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The LRS Story

  • The LRS Story
Knowledge is too important to leave in the hands of the bosses.

The Labour Research Service (LRS) was started in 1986 in South Africa in the midst of a state of emergency.

The primary aim of the LRS was to strengthen the collective bargaining capacity of trade unions through the provision of accessible and relevant economic and financial research and information.

The LRS was preceded by the Cape Town Trade Union Library, which had been established in 1983 to provide worker education.

The Cape Town Trade Union Library was renamed the Trade Union Library and Education Center and later merged with the LRS in 1999.

The first phase: 1986 -1992

During the first (foundational) phase, the LRS established its core activities and client base. The primary aim of the organisation was to help build a modern trade union movement in South Africa, which at that time was still very young and under-resourced.

The LRS selected an organisational structure that was under union control, which indicated its wish to support and acknowledge trade union authority. 

During this period, trade unions relied extensively on the LRS for many activities, including compiling of reports on companies that could be used in wage negotiations, running training courses, consultations and the provision of specialised reports on, for example, macroeconomic data.

In 1987, the Actual Wage Rate Database (AWARD) was started. The database, which is still operational, collected all information on wage agreements and wage legislation in South Africa.

The LRS grew during this period, with more unions joining as members. The LRS collected, analysed and disseminated information for member unions to use in the bargaining process. The organisation had carved out a niche for itself as a labour support organisation.

As the labour movement continued to grow in numbers and sophistication, so too did the quality of information that trade unions required. Unions were increasingly requesting specialist knowledge of particular industries.

The LRS saw several significant developments during this phase. The organisation launched two regular periodicals - The Bargaining Monitor, which was produced monthly, and the annual Bargaining Indicators. Another milestone for the LRS was the expansion into financial services sector. This began with the setting up of the Community Growth Fund (CGF), a union directed unit trust that was administered by a leading financial house. The CGF was South Africa’s first socially responsible investment fund.

Funding for the LRS in foundational phase was primarily through fraternal overseas trade unions and trade union federations. The LRS required member unions to pay a small, annual membership fee in order to qualify for its services.

The Second Phase – 1993 -1998

This was a transitional time in South Africa, as the political and economic climate began to change.

The role of trade unions was changing dramatically, as they emerged as a powerful and legitimate force in South African society. However, it was also the time of accelerated “brain drain” away from the trade union movement into government and business.

Labour support organisations were greatly affected by the occurring changes. Before 1994, foreign donors weren’t allowed to donate money directly to trade unions in the country. But, with a new democracy, trade unions started getting external funding directly rather than through labour NGOs. The challenge for labour NGOs was how to raise funds to support their work.

The LRS responded through many mechanisms, such as setting up the entrepreneurial venture, LRS financial Services (Pty) Ltd, which was later delinked from the organisation because financial services and research didn’t work well together.

As such, the organisation moved towards self-sufficiency of projects. In order to reach self-sufficiency, hard decisions related to which projects to keep were considered. Casualties included in-house training of shop stewards and union negotiators, stopping of the production of “Trustees Digest” as well as the merging of the LRS with the Trade Union Library and Education Centre (TULEC). The merger with TULEC, which shared the same premises, office facilities and networks with LRS, was finished in 1999.

In terms of research output, the 1994 election dislocated union work considerably and reduced the demand for trade bargaining reports. However, by 1995, things had begun to normalise and it was business as usual for the LRS.

Political democracy opened doors for the struggle for economic freedom, and trade unions became engaged in policymaking. The LRS adjusted to these needs and increased its participation in economic policy research.

The new Labour Relations Act provided for disclosure of information of companies and was likely to lead to more centralised bargaining. This change in legislation was accompanied by a shift in emphasis toward corporate governance issues, with the unions demanding increased information related to governance.

From 1994 to 1996, the LRS shifted somewhat away from its primary focus on collective bargaining. However, from 1998, the commitment to collective bargaining was strongly reasserted as the core focus.

 The Third Phase – 1999 onwards

The third phase marked a change in strategy. Three-year operational plans, which were informed by analyses of the macro-environment in which the LRS operated, were compiled.

Many labour-focused organisations folded in the late 1990s due to the shifting funding climate, but the LRS managed to survive, largely through its innovation and entrepreneurial outlook. The LRS diversified sources of funding and changed its structure to accommodate a project-orientated funding model.

Circa 2003/04 the work directly commissioned by unions started to decline. While the need and demand for research to inform collective bargaining and other activities clearly exists, unions aren’t able to mobilise resources to pay for this information. Therefore, the LRS took a strategic decision to continue with collective bargaining-related services, frequently at its own expense, until the tide turned. 

The LRS has stayed true to its original mission, despite all of the changes. It seeks to develop organisation and leadership capacity of trade unions and labour-focused organisations, to enable collective bargaining on incomes and social livelihood issues.

"The LRS has not departed from its vision and mission. The national and international network further strengthened its ability to stay focused on its vision to provide a relevant service to trade unions, to provide information and support, and capacity building." - Past board member

One of the hallmarks of the LRS has been innovation. Various projects undertaken by the organisation, such as its foray into financial services and its AWARD database, have been pioneering activities and have paved the way for other organisations that came later. The LRS is looking to maintain this mantle of innovation as the world and the labour market are changing quicker than ever before.

The LRS is viewed as a very transparent organisation, one which has never resourced to unethical practices.

"The LRS has never become corrupt even in the direst circumstances." - Past board member

The work of the LRS has been powerful, transformative and has increased its union membership.

On the impact of LRS in the changing of the wage bargaining environment as a whole, another former board member said:

“We saw the bargaining process mature and it was not so drawn out as before.”

In keeping with its core values, the LRS has had the greatest impact on those in the lower ranks of the union structures, as noted by a union official.

“The LRS empowered trade unions at the level of the shop steward and organiser rather than at the top only.” - Union official.

LRS services have been particularly helpful to union negotiators who:


    had to contend with bargaining that was company-based and centralised

    worked for unions with under-resourced or under-capacitated bargaining departments

    had to deal with focused and specific needs

    were on the National Bargaining Council

Negotiators learned how to undertake future scenario projections, a critical skill that improved their bargaining power significantly.

 “Through the help of the LRS, we are able to speak with authority. The ‘train the trainer’ approach has enabled us to pass on skills and build internal capacity.” - Negotiator

The LRS Today


In the context of deeply contested politics in South Africa and a weakened labour movement, the LRS will continue to support the trade union movement in developing strategy and in cultivating new layers of progressive leaders. We see this as a lasting strategy that transcends the political headwinds of the day.

The LRS will continue to work across federation lines, creating and supporting spaces that are inclusive and which emphasize commonality rather than difference. We will continue to employ participative methodologies that promote inclusive and respectful ways of facilitating collective engagement.

The LRS will deliver educational processes and resources for leadership development and capacity development within the labour movement. The LRS will maintain a focus on the key processes of organisation and representation. The LRS will maintain a strong interest in transforming the gendered politics of the workplace and the union movement. 

The LRS will bring a focus on global value chains, with the focus on South African multinational corporations in the retail sector and Southern African transport corridors.

The LRS will promote and support social dialogue as it intersects with our programmatic themes of gender, social dialogue and corporate governance. We will look to broaden the reach of our research and resources through new and improved online mediums.