The purpose (or goal) of the Labour Relations Act, 1995 [LRA] is ‘to advance economic development, social justice, labour peace and the democratisation of the workplace’.   One of the primary objects (or means) of achieving the goal is to provide a framework within which the parties can ‘collectively bargain to determine wages, terms and conditions of employment and other matters of mutual interest and formulate industrial policy’.

Clive Thompson, an adjunct professor of law at the University of Cape Town, believes  that the country is failing to address the big public sector challenges because ‘labour-management interaction is monopolised by collective bargaining, and an especially adversarial, distributive variant at that’.

View or download his latest article State and unions trapped in adversary roles, first published in Business Day today.

Business Day has kindly consented to these extracts appearing but you are encouraged to view or download the entire editorial by clicking on the links.

Shake keepers from their perches

In summary, the strategic relationship between the employer and unions needs to be broadened and the new relationship geared towards organisational performance for mutual and societal gain.   Public service as a vocation must be restored.   This will take insight, leadership and application, and will test some currently constrained imaginations.

But the keepers of the current malaise must be shaken from their perches.

Failure of public sector labour relations

PUBLIC sector labour relations in SA are a failure, and a key component of the broader failure of service delivery.

On the face of it, this state of affairs is surprising.   We have world-class institutions to promote social dialogue, bargaining and dispute resolution.   Supporting expertise abounds.

It is time that the workplace stakeholders had a hard and fresh think about this area of the national predicament.

The failure flows from, among other things, a narrow and unproductive approach to workplace relations.   Labour-management interaction is monopolised by collective bargaining, and an especially adversarial, distributive variant at that.   For so long as the parties’ energies are dissipated in this limited theatre, the big public sector challenges cannot be meaningfully addressed.

Go beyond collective bargaining

There are a number of things that could be done to improve the dynamics of public sector bargaining, but that is not the focus here.   Rather, it is to areas beyond bargaining that the labour-management relationship needs to go.

Initiatives on two related fronts are required.   First, a different strategic engagement at the macro level.   Second, applied and rigorous changes in the organisation and delivery of services at the micro level, the workplace.   To achieve the first would be to surmount Everest.   To achieve the second would be to get back to base camp alive, bearing the prize.

Public sector: forge delivery pact

The state — in its role as employer — and the public sector unions need to forge a historic and innovative pact aimed squarely at the delivery of social services.   This will require the employer to abandon any residual notion of the managerial prerogative.   It will require unions to step beyond the confines of the traditional member defender role and to grasp a new dimension of 21st century unionism: that of a demonstrable contributor to organisational performance.   Sector by sector, from health through education to everything else, the parties need to confront the needs, set the requisite goals and resource the means to the end.

Workplace: overhaul every practice and process

At the level of the workplace, every work practice and process needs to be collaboratively overhauled to eliminate waste and to add value.   The spectacular power of incremental process improvement, pioneered in manufacturing, needs to be felt in the public sector.

Create value through workplace forums

We already have a legislative vehicle to carry a different genre of engagement: workplace forums.   Bargaining turns on convulsive power; forums on something more subtle: continuous influence.   Unions have hit the wall with the power option.   It is time for all to investigate seriously the potential of the other channel.

Value needs to be created in on-going consultation and, more importantly, workplace improvements, precisely so that it can be shared in later bargaining.