South Africa's trade unions

Today South African whites vote on a controversial new constitution. If approved it would permit persons of mixed race, and Indians, to be elected to a revamped Parliament - but would continue to exclude blacks.

Progress in taking steps to abolish South Africa's apartheid policies is measured not in leaps and bounds but in tiny drops that continue to fall on a mighty chunk of granite. In the short run it is very easy to cite evidence of discrimination against blacks and, to a lesser extent, Indians and those of mixed race in every phase of their daily existence. It is not often acknowledged , however, that major improvements have been made in recent years in the key area of labor relations.

When assessing the situation in South Africa, what should we use as a base line? Clearly, the only civilized and moral objective is the complete obliteration of racism in all its forms. The conditions which prevail in South Africa today obviously fall far short of this goal. If we want to measure progress in South Africa - to see how much of the granite has eroded - we must compare South Africa 1983 to what it was just a few years ago.

In a relatively short period of time, since the Commission of Inquiry into Labor Legislation put forth its recommendations in 1979, a number of dramatic changes have taken place in the trade union movement.

First, black trade unions now enjoy the same rights as their white, Indian, and mixed race counterparts to organize, to register, to bargain, and to strike. For a trade union in South Africa to be granted the right to register is no small matter. Until recently only registered trade unions were allowed to participate in industrial councils, which are the organizations for collective bargaining. Although some black trade unions have refused to register as a means of protest, unregistered unions are now recognized by employers and government as legitimate bargaining agents. The fact that black unions feel confident enough to challenge the labor relations system of South Africa is in itself encouraging.

Even more encouraging, there has been a recent upsurge in membership of black workers into multiracial and nonracial unions. In fact, according to the South African Embassy, ''all reference to race, color, and sex has been removed from each and every piece of legislation administered by the Department of Manpower.'' This means that black workers have been legally granted the right to protection against unfair labor practices.

Employers are no longer required to obtain a permit to hire a black worker. Ben Roberts, a professor of industrial relations at the London School of Economics, notes that this has had ''a tremendous impact'' on the South African labor force because for the first time blacks are moving into skilled work.

In my view, the United States and other Western nations have not given the South African government enough incentive to further diminish and eventually abolish its apartheid system altogether. Paradoxically, the more the US criticizes South Africa without balancing this criticism with appropriate praise and support, the less likely it is that progress will be made. Unremitting US criticism strengthens the argument of South African conservatives who do not favor changing the status quo. When debating those who favor change, hard-liners can point to a lack of encouragement by the US as a reason not to move forward in the area of human rights.

We should commend South Africa for the progress it has made in reducing discriminatory labor policies, while at the same time giving practical support to South African trade unions, such as the AFL-CIO labor leader training program that will soon be operational. US policymakers should not accept all of the actions of the South African government without question, however. I am worried that the South African Ministry of Law and Order may be hampering the development of black trade unions by overzealously arresting black union leaders.

Admittedly, South Africa has a very long way to go to reach the desired objective of equal rights for all - not just on paper but in practice as well. However, let us not overlook what progress has been made: Just four years ago black trade unions were illegal, unrecognized, and had no bargaining status whatsoever. Now they are viable, growing strong, and becoming increasingly sophisticated. I believe these bread-and-butter changes in the workplace are providing the foundation for fundamental political and social changes in the future.

The AFL-CIO recently passed a resolution which states that ''the rise of the black trade union movement in South Africa offers the best hope for the ultimate dismantling of the odious apartheid system.'' I couldn't agree more.

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