Nyaniso Siyana has been advising the LRS on matters of policy, accountability and transparency for about five years. He’s served in various top leadership positions in the National Union of Metal Workers of South Africa (NUMSA) and is currently the chair of the LRS board of directors. As a veteran unionist and someone who’s served on the board of LRS for long, we wanted to find out his thoughts on how our work is impacting trade unions, and the state of workers’ education and the labour movement in South Africa.
What’s the role of the LRS board?
The LRS board performs an oversight role. It’s not our job to interfere with the work of the organisation and the Executive Director. We ensure that the organisation is functioning effectively and is accountable. We support good policies that attract and keep good people and partners at the LRS. Accountability is important in organisations, especially when you’re dealing with donor funding and people. It’s also important to ensure that the organisation stays true to its mission and vision.
Is the LRS fulfilling its vision and mission?
There’s a deliberate effort to ensure that the LRS vision and mission permeates policy and programmatic decisions. The LRS has stayed focused on its vision of providing relevant services to trade unions – providing information and support, building capacities and responding to new challenges in the labour movement. The staff are committed and passionate and this is exciting from the board’s point of view. But there are challenges, including the depressed funding environment affecting nonprofits in South Africa. The LRS is doing its best and managing to weather the storm. I can tell you not very many nonprofits are performing as well.
What’s the consensus among LRS member unions on the impact and relevance of our work?
There’s no disputing the powerful and transformational impact of the core work of the LRS. LRS research, information and support has increased unions’ effectiveness in dealing with management. Unions that use LRS resources are benefiting in a big way. For instance, negotiators are better informed and more strategic in collective bargaining processes. Yet, not everyone is using the existing information, resources and knowledge, and I find this strange. There’s no excuse for LRS union members not to consult on core labour issues such as the national minimum wage, living wage, economic policies, labour legislation and gender equality, just to name a few. So, this needs to happen more.
How can we get everyone to use our resources, then?
There are ongoing efforts to raise the profile of the LRS as a credible resource for the labour movement. And the union leadership must assist in popularising the functions and work of the LRS. All member unions need to ensure they’re using the existing resources to their advantage. We must also be willing to share our information with the LRS. Together we can improve on approaches and record accumulated knowledge. This will further strengthen existing capacities and build future worker leaders. This needs to happen now.
What’s the current state of workers’ education?
There’s a change of understanding of what unionism stands for, compared to over three decades ago when the LRS was founded. At that time, workers were conscious. You’d get a job today and tomorrow you’d be looking for a trade union. Workers knew they had to protect themselves. There was solidarity and workers united against errant employers. There was an understanding that an injury to one was an injury to all. Today, unions have to aggressively recruit workers, many of them who believe unions aren’t important. Yet, workers aren’t arming themselves with the knowledge they need to protect themselves at the workplace. How can you protect yourself if you don’t organise and consciously learn? After 1994, there was a demobilisation, a laxity, a letting of guard down by people who think our society is completely free. Employers have preyed on our laxity post-1994. But, workers are beginning to rise up to claim their rights. The evidence is in the number of strikes now compared with the early period of our democracy (1994-96). Reality is now hitting home. Unions are renewing their organising and bargaining strategies to represent workers better. The slogan of the LRS sums it all – knowledge is too important to leave in the hands of the bosses. Education must continue. Workers with increased knowledge, capacities and capabilities have a better chance of determining their destiny.
How is your union, NUMSA, promoting workers’ education?
We have units that deal with various topics, for example, collective bargaining, disciplinary hearings and mediation. We’ve kept up political education to raise the levels of consciousness. We have vibrant political forums where workers meet to discuss specific issues with the goal of finding responses. The primary role of a trade union is to defend and support the struggle of workers to claim their rights. We live in a capitalist society and we certainly don’t want to replace it with another. As a union, we ask our members to be politically-conscious – to understand the implications of being where they are located and to have discourse, which should lead to actions.
What kind of information are unions lacking?
The LRS thematic focus is spot on and responds to the concerns of labour. As unions, we need credible and independent labour support organisations like the LRS to encourage and support our understanding of important issues that are affecting workers. Take the National Minimum Wage (NMW) Bill and the amendments to the Labour Relations Act. Workers were left behind in the process. So, we now have a minimum wage that isn’t informed by the interest of workers. The national minimum wage will keep many workers trapped in poverty and widen income inequalities in South Africa. We need to open the NMW debate again so that workers can begin to speak for themselves. There’s nothing about us, without us. You can’t decide on a minimum wage for workers and not involve workers. We need independent labour support organisations like the LRS to support our demands for the right to strike, a living wage and decent working conditions.
Have unions made strides in improving gender equality and increasing women’s representation in leadership positions?
Unions have made some gains in this front and have gender policies. But we need to move beyond the rhetoric and ensure we have better gender policies and that they are implemented. We must move beyond putting women in key union leadership positions just to fill quotas. We want to see more women elected for their merit. And those efforts must reverberate in our society.