Participation in strikes is a constitutional right, but certain trade
unions’ unrealistic demands and the general lack of adherence to the law that
is at the order of the day with most strikes, causes damage to all trade
unions’ image and the underlying reasons for strikes are not fully understood.
There is also a tendency that reports on salary negotiations mainly focus on a
trade union’s demands in comparison with the CPI, while the CPI is only an
indication and no single person or a group of workers’ living costs increase
exactly the same as the CPI. The list of other important substantial demands
which are negotiated are also kept under wraps.
There are three main reasons for strikes in South Africa
A trade union must strike now and then because a trade
union that never strikes, cannot use a strike as a threat at the negotiation
table to build power as no attention will be paid to the threat.
The considerable number of multiple year agreements
which are bargained for, contribute to strikes. The risk of a multiple year
agreement for trade unions is the last year, because if the agreement was on a
too low percentage at the beginning, the mistake can only be rectified after
two or three years. The consequence is that trade unions negotiate more
aggressively in the case of multiple year agreements which increase the
possibility of strikes.
Furthermore, the typical South African negotiation
model focuses on positioning instead of shared interests, which also promotes
the possibility of strikes.
Because of the pre-1994 freedom struggle, protest
action is a part of Cosatu’s trade union members’ normal way of dispute
resolution and a strike is a natural continuation of this success recipe. From
an ideological point of view, for Cosatu trade unions, strikes are in many
respects a revolt against the so-called white capitalistic system and the
instrument to create a better ‘surplus division’ for members within a
socialistic frame of thought. In this way, the mobilisation of the economic
liberation forces (working class) takes place, but together with the latter,
Cosatu sends a message to their partner, the ANC, on the power of organised labour.
A strike is further the ideal way for a Cosatu trade
union to work against a darling image and to promote credibility within the
federation. A strike is also the opportunity for trade union leaders to obtain a
media platform in order to build their image with the aim of a senior position
in Cosatu or government structures. Then there are the younger, ambitious and
populistic trade union leaders who missed the original freedom struggle and
want to contribute now by organising strikes.
Where there is competition among trade unions, a
strike is unfortunately also the ideal recruiting instrument to attract
members: lofty expectations are created, members are mobilised for a strike,
and the employer and the opposition trade union becomes the enemy. Amcu learned
the value of this strategy with great success.
Entry level employees especially have elevated
expectations during salary negotiations because their circumstances since 1994
has not improved much. For these employees, a salary increase is their only
chance for a better living standard and therefore they are willing to pay the
price by striking.
Violence during strikes
The political freedom struggle went along with violent mass action and
that culture has now been established deeply. Furthermore, violence is a model
of frustration and revolt of the working class. The negative consequences of
crumbling households and a low educational level are also contributing factors.
It is known that the levels of intimidation are high during a strike, which
further leads to uncontrolled, lawless behaviour, characteristics of strikes in
‘Now work, no pay’ principle
Solidarity’s members do not often strike and are among others sensitive
to the principle of ‘no work, no pay’. For a typical Cosatu trade union member,
the loss of income is mostly inferior to the commitment to the ‘economic
freedom struggle’, but the loss of income might not be understood. On the
contrary, the concession to certain substantial demands, such as additional
leave, is so important that it surpasses the loss of income because of a strike.
The opposite is also true. Employees earn so much overtime money and additional
production bonuses after a strike that the loss of income is quickly eliminated
and sometimes even excels it.
How to stop the strike tsunami
Employers must see to it that wage agreements are fully implemented, and
that the previous agreement is not a burning issue at new negotiations. A
pre-negotiation conference can be held so that parties can obtain a better
understanding of each other’s positions. Employers will also have to develop
the ability to shift pressure during negotiations and to bargain for
settlements which demand a counter performance.
Existing legislature already holds employers directly responsible for
damage to property during a strike. This legislature will have to be applied,
but the real turning point will only happen when trade union members stand up
against their exploitation for someone else’s agenda and when the negative
impact of a strike starts challenging the ideological foundation. In other
words, when the triparty alliance realises the negative impact of strikes on
the creation of jobs. It is unfortunately not realistic to expect that strong
statements at presidential level and a Thatcherian approach will be followed,
but a high-level labour relations Codesa will urgently have to happen to bring
the destructive wave of strikes under control.
Gideon du Plessis