The Strike Dilemma

30 August 2018 00:00

Published in the Financial Mail of 1 August 2018

A new book explores the complex, multifaceted reasons behind increasingly violent industrial action Faced with an upsurge in violent strikes, employers mostly feel helpless to prevent or curb — let alone understand — what is going on. Likewise, many commentators might urge tougher steps against union leaders and more drastic action against the strikers, but are at a loss to explain the phenomenon of radically upscaled violence.

A new book suggests that the answer lies in the complex nature of SA's socioeconomic and political life. Written by seven labour law experts, Strikes and the Law probes the problem of violent strikes, among other related topics.

Given that SA's legal framework includes a variety of accessible ways to resolve labour disputes, there should be no room for violence in resolving such problems. But the reality is different. Media reports and labour court judgments often highlight intimidation and damage to property during strikes, escalating to looting and murder.

Examining the explosive mix behind this problem, the author’s list growing mistrust between union leaders and members and the re-emergence of no workplace issues in negotiations. They also note that employers increasingly find that even after they have obtained court orders barring union members from violent behaviour, the police do nothing to implement the orders.

Then there's the growing impression among workers that not "playing by the rules" gets better results, a lesson taught by the 2012 mining strike. For the duration of a collective agreement, strike action is not permitted over any issues regulated by that agreement. Yet the major 2012 strike targeted an existing agreement — and led to better wages and conditions. "This was unprecedented in the history of labour relations in SA, alerting other workers to the possibility of benefiting more from unprocedural strike action than from playing by the rules:'

Add to this SA's high rate of unemployment and inequality, made worse by "the rising cost of state provided services". Fees for state services have risen faster than private prices for most of the past 20 years, economist Neva Makgetla found: "Electricity rose 140%, education 90% and water 30% above the consumer price index."

For as long as extreme poverty continues, "there is also no real prospect of industrial peace", the writers say. Because of high unemployment rates, those who do have jobs must provide for a far larger extended household — sometimes even multiple households — most of whose members are unemployed. There is thus no "competition" between the employed and the unemployed, since they are often in the same household, and the only way for employed people to continue meeting these commitments is to demand higher wages.

Deep frustration

The leadership role that should be played by union officials is weakening, often because workers feel unions do not have control over wage increases. Limited collective bargaining coverage is another problem contributing to strike action, and possibly to violence, as industrial action by unorganised workers is inherently more likely to be unprotected and unprocedural.

Deep frustration by workers about unacceptable socioeconomic conditions prompts bypassing labour law procedures and escalation into violence. When workers and the households they support failed to experience a post 1994 "better life for all" they demanded higher wages, and strikes were their only available weapon.

The complex reality of workers' lives frames a new message for employers, lawmakers and unions, say the authors: while labour laws are aimed at regulating labour relations and promoting social justice, everyone involved also has to be "mindful of broader socioeconomic and political realities", including the challenges of workers.