Bargaining: Ageing Strategy

Ageing strategy – can it confront capital?Woody Aroun

In 1995, social scientist Karl von Holdt argued in the South African Labour Bulletin that if Numsa wanted to achieve the aims of its three year bargaining strategy adopted in 1993, it would have to wage a power struggle with capital. More than 10 years later, Numsa’s own research (coordinated by Bethuell Maserumule) into the strategy’s achievements, reveal that the union has won minimal gains. Is Numsa ready and able to take on capital, asks Woody Aroun?

What were the key elements of the bargaining strategy? According to von Holdt the strategy represented “an integrated package of proposals which aimed to reduce the number of grades, close the wage gap between grades and tailor training to provide for continuous upgrading of skills.”

While some progress had been made in the Engineering and Auto sectors towards negotiating these demands, von Holdt argued that there were a number of organisational problems within the union that made it difficult for the programme to get off the ground:

officials complained that the bargaining strategy was imposed from the ‘top’ and that there was very little consultation with shopfloor members and shopstewards
apart from the role played by some key negotiators in the union, the union lacked capacity to drive the programme where it mattered most, ie at the level of the workplace
there were weak links between negotiators and the union’s regional leadership
there were no campaigns to popularise the demands
issues were sidelined to working groups in the industrial council (now bargaining councils) that had the potential to undermine union militancy.

For von Holdt the crucial question confronting Numsa is the issue of POWER – the ability of the union to wage an effective struggle to win POWER from employers who resisted their demands. While Numsa presented a legitimate set of demands around training, von Holdt argues that industrial South Africa was already leaning towards the recruitment of “highly skilled technicians, multi-skilled artisans, and more highly educated and skilled operators”. And what would become of labourers? The prospect for labourers looked bleak. With labour becoming more and more flexible “labouring jobs may be mechanised … most of these workers are likely to be trapped in such jobs for life, and skills programmes are unlikely to touch them.”

2007 review of the “˜Three year bargaining strategy’The 2007 review focuses on a number of broad areas including training, adult basic education and training (ABET) recognition of prior learning (RPL) and grading. In a summary document prepared for the union, Maserumule concedes that the scope of the research requires more attention in order to make a proper appraisal of the bargaining strategy:

“As a result of the environment and scope of the review, this work can only be regarded as preliminary, to give the union a broad picture of its performance with its strategy.”

The following table illustrates some of the problems, weaknesses and recommendations that Maserumule refers to in his summary report.

What the 2007 study found:


Training committees dominated by management
Shopstewards lack the capacity to effectively engage management at the level of workplace skills plan, training committees, etc
Training is limited in scope – confined to menial tasks, basic on the job training
Level of training differs amongst sectors (auto more highly developed than engineering)
Union needs to develop a coherent strategy to deal with training
Membership separated from the union when it comes to training demands
Weaknesses in the training institution – Merseta

Recognition of Prior Learning

Problem with the way assessments are conducted: Criteria – experience and performance
Is it once-off or continuous?
What happens after the assessments?
Cost implications!


5 grade structure limited to just a few companies in engineering
foreign concept – how do you tailor the grading structure to meet the needs of South African metal workers?
Absence of a coherent strategy to guide union organisers and shopstewards across union sectors
Grading models imposed by management with very little union input – contested terrain

Wage Gap

wage differentials are increasing
market determines wages
income disparities between company directors and production workers amongst the highest in the world


Pursue the bargaining strategy, BUT
develop capacity – union drives the process for change
fight OR work together – use of post 1994 legislative framework
strengthen participation in bargaining councils
work towards redesigning grading models

von Holdt’s prediction that Numsa’s “three-year programme is more like a ten-year programme” could have sparked some angry reactions from metalworkers for its cynicism, but the 2007 report vindicates some of the views expressed by von Holdt. Maserumule’s review of the three-year bargaining programme speaks of an ageing strategy that urgently requires more than just a dose of steroids – and if the union doesn’t get its act right then the possibility of sliding into reformism appears to be all the more ominous.

Clearly there are organizational problems and both researchers have pointed out that the union needs to increase its capacity around bargaining issues, ensure that there are proper mandating processes and common ownership of the bargaining strategy. But above all the union must be able to mobilise support amongst members and be prepared to engage in struggle – struggle for POWER!

The issue of struggle and power doesn’t come out strongly in Maserumule’s assessment of the “˜three-year bargaining strategy’. von Holdt (1995), on the other hand believes that the ability to wage struggle is vital if the union wants to seriously transform the workplace. Apart from the shopfloor interviews and problems encountered by the union and management, I am of the view that the 2007 review could have been strengthened by focusing on some of the political problems that continue to persist and negatively impact on the development of our society in general and on workers in particular. It would be naí¯ve to pin all our problems down to issues of capacity, as the apartheid legacy of discrimination continues to cast its shadow over our workplaces.

P Moleke writing in a Human Sciences Research Council State of the Nation 2003-4 book describes working environments in this way:

“Working practices within firms strengthened and perpetuated the inequities. Hiring policies were such that white males were placed in jobs with training provision and opportunities to enjoy upward mobility within the internal labour market; other groups were placed in jobs requiring least in the way of formal skills, with little scope for occupational advancement” (2004:205)

African workers, by far, were the most disadvantaged when it came to “high-level occupational categories” and African women were almost completely marginalised in the workplace. Moleke refers to “shortcomings of the education system” and limited access to education resulting in high levels of illiteracy amongst African workers (36% according to the 1996 census) as the primary reasons for inequalities in the labour market.

So what must Numsa do with our ageing bargaining strategy? This year the union has adopted as its bargaining theme “Confronting the logic of capital through collective bargaining”.

Are members sufficiently equipped to grasp the political flavour of our theme, or will bargaining once again slide into a deep hole of despair? Hopefully, these and many other questions will be addressed at the Union’s National Bargaining Conference in April.

Further reading:

Maserumule, B. (2007) “Numsa Collective Bargaining Strategy: Review of the skills based training system”, presented at the Numsa NPW 22-23 February 2007, Moses Mayekiso Conference Centre, Johannesburg
Moleke, P. (2004) “The State of the labour market in contemporary South Africa” in Daniel, J. et al (eds.) State of the Nation South Africa 2003 – 2004. Cape Town, HSRC Press, pp204-224
Von Holdt, K. (1995) “Numsa’s three-year programme: addressing the question of power? SALB Vol. 19 (2) p13-23