Leon Louw, the executive director of the Free Market Foundation, makes the telling point that free-market liberalism is neither antilabour nor probusiness. Yet the myth of being antilabour is so widespread that free market protagonists are presumed to represent big business. In his words the myth is created, in part, by the propensity of “radical” unions to attract antimarket fanatics. According to him another determinant is the ambiguity of the word “capitalist”. “Capitalists” are owners of capital. Many wealthy capitalists in SA proclaim to be antimarket and feed on the teat of the state. Many adherents of capitalism espouse economic freedom and are poor.
Leon Louw’s opinion piece, erroneously entitled Free-market liberalism is on the side of workers, first appeared in Business Day today. It is clear from the article that the FMF does not take sides and in neither antilabour not probusiness. Free-market liberalism advocates unbiased labour laws.
No ideology espouses the rights of workers, including the right to form unions, more unambiguously than free-market liberalism. SA’s most conspicuous example is the Free Market Foundation’s constitutional case against antilabour legislation in which Herman Mashaba, a heroic capitalist in both senses, invests time, passion and money fighting for the right of job-seekers to work and join unions. He wants them to enjoy the freedom and prosperity only free economies offer.
For promarket liberals, unions are manifestations of private enterprise, particularly freedom of association, freedom of contract, civil liberty and the rule of law. They see organised labour as indistinguishable in principle from other voluntary associations, especially labour’s counterpart, organised business. They apply precisely the same principle to organised religion, sport, arts, politics, environmentalism, causes such as the Free Market Foundation, and their enemies.
True liberals are agnostic about how workers and employers should resolve the devastating labour impasse in the mining sector. What matters is freedom to negotiate and posture; what prevents early resolution is failed labour law. Being uniquely for transactional liberty, liberals do not take sides between unions and employers on such issues as wage demands, countervailing offers, strikes, lockouts, bargaining or executive pay. They demand only that parties act lawfully and honour contracts. They want worker and employer liberation from conspicuously destructive labour laws that give some unions unwarranted protections and privileges against others and the unemployed.
Free marketers celebrate that unions perform vital functions beyond labour negotiations; many make policy submissions, represent members in various contexts, and provide legal protection. Some provide financial services including investment, pension, medical and insurance schemes; and represent vulnerable people in such diverse contexts as e-tolls, policing and municipal service delivery.
As they defend worker and union freedom more resolutely than anyone else, liberals want labour law to facilitate, not coerce. They want uniform laws for all, from clubs to corporations, not labour law that is biased in favour of recognised unions against others, and against nonunionised workers, employers and the unemployed. Biased law is a major cause of labour unrest, including the Marikana tragedy.
SA has permanent unemployment far exceeding the maximum reached temporarily during the Great Depression. For 8-million destitute compatriots, we are in a decades-long catastrophic depression. Decent people should, at least, agree that existing labour law must be liberalised so that unemployment can tumble and union membership soar.
The Free Market Foundation’s first labour-law challenge is specifically against the compulsory extension of collusive agreements to nonparties. A and B should have the same freedom of contract as C and D and not, as they do now, have to buckle under the private agreement of the latter. The law curtails choices people consider to be in their interests. Third parties should be free to offer advice and collective bargaining services, but any who regard the workers and employers affected as too stupid or ignorant and therefore to be forced to adhere to agreements reached by other parties are arrogant, pretentious and insulting. One-size-fits-all labour agreements are necessarily inconsistent with individualised needs.
We will be a free and democratic society whose emancipated citizens enjoy the constitutional right to human dignity only if we allow labour liberty.