This week at work I learned so much about the role of unions in South Africa. I learned how much people rely on them and how much unions mean to them. I am not sure exactly what I expected unions to be like but this was not quite it. The people here consider themselves family and that extends even to the members. The members all care about the well-being of each other and the well-being of the people who work for the South African Clothing and Textiles’ Union (SACTWU). We sat in on a training session for shop stewards, who are the workers elected by other workers to represent them to management. In this training session, we were able to talk and get to know the workers. This was a great experience. They had the utmost respect for each other and the man who was leading the training. They made plenty of jokes about each other but in the end referred to everyone as “Comrade.”
It was very interesting to hear about their problems. One of the main problems that I thought was particularly interesting was when management tries to lessen the legitimacy of the shop stewards by making them supervisors. This creates an odd environment because when people want to be shop stewards, many workers see it as an attempt to get a promotion. Many shop stewards have the skills that would be very useful in these supervisor roles, such as leadership and problem solving, but this also means that the same people who are supposed to represent workers are the ones who punish them. This was described as a “slippery slope.” Obviously, former workers are the people that should be wanted in these roles as they are likely to understand the plight of the workers. The problem is that the role of shop stewards should not be diminished and should be respected. It’s a complicated line in terms of wanting the best people to be protecting workers and in management.
Potential solutions to this problem are what have been on my mind for most of this week. My only thought is that a greater importance should be placed on preparing other workers to become shop stewards in order to replace those going into management. People should definitely not be stopped from going into management, and I don’t think that is happening at all, but I think that the workers and the union should be more prepared for this to happen.
I really loved getting to know these workers this week and I look forward to seeing them again.