The upshot of AMCU’s three-month old Sibanye-Stillwater strike is that the loss of income of the approximate 11 000 striking AMCU members has reached an average loss of R42 246 per striking worker. In other words, the workers are striking themselves into a state of being worse off as the strike will clearly not bring in more money for them.
With the so-called strike season upon us, trade unions will have to learn from AMCU’s poor judgment and will have to take a long, hard look at the loss of income associated with strikes.
When employees embark on strike action, they forfeit their pay for the duration of the strike. Striking workers can accept this loss if, within an acceptable period, the success of the strike will compensate for the loss of income during the strike. If it is going to take several years before the higher salary attained by the strike will compensate for the loss of income, then it is better to rather have accepted the lower offer and to not have gone on strike.
The Solidarity Research Institute (SRI) illustrates the loss of income due to strike action by means of the assumption that there are 250 workdays in a year, and a trade union has been on strike for ten of those days to get the employer’s 10% offer to 15% in the end. According to the SRI, it is not as simple as claiming that it would only take three months to make up for the loss if, for example, R6 000 (excluding benefits) was lost due to the strike and salaries are now, for argument’s sake, R1 875 higher a month after a 15% increase was granted.
The SRI argues that the matter becomes complicated when deciding which amount is used to calculate the strike’s “value”. The value of the strike is equal to the amount the striker scores as a result of the strike. However, this value is not equal to the total monthly increase of R1 875 but is only equal to the difference between the company’s original offer and the amount granted in the end. In this instance, it would thus be only the 5% (being the difference between 10% and 15%) that comes into the equation; which in other words, adds up to an extra R625 per month. Thus calculated, it would take more than nine and a half months before the loss incurred during the strike is wiped out. Only then does the salary increase really mean anything.
Further to this, a strike that involves 20 workdays to achieve a difference of 5% means that the striking worker would have to work for 19 months to compensate for what he lost during the strike. If a strike goes on for 20 days to achieve a difference of 2% it is going to take almost 53 months, in other words four and a half years to catch up – a fact the average worker in South Africa most probably does not realise. The only thing workers see is that their pay cheque has more fat, and so they feel “richer” from day one.
However, the SRI’s explanation makes it clear that the decision to strike, or not to strike, is a rather complicated one, and it could take several months, if not years, before the bigger pay cheque really makes a difference.
When a strike is being considered trade unions and their members should first think closely about how long workers are prepared to work after the strike to compensate for losses incurred during the strike. The decision whether or not to strike should be based on that.
For trade unions such as NUM, Numsa and AMCU a strike is sometimes a tactical way of showing an employer that a trade union does not only bark but bites too. Even so, the impact of a strike on members’ income should be taken into the equation before deciding to show one’s teeth. That is why AMCU’s Sibanye-Stillwater strike is illogical. However, Sibanye has also shown other employers not to pacify a dog that always wants to bite.
Gideon du Plessis is Solidarity’s General Secretary