About this site

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

16 Aug 1989: Whitehead, John

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POM     We're talking with John Whitehead. John, again would you just say who you are?

JW     I'm John Whitehead, born in South Africa, educated in South Africa, I moved into personnel in 1984, Ford Motor Company, and about a year and a half later went to De Beers Consolidated Mines in the Northern Cape, and for the last three years have been with Dorbel in the Eastern Cape. Dorbel is the largest company, the largest private company in the metal industry employing some 30,000 employees and lower down the skills scale it is predominantly blacks and also coloureds and the major area of involvement is with industrial relations.

POM     Do you want to speak a bit about the history of industrial relations?

JW     Yes, I don't know what Bruce went over with regard to the Wiehahn Commission.

POM     He mentioned it.

JW     That was a revolution in the Black Consciousness Movement and also in management having to adapt to new times because primarily what the Wiehahn Commission did in between 1979 and 1981 it recognised the black man, and when I say black I don't mean a non-white, I mean a person who is not a white, a coloured or Asian, but a black man, an African, as being recognised as an employee. Prior to that he had always been seen as a migrant. And Wiehahn recognised that he was a bona fide employee in an urban area. And so the Labour Relations Act was extended to this man who had in the past not fallen under the Act. And the other major facet of the Wiehahn Commission was the concept of the unfair labour practice which had now been introduced. So he'd have the details on that. And with those two things, with blacks now giving the unions so much more muscle and having this unfair labour practice, because prior to that, and I work everyday with foreman and supervisors who worked prior to Wiehahn and in those days if you wanted to sort it all out you could either put your arm around his neck and give him a good fist or you could just chase him out the gate. There was no procedure, no fairness, no equity at all and Wiehahn basically introduced equity for the black man. A lot of people, who were educated people but are slightly conservative, by conservative I don't mean to be linked with the Conservative Party, they think that Wiehahn is one of the worst things the government did because it's created problems in industry. And people who are responsible for the profits, I'm talking about middle to senior management, not the executives, they see it as being a major problem, and it is a major problem because what happens in industry now is people like myself are dealing with the issues which are black political aspirations and issues. They're being played out on factory floors throughout the country.

POM     In your experience have the unions been used as a vehicle for the liberation movement more than for the attainment of what would traditionally be called workers rights?

JW     Interests.

POM     How do those two play off each other and what has been the response of management to that situation?

JW     Well in the company that I was in, when I said Dorbel is in the metal industry they are also in the motor industry, now that is not to be confused with the motor vehicle assemblers. We make components for motor cars. So we actually fall in the motor industry, well most of the company is in the metal industry, that's our Industrial Council system. And when I arrived at Dorbel there was a union called MICWU, Motor Industry Combined Workers Union, it had been Motor Industry Coloured Workers Union prior to Wiehahn. And that union was very much concerned with equity for the individual, fairness for the individual and it wasn't a big power play. And very soon after that, this giant with COSATU, the umbrella body which Bruce will probably tell you a lot about, NUMSA was formed, National Union of Metal Workers of South Africa. And there were three major unions, a number of unions fell into this, the concept of one industry one union and three of the big ones were MICWU, who had a lot of money and they were primarily coloured workers and coloured union officials. Then there was MAWU which is the Metal and Allied Workers Union and they didn't have much money in terms of investments but they had the power and the leaders and there were predominantly black, and when I say black I mean black as in African as opposed to coloured, and then there was also NAAWU, which was National Automobile and Allied Workers' Union which was a big union in Ford at the time.

POM     Is that still in Port Elizabeth?

JW     NAAWU?

POM     Yes.

JW     Well they are all NUMSA now. But those are the guys that came together to form NUMSA. And there was also MICWUSA and another couple of other smaller unions but those are the three big actors. And so we had, in our shop floor we had MICWU that really provided - union membership went towards if a person got laid off over a period of time because of short time, because of a slackness of trade, the union would provide short time cheques. It wasn't a lot of money but it was something to tide the employee, male or female, over the hard times because sometimes we'd have a six or seven week shutdown and the guy only had three weeks leave accumulated. That changed. That moved away. A lot of the funds the MICWU had got gobbled up by NUMSA but the power play started.

     So I've been involved since this major power play started to unfold in factory floors. I mean we never saw intimidation before. And in the Industrial Court this year, we went to Industrial Court for dismissal of nine people for intimidation where 50% of the workers, and we have a lot of female workers on our factory floor, were intimidated into stopping work by the other 50% running through the factory and we dismissed a number of these people. That was never part of the scenario that we had, the situation that we had with MICWU.

     So NUMSA is really COSATU, and NUMSA falls under the umbrella of COSATU along with the National Union of Mineworkers, the big unions have really been - and the interest of the individual, they're still there, they actually make pretty good bed fellows, the power play along with what a union should be doing, the individual's rights. They actually gel together very well. Because in looking after an individual and in fact having, let's say an individual is dismissed which happens very often and the person might be reinstated because of the union pushing to have a person reinstated, the union gains credibility and that credibility moves upwards. Now we keep having the story told to our workers and to myself, shop stewards of the worker controlled organisation. I don't know whether Bruce went over that with you? Typically though the organisational structure of the company is something like a pyramid with the leader being at the top and the broadest part of the base being the bottom. They say our union is worker controlled, it's an inverted pyramid, the decisions are made by the majority of people. They tell the officials what to do. So if a situation of negotiation arises it's never a case of can you accept that offer of 18% increase? It's a case of we have to put it to the workers because they constitute the union. And the man on the shop floor believes it because it's a nice thing to believe. But the power is actually wielded by the leaders. Like any organisation you've got to have your key decision makers and those are the guys who run the show. NUMSA has approximately 100,000 employees and union dues are R1.30 per week per person. Now simple arithmetic can tell you that there is a lot of money being generated through union membership. So to answer your question in a nutshell, actually the power play and individual's rights actually make very good bedfellows, they support one another. Does that answers your question?

POM     Bruce said this morning that some of the major unions were using the workers to advance the political agenda, that very often workers did not quite know why they were on strike but they would accept the leadership's call to go on strike.

JW     I endorse what Bruce says 100%. I think that's not even questioned by people dealing with me in industrial relations any more. In fact we had a dispute very recently and it was because NUMSA is the big company in the metal industry, NUMSA has fixed itself as Dorbel as being the big nut to crack and we've had a dispute raging for about 18 months and it was actually resolved, and I've got some papers I can show you afterwards, resolved at midnight on the 8th of August because it had to be resolved before the 9th of August otherwise the legal strike procedures would have been invoked. It was a four item dispute. The dispute was over rights for workers. What they wanted was to set up retrenchment packages. They said we want one month for every year's service, completed years service, for an employee who is retrenched. On that point the Industrial Court has given the guideline that one week per year's service is acceptable so they wanted to go for better than that. They wanted a service allowance, which is a fair demand. It was so many cents per year's service on top of his current rate of pay. Then there was paid leave for shop steward training. A lot of companies are giving paid leave and Dorbel wasn't so it was a legitimate request. And then what the key actors were after was compulsory arbitration. Instead of going through the court procedures if there is a dispute that you want a final determination on, you have to go through the Industrial Council where they will mediate to try to resolve settlement and then go to the Industrial Court for final determination.

     Now with the recent amendment to the Labour Relations Act, Bruce might have told you quite a lot about that, but it was in September last year that there were changes to it again, the Wiehahn Commission in itself was a change to the Labour Relations Act of 1956 as amended, there was a new amendment. And it's been perceived that the courts have been given a bit more leverage, the courts, mind you, which I believe is wrong, it's a wrong perception to say the courts have now got more power to rule against the unions. The court is concerned with equity and nothing else. It's not a court of law, it's a court of equity, so it looks at fairness. So the parameters of what is fair cannot be changed by statutes. But the perception has been, and it has been sold on the shop floor, the shop floor is a term commonly used for the men working at the pit face, that the court is slow, cumbersome, bureaucratic and bends management way. So this is what arbitration was, this thing that the union wanted, and by saying union I mean union leadership not union worker.

     The second thing that union wanted was paid leave for shop stewards. And in fact, and I have the documentation here and I can show you and I'll give you copies to take with you, it's a signed agreement of the 8th of August, this month, that the two demands that affected the man on the shop floor were dropped. The severance pay issue and the service allowance were dropped as issues in our dispute. The two issues that were resolved were paid leave for shop steward training, which does nothing to the pocket of the men on the shop floor, and arbitration which basically says that in a case of dismissal a person, the union and Dorbel agrees to allow the situation to develop where an arbitrator can come in and make an arbitrator's award which is only binding until that case gets taken to Industrial Court if indeed it does and is overruled in Industrial Court. I think in most instances it will become binding. There are technicalities to it because it says it takes the place of Section 43 which is a status quo but that's just a technicality and a status quo order was a temporary reinstatement order which is supposed to be urgent interim relief but it ceased to become urgent and became very drawn out and it took about three months to get a status quo order granted.

POM     So would it be fair to say that since black trade unions in particular under the umbrella of COSATU have developed, that industrial relations have become more polarised?

JW     Industrial relations under COSATU, which basically is also saying with the greater strength of the black employees has become you've got a whole new ball game, a whole new minefield, but it's also polarised issues. Another brief situation you might have read recently is of the motor vehicle assemblers strikes.

POM     The strikes that are on at the moment?

JW     At the major plants, the major assembly plants. Now it's not just, I don't believe, it's not by coincidence that these strikes happened now. They're establishing a national bargaining forum. Instead of saying that the Eastern Cape motor vehicle assemblers can negotiate in Eastern Cape, and the Jo'burg assemblers can negotiate in Johannesburg, they say they want a national forum. Now companies like BMW and Mercedes are paying the top rates so they've go no problem establishing a national forum. But places like the Eastern Cape where wages are lower will automatically move up to the new low which is established so it runs against the pockets of the companies in the Eastern Cape, for example.

JW     Now the Afrikaner, and I talk about the less enlightened or the less liberal Afrikaner, the fairly conservative guy who's a Nationalist probably, he's a real hard headed guy, what happens is we have an election coming up in about less than four weeks time. We have a situation where 400 million rand in direct costs is linked to these strikes. Direct costs. And there are a lot of Afrikaners, who you are probably well aware of, who are on the brink of do I vote Nationalist or do I vote Conservative? Now the union movement they don't want the Democratic Party to get in, I believe, and a lot of people believe. I think most people involved believe that they don't want the Nationalists to move to the left and establish a black forum. They don't want the Democratic Party to get in, the Democratic Party is not going to get in for many years anyway, or many elections because they are too small. They want confrontation. And when I say the work revolution I mean revolutionary climate, revolutionary frame. What's going to promote that the most is going to be the strengthening of Conservative Party and there are a lot of people I know who have looked to the situation and said, man, if the ruling body allows this situation to evolve under its statutes that's not good enough. I'm going to vote Conservative. And that puts some sort of picture as to how politics and unionisation are so hand and glove.

POM     So many people in this area would believe that the timing of the strikes was to coincide with the election period in order to promote among white voters a move toward the Conservative Party?

JW     Yes. And in fact that point was - I think that's one of those things that you're sublimely aware of all the time, but it was mentioned to me today by a member of Rotary. You must be aware of Rotary from America? And it was actually a non-white personnel manager from Uitenhage, which is very, even more militant than Port Elizabeth, Uitenhage is more 'black' if I can use those words, you have a lot of coloured workers here, you don't have coloured workers in Uitenhage. And he put this forward at a Rotary meeting and it all gelled together for me. You know people might argue that the disputes, it came to dispute just at this time, there was so much preparation that went into it. And I say yes, but labour relations are now becoming so sophisticated. The union movement is sophisticated now. They've got funds. They employ the best labour lawyer in the country. I don't know if Bruce mentioned Cheadle, Thomson, and Hayson. We've dealt with him, he is the top man in the country. But they can afford him. You know that sort of man; who can afford a man like that?

POM     From your experience in dealing with workers, what would white workers' attitudes toward black trade unions be?

JW     Very anti. We have white employees in white unions, in a white union in our industry at the moment. And I know there is in the mining industry, and I know there is in the metal industries and most of these people are of artisan background. Skills, they're highly skilled but they tend to be more conservative and they don't go on strike, certainly not for the same type of issues. They very rarely go on strike. You very rarely find a white union on an organised strike, not at all. And of course it rubs very much the wrong way. It rubs the wrong way against the supervisor on the shop floor who in most instances, although we have non-white, we some coloured foremen, our white foreman tend to be fairly conservative. But also the situation where we have a lot of coloured workers and black workers and you can see that we've had some very good shop stewards and a good shop steward can be one of two things or it can be a combination. He can be really interested, have the interests of his members at heart or he can be propagating this power play or he can be doing both. But in most instances they're not really aware of the issues. If you said to a man who is wearing a sticker, "Down with the Labour Relations Act", and I said to him, and I've done this, What aspects of the Labour Relations Act trouble you? he wouldn't know what part of the Act is of a major concern. But he's emblazoned with stickers advertising the fact that the Labour Relations Act, in fact the sticker has got a serpent on the bottom and people trampling the serpent. They don't know the situation.

JW     With the dispute that I mentioned with Dorbel versus NUMSA, the man on the shop floor was told that we won the dispute. He was told by the union and we had to put up briefs saying the situation is as such, the two issues we didn't decide, the two issues which affect you have been dropped, the two issues which are bound in an agreement are these two. And that was a revelation to a lot of people. They said we didn't know that, we were told that we won on all four issues.

POM     What about Dorbel in general management? One, is there any recognition of the legitimacy of the political demands of blacks which they understand why unions are used as a political forum? And what is their attitude towards the unions in particular? Have they devised a strategy that provides for a more co-operative approach or is co-operation in fact impossible?

JW     Firstly looking at the first point, Dorbel, how does it feel about the situation which is really, the labour relations environment, also the situation which has created the environment. Dorbel is a South African company, a wholly owned South African company, it's got no overseas interest. It's major shareholders are companies like Sanlam and Rembrandt so it's to a large degree Afrikaans stock. It's a known fact, I mean you can look at any letterhead, our group chief executive is Dawid Mostert and our group manpower manager is Edwin Vorster, those are very good Afrikaner names. I am told that both are members of the Broederbond. Now, I could probably find out by checking up but I'm not really interested. But it's pretty Afrikaans conservative. Now we were talking at the top executive level.

     You move down the ladder to the people that I deal with, my director on sites, my general manager and his managers. If I had to say where do those stand in the political spectrum I'd say most of them are Nationalists. There are some people who are certainly, will be voting Democratic and some chaps are actually English speaking. But generally the man who votes Nationalist doesn't identify, by definition he cannot identify with the plight of the black man, otherwise he wouldn't be voting Nationalist. But right, so he's voting Nationalist. So he's concerned with what's happening in his company. A general manager, that's his company, it's not the director's company, it's the general manager's company, he takes the responsibility at the end of each month for what the contribution is, what turnover is, what profits there are, and those guys tend -I'm talking from my experience of people at that level, tend not to see the political issue. In fact they'll be quite vocal in the fact that that is not the issue, the issue is actually having to role the product out of the door and get the till clicking over because that is what this is what all about. They don't have sympathy for the black man, they don't have sympathy for his plight. They realise that their workers are being used, in many instances unwittingly, in a political movement. But they will acknowledge it. And now they'll say, Yes it's happening, but not say, Well let me apply my mind to why it is really happening. It's almost paradoxical, the person who should know the most and be the most interested really is quite ... and say we'll leave it to personnel to deal with the problems as they arise.

JW     I have a major problem trying to tell people that we're now in the age where we know how to handle strikes because we dealt with strikes, we know how to deal with things in the Industrial Court, we must now be better than that, we must be proactive. People have a problem trying to say, well yes, we must be proactive. And I can see that it's easy to say we must be proactive and being proactive as well, it's easy to say we'll be proactive and getting proactive are two things. I agree with that. But the point, you never put it like this, but the question could be put: is Dorbel hard on unions, or should they compromise more, or something along those lines? That is a very interesting point, I think it's fascinating. Because if you look at the type of companies that have been the most reasonable with their employees, and I'm talking about the black demands, black labour, Mercedes Benz is a prime example, Volkswagen is a prime example, and those are the two that are very close to us because they work in the motor industry and we know how often they are on strike because if we don't supply Volkswagen on a particular day we know it's because they are not working. So when the press says VW has been out for one day, we know that they were out for five days but it didn't get to the press. And those are two companies in our industry that I know fairly well and if you look at their wages the blacks on the shop floor who are doing the most menial task are being paid a lot more than matriculated whites who are struggling to get jobs. That is by comparison. I'm not saying it's wrong, I'm not saying that people shouldn't be paid that much for doing menial tasks, don't get me wrong, but those are the guys who get hit by strikes the most often. I've been in meetings with black union organisers, that is the level that I deal with most of the time. The guys who can transcend worker requirements that will say he is part of, he's aware of the labour movement is in fact a greater thing than individual equity and fairness and that. There's a fellow by the name of Lucky Dendele(?) is one I've been dealing with lately.

JW     I've been accused I don't know how many times of being a union basher. Dorbel's been accused, if I've said a thousand times I'm sure I would not be exaggerating because there are about 120 Dorbel companies in South Africa, that's only ten times for each company and that's over a thousand times. And I've said to this guy, you know Mr. Dendele, I think that you like to say every now and then that this company is a union basher and we happen to fit the bill quite well. But you know what, I don't apologise for our situation as regard to labour relations because in fact it's a situation that works and our record is there. We haven't had strikes over the last 24 months of anything comparable to what the more reasonable employers have been.

JW     Now, I'm not speaking in terms of my own personal convictions with regards to what an individual should be getting. But I'm being employed by a company and that company happens to be Dorbel so its interests are now my interests. And I know that we are one of the hardest companies with regard to our labour. But we get probably the best response from the work force in terms of production.

JW     General Motors disinvested about two years ago, within the last three years. There was a huge strike linked to that. There was a management buyout and Delta Motor Corporation was born and they were hard, and the dismissals that followed - they were selective in their dismissal, they were hard on the union, they have continued to be hard and they haven't been troubled by strikes like Volkswagen over this last year. Motor vehicles assemblers, Ford, Samcor, Toyota fired 4000 people, VW had production loss for ten days, that's when the 400,000 rand in direct costs were lost that I mentioned. Never affected Delta because they're hard in a situation of a strike.

POM     Because they were hard?

JW     Hard. And the black man understands. If you understand the situation, if I transgress I will be severely hurt in terms of being dismissed. There is something there that obviously strikes fear into his heart, naturally. He understands it. Places like Volkswagen, they are more reasonable, they give more and when they have a strike they don't say, right the deadline is such and such if you're not back by day X you will be dismissed and then carry that out. They wait for people to come back to work. Dorbel and Delta Motor Corporation have the attitude of, right, your strike is illegal, if you're not back by such and such a day we will dismiss and the workers know that they will be dismissed. The strike is illegal.

POM     What is the difference between a legal and an illegal strike? And how is that determined?

JW     An illegal strike is easy, it's just people going out because they want more money and they put a demand forward and they go out. They don't follow any procedures, they haven't been in negotiation. They can just walk off the shop floor. I could go to work tomorrow, people could walk off the shop floor demanding so many rands extra, and that's an illegal strike, the wildcat strike just for any reason. The legal strike, you must be in negotiation. You must actually be applying your mind to a certain issue. The issue can be wage negotiation or it can be an individual dismissal that has been deemed to be unfair. You must get to the stage of deadlock. That's the first thing that is required, an issue in deadlock. After deadlock the issue must be addressed to the governing body which in our instance is the Industrial Council. The Industrial Council provides a forum for negotiation between the parties that are party to that Industrial Council. Usually an employer body representing a number of companies and a few unions would negotiate. It also provides a forum for dealing with the streets. So mediation takes place there. And after you go into mediation you can say, well we've been to mediation, we haven't resolved our differences, we are going to have a ballot. So that is the third thing that is required, a ballot. And a simple majority, a 50% plus one majority can provide legitimate reason for a union to go on a legal strike. And when a company goes on a legal strike they're still in breech of their contracts but the Labour Relations Act's unfair labour practice gives a protection. They have protection in terms of law as well. They can stay out. Basically what it boils down to is an illegal strike having followed those procedures they can be fairly safe that they will not be dismissed.

POM     If you look at labour legislation in South Africa and compare it with say labour legislation in Britain or Germany or the United States for that matter, do you think that black trade unions are afforded as much freedom under South African legislation as under other 'modern' western nations?

JW     You know I am really not the person to be asked about that because I know very little about strikes or labour legislation in the western countries. But when I look at how the British Rail workers seem to go out very quickly, it seems to me that we just say, look, there are a few points that you have to go through before you have a legal strike. I think it's only reasonable that an employer be able to try and resolve the issue with the union, with the employees, before they say we're now involved in a strike and we have protection by law. I can give you the name of someone who actually knows quite a lot about overseas legislation and you will be able to get a much better answer. I can't really comment.

POM     From the perception of, say, your perception and say the perception of white workers who are management or on the shop floor, do they believe that the procedures set up for black trade unions are on a par with the protection that they have?

JW     Well, one thing about the strike, you know what the opposite of the strike is? A lockout. Now to embark upon a lockout the same procedures have to be followed. And obviously the company doesn't want to lock its workers out because it's going to lose production. So although they can be perfectly compared with one another because they are the reciprocal of each other, that's not a fair comparison because why would a company want to lock people out? The company wants production to keep going. They are not going to gain much. In the whole process of negotiation, the company doesn't get much of its demands.

POM     Am I wrong in recollecting that the gold mine operators during the gold mine strike locked workers out?

JW     That was a very big strike.

POM     About two or three years ago in 1987.

JW     They could have locked out but what often happens is you have the dispute, we have people on strike and what the company does is use its rights to lockout to prevent anybody from coming to work because you get people saying, well we are coming to work to be productive, and then come to work to be disruptive. So you say can we vote at the same time on both procedures.

JW     But to answer your question, how does management, management in the very broad sense of the term, view the procedures? I think management thinks they're reasonable. There has to be a reason to want to go on strike. There has to be a means and a time period to try and resolve it. It has to be that we have to wait 21 days or we have to go to the Industrial Council within 21 days is fair. An Industrial Council is a forum where we are going to try and resolve our issues one last time I think, and personally I think it's reasonable as well. We're still not preventing the person from going on strike, it's just giving breathing space. In fact even after the ballot there, which is a last requirement, there seems to be a cooling down period that people don't go on strike in a hot-headed fashion, that they go on strike on an issue. And the issue is not that they won the ballot they go on strike but that the issue is perceived to be wages or whatever, but people go on strike on the issue, not because of the positive ballot.

POM     The current strikes in the motor trade industry, have they all gone through that procedure? These are all legal strikes?

JW     The recent motor strikes?

POM     Yes.

JW     No they weren't legal. In fact that's why Toyota dismissed 3600 employees.

POM     Who did?

JW     Toyota in Durban. In fact they got a restraining order from the Industrial Court basically which invalidated any claim that the union had, that NUMSA had to a legal strike. That was a section 1711A order which basically stated that the strike was illegal and that the workers had to get back to work. And they didn't. They were dismissed. And the claim of Les Kettledus who was negotiating on behalf of NUMSA said the workers do not see themselves as having been dismissed and we demand that the company withdraw the Industrial Court document that it has, which is ridiculous claim to make.

POM     Would Toyota be regarded as a good employer?

JW     Toyota has gone, yes, to answer your question, yes, Toyota has gone for I don't know how many years but a long, long time without any industrial unrest. And it's the first time in years that they have had any problems. Toyota is a company committed to developing a company that the management style extends right down to the shop floor. The benefits from a system of management they must apply to everybody, employee involvement systems. A lot of the types of things that the Sullivan Code were addressing. They never took them on as the Sullivan Code, they took them on because they were good. And yes they are regarded as being a very good employer. But I believe that when they come down and dismiss they'll take the Delta approach of being hard to be fair to the company because the company obviously acts in the company's own interests. And to a large degree they might not reinstate their workers. I don't know what action they've taken on that. But they been very issue free, if I can use that word.

POM     Is there any feeling among white workers and management that black unions are trying to cripple the economy through making broad sections of industry strike prone on a continuous basis?

JW     Well, the union movement and the economy, I don't know if you've been aware of the stayaways that we've had on the political, black political calendar public holidays, which are not public holidays, the 16th of June is Soweto Day and there's Langa Day, Sharpeville Day, those have become traditional stayaways. But then there have also been consumer boycotts. So there is no great love relationship existing between the labour movement, the union movement, and the national economy. They certainly are not the closest of friends, if I make myself clear, there is definitely - any action that - because the union movement extends into a home as well. It isn't only on the shop floor. It's become bigger than the factories. It's become a part of life. When I was doing my Honours, Pepco had actually come and gone and there's the Port Elizabeth Black Civic Organisation. They were just forerunners. It was before the Wiehahn Commission. So there have been a lot of things that have been involved and of course it is such a dynamic situation. And what has come to a head over a period of a number of years is that the union movement has now affirmed itself as being the area of political statement, the area of political strength and the area of political action. And often action is taken against a sector of the economy.

JW     We had that miners' strike that you referred to. Well I think the loss is quantified in billions and debts are quantified in dozens. Now I make no apologies for being a capitalist. I make no apology for the fact that gain is proportional to risk and some of those pretty good Adam Smith type concepts. But I cannot condone that sort of action. And I'm a man with a lot of sympathy for the black man. But that I cannot identify with. I mean a person with an understanding, which I don't have, of macroeconomics, and appreciative of the implications of that strike on the national economy, that was devastating in terms of our - I don't know if you've heard this figure but for every one dollar the rand drops, every one dollar that the price of gold drops, we lose 50 billion rand annually or something like that. I mean, the impact there on the national economy and that was just because people couldn't meet over a couple of cents.

JW     Dorbel had a legal strike last year. The issue was four cents. The employer wouldn't give four cents and the union wouldn't accept the four cent gap. We had this strike which went into weeks and there were lives lost and that wasn't a big strike. It was again a small industry, a smaller industry than mining. And it wasn't regarded as a being a big strike. Lives were lost.

POM     Isn't that symptomatic of some fundamental difference in attitude on the part of both workers and management?

JW     Yes. In the Dorbel issue, something that I heard first hand, we have two advocates in Dorbel, Dorbel is so big that it saves thousands of rand to employ two advocates in the company just to deal with labour issues rather than for each company to have its own person that they consult. So we have two advocates who practice at the Supreme Court which is the highest court in our land. And I was speaking to the one gentleman, Neville Jordan, I know Bruce has got a lot of respect for him, and he was saying that deadlock had been achieved at the strike last year, sorry before the strike last year at Dorbel, it was basically Dorbel versus the metal industry, the employer affiliate, the employer body is called SEIFSA, the Steel and Engineering Industry Federation of South Africa. Dorbel is a member of SEIFSA within the metal industry. So SEIFSA negotiated for all its companies, the largest being Dorbel. Having said that, four cents was the gap of reaching an agreement. And just before they were about to embark in a legal strike Neville Jordan, who I'm pleased to be able to say is a good friend of mine, went to our group chief executive, Dawid Mostert and said there is a way to resolve this. What we should do is put it to SEIFSA because Dorbel couldn't take the initiative, put it to SEIFSA that we have an arbitrator make a decision without giving the reason for his decision. Give Dorbel 30 minutes, so it gives SEIFSA 30 minutes to put its case as to why it cannot pay those four cents. And have NUMSA afforded 30 minutes to put its case why the offer is unacceptable and have an arbitrator be given 30 minutes to make the decision. He said the metal industry must pay or the union must accept and without giving a reason. And Dawid Mostert said he was sold on it, he's a business man. It was a business venture. I mean a legal strike you lose millions, you don't lose millions on a four cents an hour issue. It took SEIFSA, a conservative employer body, they were six days into the legal strike before they said no to the idea. In those six days they would probably have recouped their loss of the four cents in any event. I think it shows the hard headedness of a lot of people in South African industry. And it comes down to the principal of negotiation, our final offer is 55 cents.

POM     Hard headedness often not in their own interests?

JW     Well, no, principle must sometimes be put aside for common sense. And the principle was that is our mandate and we cannot go back and we cannot go with another mandate. And that to me, I wasn't involved at all, in fact the strike never affected us, we were in the motor industry, but to me the common sense and the logic of it is overwhelming.

POM     What do you see as the major industrial relations issues emerging in the next couple of years?

JW     They're probably with us already, we just don't know it. This is where I say about being proactive. The Labour Relations Act is still seen to be the government's whipping stick of the unions. In fact we are going to be facing a lot trouble I believe in September over the Labour Relations Act; 'the bill' it's called, the labour bill. And I think it is quite useful to the union movement every time that there is stability and calm to rekindle the Labour Relations Act as being something to arouse people over. Because honestly that factory environment where intimidation is rife, it really is, it's very easy to kindle that part of animosity against something which people know absolutely nothing about it. The man on the shop floor doesn't know what the Industrial Council is let alone what the Act is all about. He doesn't know about unfair labour practice. The man on the shop floor goes there to earn an honest buck.

POM     Is the government considering bringing in further amendments to the Labour Act?

JW     No. No, in fact it is not an Act that is often changed. It was established in 1956. The greatest amendment was in 1979/80 with Professor Wiehahn's proposals being adopted and then the only time it changed after that was in September of 1988, last year. There have been, a few points have been raised as being maybe, if this was altered slightly it wouldn't be such an issue any more. But I don't believe it is going to be changed for a long time to come. I don't believe it is particularly unfair, it certainly not patently unfair. But just the fact that you have to play games with the other side or play ball with the other side, if that seems to be patently unfair, well I would like to see how it compares with overseas, and again that's where I am pretty ignorant. What a Labour Act should do, it should be to establish some sort of balance. The balance of power in the negotiation game is fairly balanced. Those scales will balance in the end and it is well balanced. A union can go on a legal strike. That's fair. A company can lock the workers out. That's fair. If a person strikes intermittently, sporadically for no reason at all that is a transgression, there's a sanction for that transgression. That's fair. If a person commits a serious offence, that person can be dismissed from employment. That applies to a white person wearing a tie like myself, I mean with management, equally to a union member who sweeps the floor, cleans the toilet or makes the car.

POM     So when you say the Labour Relations Act is still something that will be a problem in the future, will it be because the unions will be attempting to make it less restrictive in their view?

JW     They will. And no matter how 'unrestrictive', and I say that in inverted commas, no matter how unrestrictive it does become it will always be more convenient to have it less restrictive for the more radical people in the labour movement. But the conservative employers would like to have it more restrictive.

POM     What other issues do you see emerging?

JW     You know it's quite strange the demands on companies with regard to providing housing assistance, the community issues. I don't see those as becoming issues. Those have passed. They're not with us any more. And the things that are important in terms of the individuals are not the issue. The issues are more statutes, the legislation. Really, as we sit right now, I don't know what the issues are going to be. Every now and then I'm amazed at what the latest issue is. It's going to be, oh I know, we've known for the last five or six years, they will just become, they will tend to be more political. But some of the political demands are not legitimately new demands. So I think we are going to see more ugly strikes arising out of negotiation. Although we have seen the demands from the union because often the demand, the union goes in with its first demand in wages of an 80% increase which I think most reasonable people would appreciate that most companies cannot reach that in one negotiation. They've moved a long way down from 80% to settle on 18%. Now they're going for 35%. I think that the settling up point is going to be a lot closer to 35% than the original settling point was to the 80%. Because that's where unions get their credibility on the shop floor, is providing the goods from negotiation. That's where they get their membership and that's where they get their power base, by delivering goods. And so it's in their own interest, the actual day to day running of the union is still critical to the overall issue of the power play. Maybe in a year's time I will be able to tell you what the prickly issues are in the future. But right now the Act is going to be the big whipping boy.

POM     OK. Thanks very much.

PAT     Can I ask a question? Government people have told us that trade sanctions have posed a problem, so to speak, relative to not having sufficiently skilled labour. Is training and education, on the job training, technical training an issue when it comes to industrial relations and the unions?

JW     Yes, it is and in fact I saw a demand recently tabled that was a demand for more training for female employees because females tend, they are certainly perceived to be less technical, I don't know whether it is true or not. But there have been those demands but one must look at the demands or the type of trainers required relative to the amount of skill required in industry. Now in most industries vertical on the job training is required. Even for something like a welder, which is half way up the skills category, that person can be trained in a few weeks. And in welding this becomes more proficient at the job because it's very repetitive. So there is no real need for operator training. Where we need our skills is in terms of artisans, the people who are tool makers, fitters, turners, the traditional trades, every now and then we have a shortage which is sort of a market based shortage, market related shortage; because of demand people move to Johannesburg where more money is. We don't really have a major problem there.

JW     But talking of sanctions COSATU supports sanctions. You're aware of that? But what is interesting is in supporting sanctions the demands that they put on a company which disinvests is also interesting. They actually put pre-conditions for this investment down at the same time and pre-conditions for disinvestment are very ... for three year's salary, for fully paid up pensions, they make fantastic demands. I see why a union movement or a radical movement could say, yes we support disinvestment. Basically blacks are prepared to go unemployed and to suffer deprivation to see the change come about quicker. I identify with what they are saying but in the preconditions they come in and say, but before you disinvest, we would like ...

PAT     What kind of leverage do they have to apply preconditions for disinvestment when they are advocating disinvestment?

JW     The leverage that they have depends on a number of things. It depends on firstly the wealth of the company that is disinvesting. Let's take a hypothetical company which is leaving the country altogether without a management buyout, but the situation even arises with a management buyout. We have a situation, you can get back copies from the newspaper up to last week, Goodyear Tyre and Rubber Company, disinvestment with a management buyout but then the guarantees are required before the buyout can take place. No-one is going to lose their job. In fact people were actually dismissed because they didn't stay at their work. So now you get this crazy dilemma people saying we want disinvestment and then they go on an illegal strike and they get dismissed and they say - in the paper for the whole of last week there was an advert saying, Employees of this company who were dismissed please report to work by Friday nine o'clock to resume services otherwise we will have to start taking on other people to fill your vacancies. But it depends on what will a company give. It depends how wealthy the company is and it depends how the company is perceived in its own country to be reasonable, what does the home company or the parent company perceive to be reasonable?

JW     What the crux comes down to is what are the Industrial Court guidelines in regard to terminating of services? The Industrial Court doesn't give any rules that you have to follow but from the Industrial Court determinations that are given down in various court cases precedents get established as in any law but the Industrial Court is very young, it's not even ten years old so the precedents are not all that tried and tested and then with the recent amendment we're waiting for new precedents. People in fact go to court on many issues because a precedent isn't established.

JW     But really if you want to terminate a person's service through need, whether it's through hardship the company is suffering or through the need for disinvestment, the parameters have been set as to what is a basic requirement. You can always go above the requirements but one week's pay for one year's service for retrenchment procedure has been acceptable. I'm not suggesting it's good or it's fair but I'm saying it's acceptable to the Industrial Court, that's been accepted as a guideline. It depends how much the company has in its coffers, how much it's prepared to give.

POM     Who would sit on an industrial court? Would it be all white?

JW     It would be all white but I think that is not the fault of the people who sit there, that is the fault of the very unjust and different education system that we had. I don't know how many qualified advocates, black advocates we have. I certainly believe there are very few. I've met one who was in Northern Ireland for seven years, Fikile Bam, he mediated for us. He's a man of the utmost integrity, a man like that could get onto the Industrial Court. In fact he has so much credibility for objectivity that many companies would recommend this man to sit on the Industrial Court.

JW     But in fact, just an aside, he was arbitrating, not mediating, arbitrating, just making a decision on two dismissal cases at Pilkington Shatterproof, which is literally down the road from where I work. Two people had been dismissed by this company for theft, two black people had been dismissed for theft and they had service, short service of about three years. Now the court has indicated that you must, in mitigation, you must take into account a person's service amongst other things. You must take everything into account, but that is one thing you must look at. And he was asked to arbitrate on these two issues. Now, firstly for a company to agree, because the arbitrator is a mutually agreed upon party, person, agree to a black man, obviously says a lot that the black man is there because the company has got to have the faith in the man, ability and integrity and whatever. Advocate Bam was there. What had happened prior to these gentlemen being dismissed was that a white gentleman with some 35 years service with the company had also been found guilty of theft. But in mitigation his service counted in his favour, as I believe it should regardless of race and he was suspended without pay for two months. Now that's severe action, I think it's severe action.

JW     The two blacks being dismissed but the white man wasn't dismissed. And he said, Listen gentlemen, we are here to arbitrate on the dismissal of two of your members. Now don't cloud the issue with a third party which was typically dealt with under a separate set of circumstances, completely different. Don't ask me to judge what the Industrial Court often does judge is unfairness, or inconsistency. Don't even bring inconsistency before me. I'm arbitrating on your two members on the procedural fairness and a substantive fairness which is a crime and punishment issue and whether the procedure was followed and they were fairly dismissed, I'm looking at equity. And he was actually asked, it was intimated, I don't know what the final verdict was, but it was intimated by the union that they'd actually like him to step down, that he was a black man at a black union, which to me was very interesting.

     I can show you the document that we have now with regard to our compulsory arbitration that we'll be going to, the agreement between Dorbel and NUMSA, we have a panel of people who have been put forward as being arbitrators that are mutually acceptable to both parties. We've been asked to get some names from the people in the Eastern Cape and the first man I recommend would be Advocate Bam because of the way that he handled the mediation that we went through, very objectively, and not because he came down on the unions and said you guys are out of line, but because he seems to be very fair. He has integrity. That is the type of person who could well get onto the Industrial Court. I think it would do the integrity of the court, for want of a better word, a lot of good to start having one or two, one or two because there aren't many members of the Industrial Court, but when you start having strikes I don't think there should be a balance between the number of blacks and the number of whites, it should be proportionate the number of blacks in the Industrial Court and the whites in the Industrial Court, you just have to look at the number of advocates around the country. If there was some proportional ratio between white advocates and black advocates, if there was some balance I think it would lend some additional credibility to the Industrial Court.

POM     When Ford is getting out, as part of getting out, they are going to set up a trust where the workers would hold something like 25% of the shares in Samcor?

JW     That's right. I recall that. And actually the union had problem accepting it.

POM     As it being too little? They were looking for 33% or something. 33% would give the union a say in the Board of Directors.

JW     That's right. I remember speaking to the man who used to be my supervisor when I was at Ford, when it was Ford and he was with Samcor, he stayed after the transition because they still have a plant at Port Elizabeth, they actually make the engines here, the motor vehicle assembly is now in Pretoria. And he was saying the workers, he had quite a good sense of humour, he said the workers are saying we don't want it and I don't know what the reasons were, whether if was because they want a bigger slice or they didn't want, or whatever, but he said you know when you speak to Les Kettledus and Freddie Sauls who were the two union leaders at the time, their eyes start twinkling at the possibility of a directorship on the Board, you can see the eyes start twinkling, the capitalist comes out of them. He said there's a capitalist lurking in the heart of every black man. In fact he's not a prime target for socialism because he believes in possessions. I mean you've got it right the way through his history. He wants sons and not daughters because sons are wealth. The number of cattle, quality of cattle is irrelevant, the number counts. Give him ten scrawny cattle rather than five fantastic beasts.

PAT     Who is this?

JW     The black man. I did rural studies of them with a professor who had his doctorate in rural studies and I was at a very liberal institution, Rhodes University, one of the more liberal universities in the country and I have no shame in speaking about my lecturers because a lot of them qualified in America as well, they got their doctorates in America and their Masters degrees in America. That's a characteristic of the black man, his wealth and his possession. And he's not a prime candidate for socialism. It doesn't really cajole him.

JW     An interesting point about labour relations out of Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe was when there was a change in government, I'm told this, I don't know it first hand, when there was a change in government demands went up for domestic wages and a lot of big households used to employ, you know the word 'boy' was always used, it was a garden boy and a cook boy and car cleaning boy and a house boy another house boy, and a boy to look after the kids. The derogatory term 'boy', which of course you have to avoid at all costs in labour relations, understandably. We can't afford six of these employees any more so we'll have one or two because the rate of pay went up. And Mugabe was astute enough to realise that more important than big pay increases to small groups of people, employment at a lower rate for larger groups of people was better for the individuals and for the economy because it increased the purchasing power and he actually reduced the rate of pay by statute. And people started employing their six domestics all over again but there were more people being employed, more mouths being fed and there was more money going into the economy, their purchasing power was greater.

JW     You know the Labour Relations Act doesn't apply to domestic workers in South Africa, agricultural workers and public sector workers and forestry workers.

PAT     Not public sector workers?

JW     No, not public sector either.

PAT     Isn't that the biggest part of the work force? What proportion is it?

JW     Something like one in four whites work in that, 25%, it's a giant bureaucracy and there are a lot blacks who work there as well and actually when you say what are the issues of the future, that is one of the issues that has been raised. A dispute has recently been raised between COSATU and SACCOLA which is a strange way to have a dispute because SACCOLA is the South African Consultative Committee on Labour Affairs, it doesn't represent any one company or any sector of the economy, it has a lot of people from a lot of big corporations addressing labour issues with the likes of COSATU. And there are people like, there's a man by the name of Bobby Godsell who's a director of Anglo American and there's a man a Mr Bokkie Botha who is with AECI, the huge explosives company in South Africa, people of standing. And one of the demands from them is that the Labour Relations Act be extended to apply to those people to whom it does not apply. And that could be a major issue. It will probably not be an issue in our company because our people are covered by the Act but this injury to one injury to all victim, that applies to the people who work in the company that I work in, so it can be an issue on our shop floor, so for all we know in three, four months time we could be having a strike because the black lady who assists my wife and looks after our children when my wife's not around does not fall under the Act, but if they are put under the Act the Rhodesia or the Zimbabwe situation will reassert itself, it definitely will. In fact the white Afrikaner who is a primary user of black labour will say screw them, I'll do it my own way, because he's a hard bugger the Afrikaner. I learnt that in rugby physically and also from interaction with him. He is a hard man, he will say I think you've heard of the Boksburg fiasco, that sort of thing, that is Afrikaner mentality, Afrikaner household.

JW     Helen Suzman, who I don't know if you know of her, she was once questioned whether she had any black domestic worker sand she said, Indeed I do. But you're a Progressive and you're against blacks having to do menial chores. She said, Every good Progressive should have at least one domestic worker to provide employment if for nothing else. I don't condone it. I don't condone a lot of things about it. but I'm feeding somebody.

PAT     Do you remember, did Ford ever set up this trust fund? Did it ever get off the ground?

JW     I can give you the name of someone to contact about it. In fact I've tried to phone a man who used to be my manager, he's with VW.

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. Return to the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory site.