Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi. Picture: SOWETAN
Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi. Picture: SOWETAN

HALF of Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) members polled in its 2012 Workers Survey view violence by workers as necessary during a strike if a desired result is to be achieved.

The survey, conducted by Cosatu’s research institute, Naledi, and covering more than 3,000 workers in 37 districts, contains a variety of findings that cast light on the unfolding dynamics in the labour movement. It also canvasses members’ views on internal corruption, with 30% saying there was corruption in their union.

The survey results come as South Africa faces a wave of violent strikes in the mining industry, partly fuelled by a rejection of majority trade union the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), which stands accused of having lost touch with members.

In his organisational report to the Cosatu congress, which begins on Monday, general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi says the findings on attitudes to violence during strikes "tell us that we have a problem on our hands".

The survey was followed up by focus groups, which further explored the legitimacy of using violence. One participant is quoted as saying: "Violence during strikes is appropriate, because it is the result of the pain that workers feel."

Another said: "(A) strike is the last resort for workers, after negotiations fail. When we go on strike we lose wages thus we use violence to make sure that the employer listens to our demands fast so we can go back to work."

Cosatu has opposed legislative proposals aimed at curbing strike violence under discussion in Parliament. The proposals make it compulsory for a union to ballot prior to a strike, and restrict picket lines to striking employees only.

Mr Vavi is hopeful that an agreement with the African National Congress will lead to the proposals being scrapped by the party’s MPs.

The Naledi survey also finds that perceptions of corruption may differ from the reality. "Around a third of members said there was corruption in their unions, but fewer than one in seven said they had personally experienced it," it said.

Perceptions of corruption were highest among members of the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union, with 45% saying they thought the union was corrupt. The NUM was next, with 44%.

Almost half of the Cosatu members who alleged they saw corruption said it involved "shop stewards selling out to management".

"Again, some of the allegations did not constitute corruption as it is normally understood, but rather arose from the perception that union leaders were not serving members," the survey report said.

Despite the indications that faith in the integrity of union leadership was declining, the findings also indicate that union members — particularly those in Cosatu affiliates — secured far better pay than non-members. Among elementary workers more than 20% of Cosatu members were earning more than R5,000 a month compared with only 5% of non-union members. Among skilled workers, 40% of Cosatu members earned more than R5,000 while only 20% of non-members did.