Trade unions in South Africa
South Africa's trade union movement, the largest and most disciplined on the African continent, has played an influential role in determining labour market and industrial relations policies in the country.
Its role in dismantling apartheid legislation and practices in the workplace remain one of its major achievements. During the apartheid era it succeeded in making employers appreciate the benefits of negotiating with employees through their representative unions.
The fruits of these negotiations included agreements on union recognition, wages, conditions of service, workplace restructuring and retrenchments.
Trade unions are recognised in the Constitution, which provides for the right to join trade unions, and for unions to collectively bargain and strike. The Labour Relations Act has given workers and their unions redress through mediation, conciliation and arbitration.
South Africa accepts that strong trade unions are necessary for effective collective bargaining - an important way of regulating industrial relations and of determining workers’ wages and benefits.
Trade union representation is now an accepted facet of industrial practice. Almost all sectors of the economy, including the public service, have representative unions which engage employers over issues affecting their workforce.
All workers and active job seekers have the right to join and be active in trade unions. And they are legally protected against discrimination by employers for being union members.
- Read more: The Department of Labour's Basic Guide to Trade Unions
Industrial relations policy is regulated through labour legislation that is negotiated at the statutory National Economic Development and Labour Council (Nedlac).
Trade union federations, employer bodies, the government and civic organisations are represented in Nedlac, which debates and tries to reach consensus on social and economic policy issues.
South Africa's post-1994 labour legislation is among the most progressive in the world, providing for different institutions to settle disputes, ensure fairness in the workplace, and nurture sound, co-operative industrial relations.
- Website: www.nedlac.org.za
Three main union federations
There were 191 registered trade unions in February 2013, according to the Department of Labour. However, federations are not legally required to register, so this number could be higher.
There are three prominent trade union federations with affiliates operating in the different sectors of the economy. These are the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), the Federation of Unions of South Africa (Fedusa), and the National Council of Trade Unions (Nactu).
Although the three federations and their respective affiliates compete for membership, they co-operate in forums such as Nedlac. They have also embarked on joint campaigns, including demonstrations against amendments to the Labour Relations Act. All three are registered with the International Trade Union Confederation.
The Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) is the biggest of the country’s three main labour federations, with a combined membership of 2.2-million workers grouped into 20 affiliated trade unions. The majority of their members are in the mining and quarrying sector, followed by the public sector in community, social and personal services, and electricity, gas and water supply (2012 figures, Cosatu draft organisational report, PDF).
Cosatu was established in 1985 following unity talks between unions and federations that previously competed with one another.
Cosatu believes in non-racialism, worker control, paid-up membership and international worker solidarity. It also subscribes to the principles of "one industry, one union" and "one country, one federation".
It has entered into an alliance with the ANC and the South African Communist Party, referred to as the tripartite alliance.
- Website: www.cosatu.org.za
The Federation of Unions of South Africa (Fedusa) is the country’s second-largest federation, claiming 375 000 members organised into 18 affiliates. Its biggest affiliate union is the Public Service Association, with nearly 200 000 members.
Fedusa was formed in 1997 following a merger between the Federation of South African Labour Unions and the Federation of Civil Servants. It describes itself as socially democratic and politically non-aligned.
- Website: www.fedusa.org.za
3. National Council of Trade Unions
The National Council of Trade Unions (Nactu) is South Africa's third-largest federation, comprising about 19 affiliate unions with a combined membership of nearly 400 000.
Nactu was formed in 1986, an amalgamation of the Azanian Confederation of Trade Unions and the Council of Unions of South Africa. It aims to build a united worker movement in the country, and believes in the creation of a just society where there shall be political power in the hands of workers.
- Website: www.nactu.org.za
Reviewed: 27 March 2013
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