Solidarity’s SG Du Plessis: The wave of strikes has to be stopped

Gideon du PlessisLike the frog in a pot brought slowly to boil, South Africans have started to accept strikes as normality. This excellent contribution from a trade union leader unpacks the reasons why strikes are becoming commonplace rather than the exceptions they should be. He argues rationally and passionately for a re-assessment of what has gotten the country into this destructive cycle. – AH

By Gideon du Plessis*

Participating in a strike is a constitutional right, but certain trade unions’ unrealistic demands and the general lawlessness that coincides with most strikes tarnish the image of all trade unions and cause the underlying reasons for strikes to be misunderstood. Reporting on wage negotiations also tends to mainly focus on a trade union’s demands in relation to the consumer price index (CPI), although the CPI is merely an indicator and no single person or group of workers’ living expenses increase by exactly the same percentage as the CPI. The array of other important substantive demands that form part of negotiations is moreover ignored.

The reasons behind strikes

 There are three main causes of strikes in South Africa:

  • Reasons relating to labour relations

A trade union has to strike occasionally. A union that never stages a strike cannot use a strike as a threat during negotiations as it will be regarded as an idle threat.

The large number of multi-year agreements that is reached contributes to the incidence of strikes. For trade unions the risk of a multi-year agreement usually lies in the last year if a too low percentage is agreed on, in which case the mistake can only be corrected after two or three years. Negotiations are therefore more aggressive in the case of multi-year agreements, leading to an increase in strikes.

Furthermore, the typical South African model of negotiation focuses on positioning instead of mutual interests, which also increases the possibility of strikes.

  • The role of ideology

As a result of the pre-1994 freedom struggle, protest action is part of Cosatu unions’ usual method of dispute resolution and a strike is a natural continuation of what was a winning recipe. From an ideological standpoint Cosatu unions in many respects view industrial action as a revolt against the so-called white capitalist system and the instrument by which to bring about a better “surplus distribution” for members in line with a socialist ideology. In this way the economic liberation force (working class) is mobilised. At the same time Cosatu sends its partner, the ANC, a message about the power of organised labour.

A strike is moreover the ideal way for a Cosatu union to counter a sweetheart image and to promote credibility within the federation. Furthermore, a strike provides trade union leaders with an opportunity to acquire a media platform by which they can promote their image with a view to securing a senior position in Cosatu or government structures. And then there are the younger, ambitious and populist trade union leaders who weren’t part of the original freedom struggle and now want to do their bit by organising strikes.

In the case of competition between trade unions, a strike is, unfortunately, the ideal recruitment instrument: high expectations are set, members are mobilised for a strike and the employer and the opposition union are made out to be the enemy. The Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (Amcu) realised the value of this strategy and has used it with great success.

  • High expectations

During wage negotiations there are high expectations, particularly among entry-level workers, because their circumstances haven’t improved significantly since 1994. For these workers, a wage increase is their only chance of achieving a higher living standard and they are prepared to go on strike for it.

 Violence during strikes

 The political freedom struggle coincided with violent protests and this culture is now deeply rooted in our society. Violence is moreover a sign of the frustration and resistance of the working class. The negative consequences of broken homes and low levels of education are other contributing factors. High levels of intimidation during strikes furthermore fuel uncontrolled, lawless behaviour that has become characteristic of industrial action in the country.

 No work, no pay

 Solidarity’s members don’t strike often and are, among other things, sensitive to the principle of no work, no pay. For the average Cosatu trade union member, the loss of income is usually of inferior importance compared with the commitment to the “struggle for economic freedom”, but the principle of no work, no pay is possibly not always understood. Then again, having substantive demands such as additional leave met could outweigh the loss of income due to a strike. The contrary is also true: the overtime pay and additional production bonuses workers receive after a strike could make up for, or even surpass the income they lost due to the strike.

 How to stem the tide of industrial action

 Employers must ensure that a wage agreement is implemented in full and that the previous agreement is not a matter in dispute during new negotiations. A pre-negotiation conference can be held to enable parties to acquire a better understanding of each other’s position in a more relaxed atmosphere. Employers must also develop the ability to shift the pressure during negotiations and to negotiate settlements requiring a quid pro quo. The alternative is a move away from the current positional bargaining model to the so-called interest based bargaining model.

There is already legislation in terms of which a trade union can be held liable for damage to property caused during a strike. This legislation will have to be utilised, but the actual turning point will only come when trade union members start resisting being taken advantage of in order to further someone else’s cause and the negative impact of industrial action starts challenging the ideological substructure, that is to say, when the three-party alliance actually understands the negative effect of strikes on job creation. Unfortunately, it isn’t realistic to expect stern declarations from the presidency and Thatcherism, but a high-level labour relations Codesa needs to take place urgently in order to stem the destructive tide of unnecessary industrial action.

* Gideon du Plessis is the General Secretary of Solidarity

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