Eskom labour will be tough to handle

FILE PHOTO: The logo of state power utility Eskom is seen outside Cape Town's Koeberg nuclear power plant in this picture taken March 20, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings/File Photo
FILE PHOTO: The logo of state power utility Eskom is seen outside Cape Town's Koeberg nuclear power plant in this picture taken March 20, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings/File Photo
Image: Mike Hutchings

Employees at SAA took a beating in last week’s strike.

They got nothing more than the 5.9% they were offered on the eve of the strike and had to throw in the towel after losing a week’s wages.

At Eskom things will not be over quite so fast.

The National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) are planning a welcome party for Andre de Ruyter on January 15, his first day at the office.

It will certainly be a high-spirited affair.

Notwithstanding the enormous public attention on Eskom, there has been almost no interaction between employees and either management or the government about their shared future.

Business and those who are pro-economic reform watched the SAA strike play out with approval.

The government stood its ground, was consistent in its message that the buck had stopped, and left the dispute to SAA management to resolve. But Eskom is a far more complex and important institution, and the energy transition — which is really what restructuring Eskom is all about — entails deep social and economic change, in which the entire society has an interest.

It is intensely political with many trade-offs to be made.

A face-off with the unions is not a viable strategy. Negotiations will need to be profound and meaningful.

Unfortunately, the basis for the required deep co-operation between labour and Eskom management and the government is absent.

Not only will De Ruyter walk in on day one covered with the mud that has been slung about by a vicious anti-white lobby, making employees somewhat doubtful about his skill set and intentions, but he will find the relationship with labour has been thoroughly neglected.

Though Eskom is discussed incessantly by the public, by the government, at parliament and in the media, there has been almost no communication at all with those who work there about what the future holds.

Since the plan to split up Eskom was affirmed by President Cyril Ramaphosa in February in his state of the nation speech, on only three occasions have Eskom and/or government interacted with labour over the plan.

The first was an informal meeting Ramaphosa had with NUM and Cosatu before the May election; the second was an informal meeting at Eskom during which chair Jabu Mabuza outlined the broad strokes of the plan to employees; and the third was a meeting at Nedlac a while ago under the auspices of something called the Eskom leadership forum.

Only one thing has been agreed: that there will be no retrenchments.

Labour is thoroughly against the impending split of Eskom into three parts. It fears this is being done to make Eskom easier to privatise.

NUM and Numsa have shown us what happens at Eskom when they are left out of decision making.

The disastrous wage negotiation in 2018 in which plant and machinery were sabotaged and load-shedding occurred will never be forgotten.

At that time it was not only the 0% wage offer that workers found to be provocative, but the failure of management to bring labour on board through a joint strategic analysis of the company before negotiations began.

This had become standard practice at Eskom, but fell by the wayside when the new board and management arrived. Without sufficient care going into preparations for negotiation there will be violence and disruption.

It is also evident that when it comes to discussion of the energy transition there is no agreement on the facts.

The politicisation of energy policy and the absence of a trust relationship among the Eskom stakeholders make achieving this difficult. But it is essential that a shared understanding of the facts underpin the negotiation.

What all of this means is that the relationships at Eskom, already neglected for so long, will require time, research resources, work-streams, impact assessments, mediators and advisers to build and guide the process.

This is not something that can be achieved during a few meetings, attended by the president or the public enterprises minister, spread out over months.

It is a sad reality that SA, which prided itself on achieving the impossible through negotiation after 1994, has had such poor success in social compacting since.

Summit after summit has secured lists of what everyone will do, preceded by months of talks about what they will not do, only for it all to be forgotten later.

Business has become fatigued, labour has become cynical and the government increasingly dysfunctional.

But when it comes to Eskom, failure would mean disaster. A genuine and enduring deal must be built for future generations.

While this is everyone’s concern, the responsibility to do the job rests disproportionately on the government and the men and women who work at Eskom.