Every year we get to the June-July period, anticipating the worst. It is time for wage negotiations and time for the tedious process of wearing each other down to an agreement. An agreement which, honestly, if you had asked either employer or employee beforehand to guess where they would conclude, (irrespective of mandate) they probably would not be far wrong. However this age old dance needs to be played out again, because we just don’t have a viable alternative and we don’t trust each other enough to put a realistic mandate forward.  In 2015 however there are a number of factors which will be reflected in this process.

 The positioning and politicking of the union movement

Since the meteoric rise of AMCU and the split in the COSATU with their largest union NUMSA breaking away and threatening to founder a new political party, it is unlikely that this year’s round of negotiations will go easy. Unions display their power and their ability to serve their constituency particularly at negation time. Generally the more militant, the more unions prove their worth.  In today’s politics, the shop floor issues quickly get caught up into the political power plays beyond the company gates, not always in the interests of the employees being represented.

The economic landscape:

While there seems to be a little easing in the economy, our inflation rate is down to 4% and the Rand/Dollar above R12, investor confidence declining and direct foreign investment at extreme low levels.  Manufacturing in South Africa is rapidly being replaced by more competitive imports.

Industrial Relations trends:

While our labour legislation has very strong consequences for wild cat strikes, over the past two years, we have seen historic strikes across industries and a general climate of rebellion and violent protests.

How to do something different?

It is internationally accepted that distributive bargaining (win / win) has a far superior quality of outcome than pure positional bargaining (winner takes all). In reality it is unlikely that we will have an ideal and should consider bargaining on a continuous basis.  In our current climate and as a consequence of politically diverse positions, the wealth gap in South Africa, and a long history of positional Bargaining, South Africans wage negotiations tend to be more positional than distributive. The transformation away from positional bargaining is a complex process.

How do we create the understanding that we share the same destinies? The old adage “in every relationship there are two parties, but only one that you can do anything about”, also holds true here. How will management respond to traditional positional bargaining, and what have we done to create a climate that could lead to a more distributive process this year?

Approaches could include:

  1. Jointly reflecting on the effectiveness of the bargaining processes in the past before the bargaining takes place.
  2. Jointly developing a process plan and a dispute resolution process.
  3. Looking to ensure that business realities are well understood by Union and employees beforehand (Provided that this supports your argument).
  4. Spending time building trust, outside of the bargaining process.  Running MBO workshops.
  5. Ensure that line leaders are well informed about the business realities as they communicate and influence employees
  6. Get the little stuff out of the way – where there are small issues get them out of the way early.

While this shift from positional bargaining to distributive approaches in the short term may not happen easily, to break a mould we need to chip away at the current process. Ultimately South Africans need to deal with this challenge. On a global basis we are very low in these areas on global competitiveness, and this will have a positional impact on our society as a whole.