leaders to understand the competitive pressures faced by the employer.
“What you do with that understanding is one question, but it is not good for members for trade union leaders to be ignorant of those realities.”
Different interests will prevail, but an objective analysis of the economic reality will show that “unless we work together as a team, our country is not going to be successful.”
It’s unlikely to be a popular message in the current South African context and, in the short term, it may even be sensible, in the interest of industrial peace, for employers to give into demands that are not justifiable on the economic facts.
However, in the longer term, labour leaders will need to do what is truly in the interests of their members: help build rather than undermine firm- level competitiveness through a disciplined adherence to labour-relations rules and by pursuing the best deal for workers within the constraints of prevailing economic con- dition.
In the end, without additional and more competitive companies, jobs – which the World Bank now acknowledges to be more important to development than growth – will be even harder to create and sustain. A prospect that no South African can surely bear face.