Eina! It’s hard to be a union boss

The bosses at the Namibia Financial Institutions Union, Nafinu, are not a happy bunch. Earlier this week they got a second bloodied nose in just over three months when they lost an appeal against an earlier interdict obtained by Nedbank to prevent their members in the bargaining unit from striking.

These same bosses are also not very popular with their deluded underlings. Reading my previous commentary on this issue, some members contacted me, as well as the union leadership, wanting to know if it is true that all the banks provide the union’s funding through membership fees which are deducted and paid over. This is partly true since it only applies to those union members who are part of the bargaining unit. But as with all labour disputes, this “silent” part of the staff usually follows the crowd, going with the direction provided to the registered members by the union leaders.
Now it seems, even the paying members have realised they do not get a bang for their buck. And they have found out the union bosses earn easy money through the deduction and transfer mechanism. I think they now start realising why so many union bosses drive fancy, big expensive offroad cars, while the ordinary employee has to grovel at grassroots level, so to speak.
Bank employees are not underpaid. Given the notoriously generous fringe benefits banks offer as a matter of standard remuneration, I yet have to meet the bank employee complaining about his or her income. But like all humans, they like to get something extra for doing nothing more. So, they engage in union activities, seeing if their modest membership contribution can lead to a premium in the form of covering something for which everybody else has to pay. I can not fault this very basic, yet primitive drive to self-enrichment. It is pervasive and it applies to all of us, not only bank employees.
I grew up in a banking home so I openly claim to understand the mechanics of a bank, and the relationship between it and its employees. Thus I know that some officials are paid more and some less, but I also know that, unless you have ten children, a bank employee and his or her family, do not go to bed hungry. And even if you do have ten children, all banks have lucrative schemes to support the children of their employees.
According to the Supreme Court judgement, Nedbank obtained an earlier interdict against the union, arguing it has negotiated in bad faith on technical points, most notably demanding a 100% contribution from the bank for medical aid despite the fact that this was settled in an earlier agreement last year, which is still in force.
Neither the union nor the bank would budge until eventually all negotiations and the ensuing conciliation process failed. The union submitted a dispute to the Labour Commissioner, in the meantime polling its members’ sentiment on a strike. It was against this intention that the bank obtained an interdict. That was more or less in April this year, so for the next three months the union bosses did zilch, I wrote my commentary, and the ordinary members observed that the union bosses are still driving their expensive cars. Many questions surfaced.
It is interesting that the judgement, in its usual summary of events leading to the appeal, states that the union members voted overwhelmingly in favour of a strike. It was this remark that got me thinking and then trying to locate one, only one, underpaid bank employee. It was also when I noticed that the issue revolved around the employer employee split for medical aid, that my ears picked up.
Can this be true? Ordinary union members really insisting on such a whimsical idea that the bank must pay the full medical aid costs? Or was this idea only one of many equally daft suggestions put into the minds of employees by union bosses only wanting to ensure that their lucrative lifestyles continue to be financed by their gullible members.
There is no doubt that unions play a vital role in the protection of employment rights, especially for those people lacking either the skill or the inclination to enter into difficult, complex and often protracted negotiations. There is certainly a need for representation but then the union bosses must bring something to the table that is more sophisticated than just brawn. As it stands now, union bosses live off the fat of the land, but they are not qualified to lead. And when they find themselves in a crunch, they resort to strike, the proven method of all incompetent negotiators.
Fortunately, through recourse to law, and by playing according to civilised rules, at least one entity has managed to hit back. Over the long run, this will turn out to be a win for the entire country, ensuring that nobody gets left behind, not even the union bosses.