When it gives in to the wage demands tabled by the union – it’s a matter of time and percentage – South Africa Airways (SAA) will have dealt itself a devastating blow.
Against the backdrop of the airline’s economic crisis, wage negotiations were always going to be defined by a government that is on the back foot. And the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) was always going to come out with guns blazing, as it does in any negotiation. A combination of these two factors added to the hastening of the collapse of wage talks.
Furthermore, the trend of deadlocked wage negotiations has come to define SAA and the unions that organise within it. Even under different management and unions, negotiations have collapsed and led to strike action.
Has there been a time when the relationships between SAA, different public enterprises ministers and various unions were not filled with mistrust? Back in 2010 to 2012, the South African Transport and Allied Workers Union (Satawu) was at the height of its growth. Tensions increased shortly after, when the National Transport Movement – formed by former Satawu leaders – entered the fray, and the antagonistic battles rage on.
There are three reasons the national airline continues to be highly contested ground for different groups.
First, the politics of unions. Their attempts to attract new members means wage demands are used as tools to outdo their rivals. This is analogous to what is happening in the mining industry, particularly the platinum sector.
Admittedly, political dynamics are not limited to unions. SAA itself is a hotbed for interventions by the state. Often, these actions are informed by the vested interests of the political elite who have a lot to lose or gain, financially and politically.
Moreover, the financial crisis has provided leverage that opposition parties can use against the ruling party. Correctly so, as the airline remains money-consuming and always wanting more. It is one of the many state-owned enterprises (SOEs) that has to be regularly bailed out.
This is another example of a public spending that is meant to be for the greater good, yet in reality it is throwing money at a problem that remains unfixed.
The other political explanation relates to the personalities of the leaders involved, from the state to the unions. On the one hand, Numsa has been the biggest critic of government’s handling of various SOEs. The union has never hidden its aversion to Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan in his engagements with Eskom, and have consistently called for him to fired.
On the other hand, Finance Minister Tito Mboweni has never held back his views about the unsustainability of state bailouts for SOEs. In his Medium-Term Budget Policy Statement speech he made it clear that SAA is unable to generate the income that it needs to sustain its operations. It is this lack of income and accountability that is adding to the calls for the national carrier to be privatised.
In this context, you can already see how talks between these individuals leans towards a circle of personality clashes since none of them is likely to back down. Add the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and its dynamics with the two ministers – it has indicated that it will support the workers should the strike continue – and you have a political tinderbox that’s ready to go off.
2. Political opportunity
Second, the country’s stagnated economy and the crisis within SAA has created an opportunity for unions to advance their political interests. In particular, the importance of the airline business to the country has given unions the upper hand.
A strike that shuts down airports and grounds flights for a day or two has serious financial implications for the economy. Moreover, as this is happening just as the holidays season is about to begin, the subsequent effects will not be limited just to the airline industry but also the hospitality and tourism sectors.
In these pivotal times, the state’s propensity for repression is limited as any strong action can lead to outright clashes between workers and the police, and can lead to further mobilisation and protests around all airports.
3. Worker patience is wearing thin
Third, workers are tired of seeing politicians and SOE executives floating around and living on golden clouds while calling on them to tighten their belts because the economy is bad. And I might add that, as a taxpayer, it irks me to see part of my hard-earned money being used to bail out SAA while no one has ever been held accountable for its crisis. This goes for the rest of the SOEs too, where management, advising consulting companies and tenderpreneurs are paid millions.
In a society where workers spend most of their income on transport and basic food, to have SOEs that burn through cash and ask for more is insulting to ordinary citizens and workers.
Why shouldn’t they ask for more wages, when the state has made it clear that it always bail out SOEs because they provide a public service for the public good – aren’t these public services made possible because of the labour?
These things matter
The interplay of political, economic and social factors in the SAA strike speaks to the broader issues of the country, and of SOEs. All three factors matter, and unless they are tackled, the chances of any progress or prosperity remain precarious.
Bailing out the numerous loss-making, deep-in-debt and mismanaged SOEs will not turn them into vehicles of social transformation for greater good.
The SAA strike might be just the push over the cliff the state needs to convince it to do away with SOEs. They have been turned parasitic business that take more than they give while benefitting few.