Can the South African economy do without union strikes?

The lockdown has made many things impossible, including the ability for unions to “stand” for their members in what has traditionally been the status quo for negotiations in South Africa: the organized strike.

In many countries around the world and particularly in South Africa, the ability to organize a strike is where a union best demonstrates its strength. In turn, this is the ultimate point of contact where members feel they are getting real value from their membership fees.

This is how members test their unions, and the success of the ensuing negotiations provides the ground on which members are won or lost.

Salary negotiations between unions and employers

Strikes are such a part of negotiations between South African employees and employers that we even have a season for it in April and May – and this year due to COVID-19, those negotiations have dragged on and are continuing. For example, the strike of the Public Sector Association (PSA) is looming and the PSA threatens to strike wages.

This time of year has historically been the time for wage negotiations between unions and employers, and is characterized by major union strikes.

So the question now is, if we have already lost a season in 2020 due to the pandemic (and there is a good chance that it will be the same for 2021), and we are not on strike, how then are negotiations did they take place during this period? And, if they did, will we see a change in the role of unions in the future?

While there is a lot of debate about what a return to normal will be, it seems that at least for the foreseeable future, unions are going to have to reinvent themselves, because their bread and butter come from strikes and the results that ‘they bring.

Current rate of layoffs and high unemployment rates

As it stands, of the three million South Africans who have already lost their jobs due to the pandemic, the lion’s share would have been unionized workers, and the majority of them would now have lost their membership. due to an inability to pay. their contributions.

Of course, with the current rate of layoffs and high levels of unemployment, we could still see a few small strikes, but probably nowhere near the levels we used to see.

These will likely be “calls to action” like the ones we saw on October 7 last year, coinciding with World Decent Work Day.

On that day, a one-day national strike was called by the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) with the support of the other major federations, namely the Federation of Trade Unions of South Africa (FEDUSA), the South African Federation of Trade Unions (SAFTU) and the National Council of Trade Unions (NACTU).

However, although important due to the unification of the five federations, the event itself was in reality more of a one-day protest than a strike, with a limited number of members participating across the country and none. tangible result obtained other than raising a united voice. How, then, were the battles fought?

When the bargaining boards sit with the employers, the wage agreements reached generally only have to be implemented for the following year or, at the most, for two years.

Some employers would therefore have avoided the need to negotiate in 2020 because they would still be in their collective agreements, while others simply agreed to keep things as they were with the intention of renegotiating this year.

That should, theoretically, mean we’d be in a much bigger strike season this year as unions pursue two years of raises and some sort of salary backlog for 2020. If rallies are allowed, of course.

Employees are suspicious of employers

But there are other ways to negotiate. Lessons could be learned from the UK and some EU countries where relations with unions are very different.

There is a higher level of “elegance” in engagements that invite all stakeholders to sit around a table in order to achieve the best business results while keeping workers employed.

In South Africa, however, our habit has been more to have the fight and to win the battle, but unfortunately we rarely win the war that way. It speaks to our collective South African psyche which inherently has employees who are suspicious of employers and if there is no open-air fight but rather a closed-door deal then that mistrust shifts towards unions.

We have had examples of a more balanced approach that worked in the past. We saw this with the National Union of Miners (NUM), until it became known as the “darling” union.

Even though NUM did its best for its members with calm deals, its members lost confidence in its ability to act in their best interests, suspecting that the union’s efforts were simply not enough.

From this, as we all know, arose the violence and anger which peaked in Marikana, after which many members transferred their loyalty to the Association of Miners and Construction Union (AMCU).

Reaching Agreements Without Strike Action

With my own clients in the past, I have seen more friendly circumstances pay off between employers and unions in the chemical industry.

Salaries in the chemical industry are still negotiated at the bargaining board level, but strikes at this client’s plant have been avoided for the past 20 years or so. It was a privilege to see the respect my clients had for these unions – for what they were and stood for – and in return to see the respect and understanding of unions in terms of what it takes to run a business.

Not to mention the unity established between the two unions themselves, equally recognized and capable of working as one union within the bargaining unit. So I believe it is possible. But it’s not easy.

Coming back to the question posed: can the South African economy do without the strike season and will unions still be able to guarantee the protection of the rights of their members without demonstrations or mass strikes?

With my lawyer hat on, I think we are more than capable of making strong and ethical agreements between employer and employee (through their respective unions) without strike action.

In conclusion

We would save, earn more money and lose less production because it is not just about lost wages; it’s also about keeping businesses in business. In a strike, no one really wins.

However, when I put on my union hat, the right to strike is so vital that it is enshrined in our Constitution and our Labor Code.

In addition, although I have acted for many ethical employers, many employers are not and continue to infringe the rights of their employees. And therefore, this right to strike must remain, especially in light of those who exploit employees.

Given our history as a nation, the strike is fundamental to who we are and we are likely never going to walk away from it. And that’s why I think once COVID-19 is (for lack of a better word) ‘over’ and there are no more social distancing rules on gatherings, I think we will just go back to business as usual during the strike season.


Katy F. Molnar