Coalitions between political parties are either formed or broken up after national or local government elections. Especially the DA and the EFF have a legacy of making up and breaking up.
The phenomenon of formal coalition formation has established itself in trade unionism for quite some time already and shares commonalities with coalitions in the political environment. In trade unionism the motive behind coalition formation is to either protect or establish majoritarian status of representivity at a workplace by means of a coalition or to form an opposition bloc against the majoritarian trade union. Underlying this is the “winner takes all principle, according to which a trade union (or a political party) that has more than 50% support enjoys most of the power and benefits.
A minority trade union’s battle for workplace recognition also leads to trade union coalition formation even though the Labour Relations Act has been amended in such a way to give a minority trade union an opportunity to show through an arbitration process that it (the trade union) has a substantial interest in a workplace and should therefore enjoy recognition. It may be arduous and expensive to follow this legal remedy, and it is usually easier to conclude a coalition agreement involving one or more trade unions to obtain or retain recognition based on the joint number of employees represented. The minority trade union’s percentage representation also reinforces the larger trade union’s level of representivity and as such the larger trade union benefits from the additional buffer the smaller trade union provides.
In the mining sector most of the trade union coalitions between Solidarity, NUM and Uasa are formed in combinations of two of the trade unions, or of all three jointly. Even Amcu, that tends to function independently, finds itself in a coalition with Uasa in the coal sector. In the aviation sector various coalitions exist between SATAWU, Uasa, Solidarity and AUSA.
Trade union coalitions last much longer than political coalitions, and political parties stand to learn something from trade unions’ 10-point plan for successful coalitions. This plan involves the following:
- The commitment to a coalition is workplace-specific and the local and national leadership of the trade unions involved must both agree to the formation of the coalition.
- The main reason for the coalition is to retain majoritarian status or recognition and is not for the sake of mutual support for matters of principle.
- Trade unions agree beforehand that there will be differences between them and there will be room to allow for differences, but the protocol is that differences are sorted out behind the scenes and not in public.
- Trade unions also agree beforehand what the framework and procedures of their cooperation would be. In this way, agreement is broadly-speaking reached about issues that require joint action and those trade unions would drive individually.
- Before trade unions enter negotiations with an employer, views and positions that would be taken are aligned.
- When coalition trade unions differ about an issue involving a matter of principle for the other trade union(s), then the protocol is that the one should take a neutral position instead of siding against a coalition partner.
- The smaller trade union cannot dominate the larger trade union partner when the smaller one is the “king-maker”.
- Where issues of general interest are at stake the larger trade union would initiate the debate or negotiations, with the smaller one simply supporting or complementing the larger one. The same principle applies to roles at joint press conferences.
- The leadership of one trade union does not become involved in differences at grassroots level unless the leaders of all coalition partners are involved.
- There must be ongoing contact between the leadership (both the national and local leadership) of the trade unions that are partners in a coalition so as to identify a potential issue of contention between them expeditiously, thus ensuring that an established communication channel is in place when proactive action is called for.
In addition to being a vehicle to achieve recognition or majoritarian status, trade union coalitions also offer the advantage that when a workplace dispute leads to litigation the coalition partners can share the legal costs; a judge or arbitrator is less likely to rule against two or more coalition trade unions; and coalition trade unions tend to cooperate spontaneously in many other fields too.
This spontaneous cooperation leads to a greater measure of tolerance for differences, which in turn, promotes stability in the trade union world. Hopefully, political parties can take a leaf out of trade unions’ book when it comes to making coalitions more sustainable.
Gideon du Plessis is Solidarity’s General Secretary