Trade union leaders captured by business relationships 

SHARE   |   Monday, 12 June 2017   |   By Adam Phetlhe

In the recent past, trade unions have shown signs of sleeping on the same bed with historical and traditional foes – business. The reason thrown around is that partnering with business eases socio-economic challenges faced by their members. On the surface, this argument appears credible and convincing. But digging deep into these business ventures suggest that trade union leaders are the major beneficiaries while the rank and file are fed crumps and left-overs to keep them silent, subservient and obedient. It becomes a veiled oppression and exploitation executed in the reserve. In this article, we look at the actual capture and its consequences. Trade union capture by businesses is no different from state capture which has taken politics by storm here and elsewhere for as long as one can remember. At the end of the day, the result of state or business capture is what matters the most – personal and illicit benefit enabled by either holding a powerful political or union position. The General Secretary of the South African Communist Party Blade Nzimande is quoted by to have said that “There was strong evidence that trade unions were also being captured by the businesses that they were meant to be keeping in check….There is a glut of a wide range of financed products that are not only marketed by corporations engaged in hyper competition. Promoting their interests, those products are also marketed by some union leaders who have been captured in one way or another or have established mutual interests with those corporations”.

How do business relationships capture trade union leaders? 

Businesses are employers of many of us whether organised or not. In the course of this employer/employee relationship, business owners are known to be some of the worst when it comes to bad labour relations and practises. It is here where trade unions are expected come head-to-head with such employers, a tussle which originates from the 17th century Industrial Revolution in Great Britain. This tussle, and sadly so, is tucked in some corner in trade union leaders/business relationships. That said, industrial relations have evolved overtime where the adversarial nature of trade unions/employers has somewhat eased to a point where they adopt the attitude of let the sleeping dogs lie. As a result, trade unions here and elsewhere have increasingly got into some business relationship of one kind or the other with businesses. It is here where trade union leaders become susceptible or complicit to being captured by these business relationships just as it is in politics. I am specifically targeting union leaders because they are the first point of call to facilitate and promote whatever goods and services are on offer to their members from businesses.

The Sowetan newspaper dated 31 May 2016 carried a story titled ‘Union leaders captured by greed’ in which it said that “COSATU leaders are looting workers’ money and members do not trust them anymore. Too many of our unions are going through internal organisational turmoil leading to divisions and turmoil. At the centre of these organisational divisions is money; it is corruption and leadership style which when properly analysed it is not just undemocratic leadership style for its own sake but it is  about a leader giving himself or herself a right and a space to loot resources. Legal firms, pension fund administrators, printing companies and medical aid companies were high on the list of those corrupting COSATU leaders and milking workers’ money”. This report, which the newspaper reports, was a “document presented by COSATU at its central executive committee meeting”, and somehow provides a general glimpse of how trade unions have become a stepping stone for trade union leaders to use as ‘cash cows’. Is it fair or reasonable to suggest that our local trade union leaders fall into the descriptions of Blade Nzimande and the Sowetan newspaper? Yes, because the ground is too fertile to grow state and union capture in South Africa like it is in Botswana.     

When businesses have successfully infiltrated trade unions via trade union leaders, boardroom deals begin where these leaders are thanked in no small measure for having facilitated this infiltration through which profits accrue to the businesses. For these leaders and as a consequent, it becomes nothing for us without us – that is, they somewhat expect and obtain some hand shake for their efforts. It is important to note that at times, boardroom deals may not even take place whereupon individual deals are made for fear of letting the cat out of the bag where the rank and file could be of some hindrance. Private deals could be entered into because of trust deficit between the concerned trade union leaders themselves. The deals struck, like I have alluded to above, come in no small measure where these leaders begin to, for example, lead opulent lifestyles with massive property portfolios – the very thing they criticise politicians for. There is nothing wrong with trade union leaders, like it would be with any other person, leading opulent lifestyles if such is attained through honest means not complimented by any other which cannot be disclosed and/or verified.


Just like in politics where politicians refuse to subject themselves to accountability and transparent scrutiny where they become defensive and angry, the same is the case with trade union leaders. In some cases if not in all of them, these leaders and owing to the sheer power of their pockets and the larger than life status acquired from being captured, begin to flout with impunity the Constitutions of their trade unions by for example conveniently failing to call elective congresses when such are due; taking decisions on behalf of their unions which decisions require general membership approvals; and devoting more of trade union resources and time to pursue their own personal agendas with resultant financial and material gains and so on. In this respect, core trade union mandate becomes an inconsequential and distant pre-occupation. The continuing fracture of trade unions here and elsewhere is to a large extent occasioned by amongst others, failure by their leadership to stick to core trade union mandates. It is not in dispute that some of these are due to sheer personality clashes more than anything else. We have seen BFTU split resulting in the formation of BOFEPUSU, COSATU splitting into the formation of the recently launched South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU). In these splits, lack of financial accountability appears to be the main driving force. When glaring inequalities between the rank and file and business captured trade union leaders become evident, social cohesion (a means of enabling trade union leaders and the rank and file to co-exist in peace and harmony) fails, leading to instability and dissent. 

Trade unions, which are captured and which by extension have un-comparable financial and human capital resources, should by now be spoilt for choice with regard to fully fledged paralegal practitioners to represent workers at the Industrial Court. It is unacceptable that owing to resources at their disposal to be self-sufficient in this area, expensive law firms are still engaged to argue fairly simple and straight forward cases of unfair dismissals bordering on procedural and substantive unfairness. It is not enough and strategic for a well-off trade union to call members to a lecture on dispute resolution for a day or two and claim that they are sufficiently trained to competently engage in fruitful dispute resolution at the workplace, let alone anywhere else. Trade union leaders who are captured by business relationships for their own personal gains are a source of instability and conflict in their trade unions. It is therefore disingenuous and hypocritical of them to apportion blame on politicians who derive personal gains from under hand dealings by using their positions and offices. I am not suggesting however that it is good for the politicians and not so for others. Trade union leaders should be the first to know the injustices perpetuated by gross inequalities in the mainstream economy because they would have been in the rank and file category before being elevated to leadership positions. For them to be using trade unions for personal aggrandisement through business relationships is simply unpardonable betrayal of the highest proportions. No wonder it is difficult for trade unions to massively and aggressively organise the unorganized, hence the painfully low membership bases across trade unions. It becomes difficult to convince and persuade workers to join trade unions because they view trade unions as ‘cash cows’ for the leaders whereupon it will take donkey years for them to be catapulted to leadership positions to have a bite as well. 

Simon Sinek said “Great leaders are willing to sacrifice the numbers to save the people. Poor leaders sacrifice the people to save the numbers”. Judge for Yourself!