Last Thursday (October 7) was World Day for Decent Work.
In South Africa, that critical day found National Union of Metalworkers (Numsa) members on day three of a legal strike for, among others demands, decent work and an 8% wage increase.
The Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) made a call on the same day for South African workers to stage a one-day national strike against budget cuts.
Fortunately, most workers ignored Cosatu’s call. The impact of the strike on business was minuscule since most workers did not participate.
After last week’s strikes, South Africans ask in disbelief about the recklessness of protests for wages during the pandemic.
They cite job losses, wage cuts, businesses that will never open their doors again, declining productivity, acts of violence and overall economic lethargy.
Others argue in favour of unions’ ability to promote the common good, raise wages, improve working conditions, and tackle exploitation, workplace discrimination and the right to represent workers’ interests to management. They see the validity of strike action and even emphasise that a worker’s right to protest is sacrosanct, well-earned and negotiated through collective bargaining.
Both sides make a compelling case for and against striking and protesting during the pandemic, especially against the backdrop of an economy that has not recovered.
Why then, you may wonder, am I writing about the validity and invalidity of the strike?
When I participated in policy discussions involving government and labour, I observed that economic policies about moving the country forward are 80% talk and only 20% action.
International and domestic business expectations of policy direction, certainty, and steadiness – through actions, plans, and statements – are practical. Historically, trade unions have always tapped on the former. A simple act that anchors trade unions gives them power and efficacy.
To withdraw their labour, stop production and therefore affect profitability for the employer is a powerful statement.
What then is immoral or unreasonable about Numsa members withdrawing their labour during a dispute when the employer does not meet their demands? After all, tabling demands that please the employer does not serve the interest of unions.
There is validity in the demands being made by Numsa.
After all, unions, like every institution, will pursue what they deem best for their members.
Unfortunately, the demanded 8% increase is unattainable. For the record, a strike is equally damaging to the workers as is to the employer. By now, the lost wages as an outcome of the strike exceed hundreds of millions.
The relationship between employers and employees will always be contested. One will always want to extract the surplus value of labour, and the other will always bargain, negotiate, protest and strike for better wages and decent work at any time. Unfortunately, it happens to be during the pandemic.
Turning now to Cosatu’s strike for a better economy; indeed, leaders within this federation realise why workers did not turn out.
Presumably, being in an alliance partnership with the governing party affords Cosatu the insider perspective on the economic policies of the ANC. An enviable position that can influence change from within regarding economic policies.
It is worth reminding Cosatu that it is part of the alliance that chose neoliberal economic policies post-1994; the very policies they claim are hurting them today.
The low turnout invalidates the Cosatu call even from within federation-affiliated unions that did not mobilise their resources for a nationwide protest.
Insisting that all workers join in the strike to compel the government to create a conducive environment for job creation and fix the economy is ironic considering that a successful strike with a high turnout would have shut down the economy again.
Perhaps Cosatu leaders could illuminate us as to how encouraging workers to stay away or strike will aid an economy affected by lockdowns and extended closure due to the pandemic?
For the record, there is something sinister and undermining about asking workers to fight for a cause when you are complicit in creating an environment that dragged the economy to the abyss.
Moreover, instead of demanding that workers strike to fix the economy – which is counterproductive – we have to ask: has the federation run out of ideas?
There’s also the fact that Cosatu’s call to action came on the day of the Numsa strike, making the probability of it being an attention-seeking move all too obvious.
Unfortunately for South Africa, it sends the wrong message; one that leaves Cosatu exposed to damaging critique as a collaborator in maintaining the status quo by endorsing a ruling party that has done more to lead the economy into ruin rather than revive it.
Strike one, two, three – and out for Cosatu: its call for a one-day national strike is invalid.
The pandemic-driven recession has heightened an economy that is characterised by low-paying temporary jobs, high youth unemployment, more than 10 million unemployed people, and worsening conditions.
Therefore, pardon my cynicism when all I see from Cosatu’s call is leaders and individuals who are very much about self-interest and total disconnect from the realities of everyday life of their members.
For many South Africans who survived the pandemic, striking is not their preoccupation. Keeping their jobs is. People need jobs and assurance that their steady flow of income will continue.
The rationale of the two strike actions occurs when the country’s economic fortunes have declined. While the workings of industrial relations can explain one strike, the other does not hold.