Workers' Strikes and the Battle for Public Opinion

04-07-2011-15-07-01-484mdf37715Ah, so we have the strike season with us again. And with every story goes the same tiresome media refrain: “intimidation.” This, of course, is bolstered by every tame economist saying what they are so well paid to say: “The strikes are bad for the country. Labour laws are too rigid and strikes will only scare off investors and drive up joblessness. The demands being made are way above necessary, and therefore, certain to fuel inflation.”

This is the kind of journalism akin to the millionth re-enactment of a long-running play – Agatha Christie’s Mousetrap, for instance, where the script has long ago been written and it’s only the casting of the central characters that gets adjusted.

Where radio and TV presenters bring on a trade union leader or spokesperson, it’s only to grill them about intimidation and how they can dare to ask for above-inflation wage increases. By way of contrast, corporate and government spokespersons are asked what the effect on their businesses are and what they think the consequences for South African’s economy are.  Whereupon they, on cue, repeat what the economists usually say, intimidation, inflation, investors, etc.

And in all this, there is a build up of public opinion that is uniformly hostile to trade unions and striking workers. It’s a strange one this. The struggle for democracy gave rise to a Constitution and a Bill of Rights, which is uniformly praised and regarded as sacrosanct and the very touchstone of our democracy. However, in the midst of the preamble about non-racialism and non-sexism, in the letter and spirit of the right to life, to education and to property, one also finds the “right to strike.”

Imagine the media routinely stigmatising people exercising their right to housing or freedom of speech and hauling out economists to present figures telling us how unreasonable the right to assembly or vote is for investors. What would we say about that?

Similarly within the business media and amongst economists, it is entirely legitimate to argue that an investor, not satisfied with the returns on his/her investment, has every right to withdraw that investment. A customer, not satisfied that he is getting value for money, is able to withdraw his custom. Yet it is reprehensible for a worker to withdraw his/her labour when not satisfied with wages.

In the case of investor withdrawal, this is no abstract hypothesis. South Africa today is severely constrained by the consequences of the withdrawal of its largest monopolies – Anglo American, Gencor/Billiton, SA Mutual, SAB, Liberty – giving rise to a balance of payment deficit, as billions of Rands flow out of the country in the form of profits and dividends, and as the fiscus is denuded by strategies of transfer pricing practised by these South African transnational corporations. This amounts to a capital strike – which unlike the case of workers – is lauded by the business media as instances of our companies becoming “world class.”

As always the reporting of the current strike wave is really a battle for public opinion and in this battle, the first casualty is the truth.

On the one hand there is something perfectly regular, even routine about the current wave of strikes (as there is with the routine round of media condemnation of striking workers). The strikes are a direct result of wage negotiations scheduled for this period (which are deadlocked with employers not prepared to go more than 4 to 5 % and workers demanding in the region of 13% wage increases).

The strikes involve unions who negotiate centrally through Bargaining Councils that bring together almost all firms in one negotiation structure. The engineering and mining sectors have had such centralised bargaining arrangements for many years. The public sector, similarly, has such an arrangement, and they were joined over the last five years by the chemical sector.

The regularity and predictability of this round of wage negotiations is even something that big employer associations have been requesting for many years, as it helps with long-term planning and budgeting.

Over the last 20 years, employers, including the state’s negotiators in the public sector bargaining councils, have pushed for multi-year wage agreements whereby wages are adjusted automatically annually, giving them precisely the certainty they want in contrast to the wishes of the unions who generally favour annual rounds of negotiations (so that they could win more bites at the cherry).

So, for example, in the case of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa’s (NUMSA) negotiations with the Steel and Engineering Industries Federation of South Africa (SEIFSA), these appear to be on schedule, as employers won their demand for multi-year agreements and these just happen to be coming up for review now.

However, while there is something familiar and predictable about the current strikes and the industries involved; there is something different too, which points to a changing landscape that is largely happening beneath the public discourse radar.

Firstly, within the negotiations themselves, there are changes.

It is noticeable how much of a discrepancy there is between what the employers are prepared to offer in relation to what the workers are demanding. In the case of the engineering sector, the difference is between 4% and 13% and already the workers are out on strike. This makes an easy, “honourable” settlement difficult.

This is something shared with the 2010 public sector worker demands. There is an increased emphasis on non-wage issues where both engineering and chemical workers want labour brokers banned while seeking better social rights, like maternity leave. In the case of the public sector strike of 2010, a key demand was a housing allowance.

The fact that workers have been prepared to strike over these issues shows how defined they are by the “quality of life issues” affecting the working class.

For decades workers were well aware of the relationship between nominal wage and what economists call a “social wage” (housing, health and public services in general). Traditionally they would trade off dropping the social wage demands for a higher nominal wage or agree to a lower nominal wage if the employers upped the benefits. But in neo-liberal South Africa, as so patently demonstrated by the ongoing township service delivery revolts, there are almost no public services, so no trade-off is possible.

So workers are, in a sense, forced into going for broke. In other words, they are forced to seek a living wage and demand that employers carry the cost of the non-existent social wage. This is the price to be paid for what is so glibly referred to as the “lean and mean state.”

Nevertheless, the strikes are not only taking place with service delivery protests acting as a backdrop. They are also signs that the sphere of service delivery struggles – which have in the main been community confined struggles up to now - are finding their way into the industrial sphere.

This is something that demands our attention.

Secondly, the employers who are the chief architects of the current multi-year agreements are reaping the worst of the very thing they so desired. The effect of multi-year agreements is that they have the effect of a build-up of expectations and pent-up frustration. Workers have to wait for a number of years before they have the next chance to put their demands on the table and so they are likely to pitch these demands higher.

This was the case with the big public sector strikes in 2010 when the parties who met after the 2009 negotiations agreed (at the employer’s insistence) that they should have a multi-year agreement, which happened to fall in the World Cup year.

Thirdly, the difference between routine strikes and the current strikes – including the 2010 public sector strike – is that they are occurring despite the most unfavourable circumstances for workers.                                    

Strikes are not events that can merely be conjured up by even the most dynamic or progressive of trade union leaders. They don’t happen at the mere whim or discretion of this or that leader, nor are the striking workers mindless rabble or mere followers of some leader’s decision. To be sure we do have a tradition of “one-day stay-aways” – around some issue of state policy or some campaign called by COSATU and other national movements, which are decisions from above, but taken with due regard to leaders’ reading what their membership is concerned about.

But these events are fundamentally different to the indefinite showdowns, which mass wage strikes are. In this instance, as every trade union organiser knows, the obstacles militating against a strike are enormous. Workers, already poorly-paid and with extended families to support, know they will lose wages and that their wage demands may not be successfully achieved.

Although our labour laws protect workers on procedural strikes against dismissal, there are hundreds of ways that employers can punish or even dismiss striking workers without formally making the link between the strike and the dismissal. Even contesting an unfair strike-related dismissal, with the law on a worker’s side, can take months to resolve through the CCMA, and is a huge disincentive to workers risking their jobs by going on strike.

In South Africa, unlike many other countries, there is no provision for a “strike fund” -- the kind of money that can at least tide workers’ families over the dark days of near starvation during a protracted strike. Unlike employers who know well in advance when a protected strike is due and can and do take measures like stockpiling and extra orders in advance to mitigate the effects of the strike, there is no preparation that workers engage in to offset the loss of earnings and the consequences for their families, children’s education and so on.

So every trade unionist knows that protracted strikes have to be driven by the ordinary members, by their decisions to risk all and face the consequences, by their sense of desperation and the support of their families. Such that immediately before and during strikes, every union organiser and leader knows how much they become – however temporarily – servants of their members; how they have to report back to members after their meetings with employers; how much they have to ensure that they act in terms of their mandate and how much the future relations within the union depend on respect for that process.

In normal times, trade unions are not exempt from the degeneration into bureaucracy and the top-down routine-ism that all large organisations suffer from. But strikes are the real expression of workers’ decision-making and passion and, and such, they are important sources of re-vitalisation and democracy for unions.

On a larger societal canvass, strikes also form part of a public referendum on the state of people’s well being at any given time.

So what does this tell us about South Africa today?

This is a country proud to trumpet its democratic credentials in the midst of a global crisis, with an unemployment rate of anything from 26-40% with levels of personal debt exceeding people’s earnings. As a result, hundreds of thousands of people are willing to risk all in the hope that they can recoup some of the losses they experienced since the last round of wage negotiations.

In the context of declining living standards and the crude display of opulence by South Africa’s wealthy, poor people are beginning to forge links between the different moments of their lives in the township and in the workplace. The wage negotiation forums simply serve as a build up to the next round of unfulfilled expectations.

This article was first published online here:


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