The LRS Story

Knowledge is too important to leave in the hands of the bosses.

The Labour Research Service (LRS) was started in 1986 in South Africa in the midst of a state of emergency. The organisation wanted to boost the collective bargaining capacity of trade unions through providing relevant economic and financial research and information. The LRS was preceded by the Cape Town Trade Union Library, which had been established in 1983 to provide worker education.

The first phase: 1986 -1992

During the first (foundational) phase, the LRS established its core activities and client base. The organisation hoped to help build a modern trade union movement in South Africa. At that time, the trade union movement was young and under-resourced. The LRS wished to support and acknowledge trade union authority, and so it picked an organisational structure that was under union control. During this period, trade unions relied extensively on the LRS for many activities, including compiling reports on companies. Company reports were incredibly useful in wage negotiations, training courses and consultations. The organisation also provided specialised reports on, for example, macroeconomic data. In 1987, the Actual Wage Rates Database (AWARD) was started. The database, which is still operational, collected all information on wage agreements and wage laws in South Africa.

"We created the AWARD quite early on. We are very proud of being very early adopters of computers. Now, please remember that in those days computers were very primitive. We created the database on a computer box the size of four bricks. It was very heavy, and 5 megabytes! We were so pleased with ourselves but upgraded constantly of course."
Gordon Young
Founder of Labour Research Service

The LRS grew during this period, with more unions joining as members. The organisation collected, analysed and disseminated information for member unions to use in bargaining processes. As the labour movement continued to grow in numbers and sophistication, so too did the quality of information that trade unions required. Unions now wanted specialist knowledge of particular industries. The LRS had carved out a niche for itself in the labour support landscape.

Some significant developments happened during this phase. Two periodicals were launched - The Bargaining Monitor, which was produced monthly, and the annual Bargaining Indicators. The LRS then forayed into the financial services sector. That venture began with the setting up of the Community Growth Fund (CGF), a union-directed unit trust that was administered by a leading financial house. The CGF was South Africa’s first socially responsible investment fund.

The organisation sourced funding mainly in fraternal trade unions and trade union federations abroad. And member trade unions contributed a small annual membership fee to qualify for services.

The Second Phase – 1993 -1998

This was a transitional time in South Africa, as the political and economic climate began to change.
The role of trade unions was changing dramatically - they were emerging as a powerful and legitimate force in South Africa. But, some of the best union minds left to explore opportunities in government and business in this period. The "brain drain" left deep gaps to fill in the labour movement.

The LRS was affected by the changes that were happening. Before 1994, foreign donors weren’t allowed to donate money directly to trade unions in South Africa. With the arrival of democracy, foreign funding went directly to trade unions. That meant a lot of labour support organisations were suddenly sidelined. And the challenge for LSOs was how to raise funds to support their work.

The LRS responded in various ways, for example, by setting up of the LRS financial services (Pty) Ltd, through which it offered financial advice to the unions in the new avenues that there was money for. LRS financial services was later delinked from the organisation. As such, the organisation moved towards self-sufficiency of projects. In order to reach self-sufficiency, hard decisions were made about which work/projects to retain. Casualties included in-house training of shop stewards and union negotiators, the “Trustees Digest” as well as the Trade Union Library and Education Centre (TULEC) as an independent entity. The merger of LRS and TULEC, which shared the same premises, office facilities and networks, was completed in 1999.

In terms of research output, the 1994 election dislocated union work considerably and reduced the demand for trade bargaining reports. However, by 1995, things had begun to normalise and it was business as usual for the LRS.

"I remember our member unions once called us "the worker bees of the labour movement" and "our secret weapon". The LRS proved to be all those things. That along with proper organisation of information and making it accessible."
Sahra Ryklief
Former Executive Director, Labour Research Service

Political democracy opened doors for the struggle for economic freedom, and trade unions became engaged in policymaking. The LRS adjusted to these needs and increased its participation in economic policy research.

The new Labour Relations Act provided for disclosure of information of companies and was likely to lead to more centralised bargaining. This change in legislation was accompanied by a shift in emphasis toward corporate governance issues, with the unions demanding increased information related to governance.

From 1994 to 1996, the LRS shifted somewhat away from its primary focus on collective bargaining. However, from 1998, the commitment to collective bargaining was strongly reasserted as the core focus.

The Third Phase – 1999 onwards

The third phase marked a change in strategy. Three-year operational plans, which were informed by analyses of the macro-environment in which the LRS operated, were compiled.

Many labour-focused organisations folded in this period due to the shifting funding climate, but the LRS managed to survive, largely through its innovation and entrepreneurial outlook. The LRS diversified sources of funding and changed its structure to accommodate a project-orientated funding model.

Circa 2003/04 the work directly commissioned by unions started to decline. While the need and demand for research to inform collective bargaining and other activities clearly exists, unions aren’t able to mobilise resources to pay for this information. Therefore, the LRS took a strategic decision to continue with collective bargaining-related services, frequently at its own expense, until the tide turned.

The LRS has stayed true to its original mission, despite all of the changes. It seeks to develop organisation and leadership capacity of trade unions and labour-focused organisations, to enable collective bargaining on incomes and social livelihood issues.

"The LRS has not departed from its vision and mission. The national and international network further strengthened its ability to stay focused on its vision to provide a relevant service to trade unions, to provide information and support, and capacity building." -
Past board member

One of the hallmarks of the LRS has been innovation. Various projects undertaken by the organisation, such as its foray into financial services and its AWARD database, have been pioneering activities and have paved the way for other organisations that came later. The LRS is looking to maintain this mantle of innovation as the world and the labour market are changing quicker than ever before.

The LRS is viewed as a very transparent organisation, one which has never resourced to unethical practices.

"The LRS has never become corrupt even in the direst circumstances." -
Past board member

The work of the LRS has been powerful, transformative and has increased its union membership. On the impact of LRS in the changing of the wage bargaining environment as a whole, another former board member said:

“We saw the bargaining process mature and it was not so drawn out as before.”

In keeping with its core values, the LRS has had the greatest impact on those in the lower ranks of the union structures, as noted by a union official.

“The LRS empowered trade unions at the level of the shop steward and organiser rather than at the top only.” -
Union official

LRS services have been particularly helpful to union negotiators who:

  • had to contend with bargaining that was company-based and centralised
  • worked for unions with under-resourced or under-capacitated bargaining departments
  • had to deal with focused and specific needs
  • were on the National Bargaining Council

Negotiators learned how to undertake future scenario projections, a critical skill that improved their bargaining power significantly.

“Through the help of the LRS, we are able to speak with authority. The ‘train the trainer’ approach has enabled us to pass on skills and build internal capacity.” -

"LRS was in a good position to provide innovative resources for trade union development in the coming years. We were clear that each union and each sector has its own challenges and there can be no “one size fits all”. Different products for different situations are required. At the same time, there was a greater need for collective action and sharing of information and experiences."
Saliem Patel
Former Executive Director of Labour Research Service

The LRS Today

"Our understanding is that worker education and resource support require continuous renewal. It is these two pillars that reproduce trade unions capable of dealing with a changing political landscape, a changing workplace and the inevitable change in trade union representatives."
Trenton Elsely
Executive Director, Labour Research Service

The LRS has evolved from a purely service organisation to a learning organisation focused on an action learning spiral of research - education - reflection to shape our work and strategies. We are constantly shaping our strategies through engaging with a labour that encompasses outsourced workers, emerging forms of organisation, informal economies, rural economies, community and the environment.

The LRS will continue to work across federation lines, creating and supporting spaces that are inclusive and which emphasise commonality rather than difference. We will continue to employ participative methodologies that promote inclusive and respectful ways of facilitating collective engagement.

The LRS will deliver educational processes and resources for leadership development and capacity development within the labour movement. The LRS will maintain a focus on the key processes of organisation and representation. The LRS will maintain a strong interest in transforming the gendered politics of the workplace and the union movement.

The LRS will bring a focus on global value chains, with the focus on South African multinational corporations in the retail sector and Southern African transport corridors.

The LRS will promote and support social dialogue as it intersects with our programmatic themes of gender, social dialogue and corporate governance. We will look to broaden the reach of our research and resources through new and improved online mediums.

The Negotiator’s Guide (2022) – A guide to negotiating in a changing workplace.

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