My ONLY two problems with a labour strike

Yes, the title looks quite counter-revolutionary and somewhat undemocratic to many labour union members but the purpose is not to dictate whether or not people should strike and who should. However, mine is to bring one or two very important elements of a labour strike which I believe have long been ignored by both striking employees and their union leaders. Or rather, I bring to your attention issues that have concerned me for a long period of time about labour strikes.

It is well-known in South Africa as in many other parts of the world that a right to strike is a constitutional right for all and or as prescribed by respective legislations/regulations.

For example, Chapter 2, Section 13 on Bill of Rights of the South African Constitution is very clear that no one may be subjected to slavery, servitude or forced labour.

This is further supported by Section 18 which is explicitly clear that everyone “has the right to freedom of association”. This includes the right to belong to any political formation and or a labour union organisation. The right, however, is limited to certain occupations as prescribed in the respective regulations covering certain sectors of the employment.

This explanation is even taken further by Section 23 of the Act which grants everyone a right to fair labour practices. This includes the right to participating in legal activities and programmes of a trade union. The right is not only for employees but that employers, too, have a right to the formation and joining of an employers’ organisation. The Bill also guarantees the right to engage “collectively” as a trade union and employers’ organisation.

As said before, many of these rights are limited. This is also mentioned in Section 36 in that these rights “may be limited only in terms of law of general application to the extent that the limitation is reasonable and justifiable in an open and democratic society based on human dignity, equality and freedom”. The limitations would take into account the nature of the right, the importance of the limitations, the nature and extent of the limitation, the limitation between the limitation and its purpose and of course the less restrictive means to achieve the purpose.

In South Africa were are in a striking season [or mood rather], with many trade unions threatening to down tools and head to the street to show dissatisfaction with either their working conditions, income or other related concerns. In some instances, many put down their tools to negotiate about all three with their respective employers. There is now talk and efforts by Steel and Engineering Industries Federation of SA (Seifsa) and National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) to end a week-long strike.

Business Day newspaper reported on Monday this week that Numsa was demanding a 13% salary increase while employers were offering only 7% at the time of writing.

What is sad is that often these negations are marred by misrepresentations and miscommunication and intimidation by all parties. Or tactics, as they are known in the industry. Not only that, but that often violence is seen as a worrying concern by employers and non-striking workers. As noted by CEO of the National Employers Association of SA, Gerhard Papenfus, there are reports of violence and intimidation by workers and that some companies [out of concern and fear] have since closed their factories and sent workers home [probably without pay].

National Union of Mineworkers was reported on Monday to hold a “hold crisis talks to avoid strike” with the Chamber of Mines tomorrow to avoid a strike action. NUM spokesman Lesiba Seshoka said that if there was no solution, the union would inform the employers of its [the union’s] intention to strike.

NUM is said to be the country’s biggest mining union in terms of membership. At the time of writing the union was demanding a 14% salary increase from gold, coal and platinum companies while Solidarity was standing at a 12%. The unions [NUM and Solidarity] together with the United Association of SA (Uasa) represented about 140 000 employees working for chamber-member companies such as AngloGold Ashanti and Harmony Gold, Business Day reported on Monday.

In addition to these threatened country-wide strike, the Chemical, Energy, Paper, Printing, Wood and Allied Workers Union (Ceppwawu) and the General Industries Workers Union of SA (Giwusa) have also threatened to proceed with a strike, Business Day reported last week Friday. The two unions have about 70000 union members from companies such as Sasol, Nampak Glass, Adcock Ingram and Tiger Brands. Ceppwawu general secretary Simon Mofokeng told the newspaper at the time that they were “gearing up into the mother of all battles” and that a demand of 11% and 13% was put on the table by the two unions, respectively.

It was almost around the same time last year when I reported in my blog of threats of intimidation during the strike that had engulfed Impala Platinum mine in Rustenburg. At the time, many striking workers were threatening to beat the non-striking employees as they [non-strikers] were believed to be viewing those who were striking as stupid and crazy.

And it was during the same period that one of the union negotiators, National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) deputy president Piet Matosa, was hit in the face by stones when the strike got out of control because they [trade union negotiators] were accused of selling out the employees and accepting bribes from Impala management at the time.

Cosatu spokesperson Patrick Craven has expressed concern at the wage gap disparities. He was quoted by Times Online saying: “Cosatu is outraged that at a time when workers are struggling for modest improvements in their low wages, that chief executives are taking home increases a good ten percent higher than what the workers are demanding”.

Craven was reacting to reports the average pay of executive directors of the top 40 Johannesburg Stock Exchange-listed companies had increased last year by 23,3 percent to R4.8 million. He said the increases at the highest levels had “widened the gap still further”.

“They make the unions’ demands seem even more modest and reasonable. This report… illustrates why Cosatu has re-launched its living wage campaign and why we are fully behind the workers currently on strike,” he said.

This is true although many employers would not agree with this. Employers have always denied this so I guess this will remain like this: a topic that will never be won by neither side.

Now let’s get to the worrying part and please allow me to work with this assumption: that the strike goes ahead after employers failed to agree on the trade unions’ demands.

When the strike goes ahead as now planned and threatened by trade unions we need no scientific let alone academic proof to figure it out that employers would obviously apply the “no work, no pay” rule. This means for the entire period – at times, week or months – that the employees will be striking, the employers would not pay them any salaries as they [employees] would not be at work and working. And because of this other employers would either be forced to close down – as already alluded to by Papenfus as is currently happening in the country – or find alternatives to keep afloat: sourcing temporary or contractual workers until the wage negotiations have been concluded.

Therefore it is very worrying to me personally that during the striking period – however long it is – wage negotiators continue to earn their monthly salaries from the body trade unions in their failed negotiations with employers while the poor employees have agreed to sit at home without a cent and while some of their colleagues continue to strike.

What is worse about this whole thing is that it is the very same wage chief negotiators of trade unions that would advise – most of the time – their union members that they would go to CCMA to “get a certificate” to strike which would obviously result in their [employees] not getting paid due to the “no work, no pay” ruled applied by employers while they [trade unions negotiators] continue to earn their salaries without any hindrance.

Isn’t this unfair?

This to me reads like this:

Comrades, we will go and negotiate with your employers for this percentage and if they do not agree we will declare deadlock and go to CCMA to get a certificate to strike and thereby our striking being seen as legal and within the boundaries of the law.

Bear in mind comrades that once we have got a certificate, you employers will obviously not pay you for the duration that you will not be at work but striking, hence “no work, no pay” rule will be applied by them [employers].

However long it takes your employers to agree to our demand even if it takes months – please note that you will remain without a salary. And even while you toyi-toying and strike your butt out there on the streets, comrades, you have a hope in hell to even think that during that time we as your negotiators will not be getting paid our salaries by the body trade union.

You’d be crazy to think that Comrades. While you toyi-toyi, we, on the other hand, will be getting out full salary even when our salary negotiations on your behalf with your employers had failed.

The other problem I have with a labour strike is that after the poor employees had embarked on a week- or month-long strike, not wanting to accept employers’ offer – the very same union negotiators and employees, after they have had enough with not getting paid, they then return to the negotiation table and accept the same offer they had first rejected.

Why waste time with delaying tactics that do not benefit anyone but only put the employment of the poor employees at risk?

Is this actually how workers’ rights are protected, defended and fought for by trade unions while at the same time willingly agreed that employees lose a month’s salary?

Why was the offer not agreed to in the first place to avoid a probably month-long strike without pay? Or is that how negotiations work?

It is therefore my hope that during this striking seasons in the country that both employees and their trade unions take these two most important issues into account and how they should be addressed.

Disclosure: The author is an HR Officer in the Mining Industry and writes in his own personal capacity. Opinions expressed here are his alone and not those of his employer.

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