Should trade union members bring their own private security guards to meetings ?

Carol Paton’s article was first published in Business Day today and is essential reading for anyone interested in labour relations in South Africa – NUM needs to be ruthless about money and politics. Carol Paton is a writer at large.

With the kind permission of Business Day here are some random extracts but they cannot do real justice to the article which needs to be read by clicking on the link or going to Business Day.

“WHEN the president of a trade union takes the stage in the middle of the discussion of the financial report to berate members for bringing their own private security guards into the conference hall, there can be no doubt something is very wrong.”

“So intense was the contest for leadership positions that, according to Zokwana, some nominees had brought their own private security to the congress, who watched their backs even on the congress floor. Such a contest had never been seen before, with seven of the nine top positions contested and the congress divided along factional lines. ”

“The NUM is a wealthy and successful union. Despite decline in many sectors of the mining industry, its membership continues to grow and this year reached 320 000. From subscription income — members pay 1% of their salary a month — and its investments, it generates a surplus running into millions of rand. At the end of last year, it had R267m, making it one of SA’s wealthiest unions. ”

“At the very top, the rewards for leadership positions are impressive. Baleni, the Mail & Guardian reported recently, had his salary and perks increased to R1,4m a year recently (Baleni won’t confirm or deny the report). ”

“However, the success over the years of the NUM in negotiating a say in living conditions such as catering also provides an opportunity for leverage. Branch leaders are courted by service providers, such as caterers, and sales people selling goods from cellphones to insurance policies. Union membership databases on the mines can run into thousands of entries and are valuable. ”

“Although branch office bearers are not supposed to be full-time employees in terms of the union’s constitution, many of them have negotiated themselves salaries from service providers who want to get close to them. Baleni says that, in one investigation, it was discovered that one service provider was paying more than 300 shaft stewards full-time salaries. ”

“As in the ANC, money now plays an important role in elections. In his report to the congress, Zokwana singled out two companies, a mining company and a medical scheme, which he accused of providing resources such as hired cars, food and accommodation to the ‘pro-change’ lobby to campaign in return for promises of industrial peace and access to commercial opportunities. During the congress, a private mining company rented a venue nearby, where the pro-change lobby could entertain guests with food and drink and lobby for support. ”

“The involvement of private companies in union politics came as a shock to Baleni and Zokwana. Regulations on fundraising were recklessly flouted. With a surprising amount of money sloshing around, fear was raised that — as occurs in ANC elections — people were being paid to vote for slates of candidates. As a result, cellphones were banned from the polling hall, so delegates would be unable to photograph their ballots as proof of the way they had voted. ”

“To rescue itself from political corruption and the easy opportunities for trade unionists to be become beholden to private business, the NUM is going to need a very strong set of rules about money and politics, which it will have to apply ruthlessly. Even then, the influence of a corrupt and corrupting political culture will be a strong tide for workers and their leaders to swim against. ”