Can the South African economy do without unionised strikes?

South Africa

Lockdown rendered many things impossible, among them the ability for unions to ‘show up’ for their members in what has traditionally been the status quo for negotiation in South Africa: the organised strike.

In many countries across the globe and particularly in South Africa, the ability to organise a strike is where a union best demonstrates its strength. In turn, it’s the ultimate touchpoint where members feel they derive true value from their membership fees.

It’s how members test their unions, and the success of the negotiations that follow provide the ground on which members are gained or lost.

Salary negotiations between unions and employers

Strikes have become so much a part of negotiations between South African employees and employers that we even have a season for it during April and May – and this year due to COVID-19, these negotiations have dragged and are still going. For example, the Public Sector Association (PSA) strike looms and PSA threatens wage strike.

This period of the year is historically when salary negotiations between unions and employers take place, and it is characterised by major labour strike action.

So the question now is, if we’ve already lost one season in 2020 due to the pandemic (and chances are it will be the same for 2021), and we’re not striking, how then have successful negotiations taken place over this period? And, if they have, will we see a change in the role of trade unions going forward?

While there is much debate about what a return to normality will be, it appears that at least for the foreseeable future, unions are going to have to reinvent themselves, because their bread and butter comes from strikes and the results they bring.

Current rate of retrenchments and high levels of unemployment

As it is, of the three million South Africans who have already lost their jobs due to the pandemic, the lion’s share would have been blue-collar union members, and the majority of these would by now have lost their memberships through an inability to pay their dues.

Of course, with the current rate of retrenchments and high levels of unemployment, we might still witness a few smaller strikes, but probably nowhere near the levels, we used to see.

What these will more likely be are ‘calls to action’ the likes of which we saw on 7 October last year, coinciding with World Day for Decent Work.

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

However, while significant because of the unification of the five federations, the event itself was really more of a one-day protest than a strike, with limited numbers of members participating across the country and no tangible outcomes achieved other than raising a united voice. How, then, have the battles been waged?

When bargaining councils sit down with employers, the wage agreements struck are usually to be implemented only for the next year or, at the most, two years.

Some employers therefore would have escaped the necessity for negotiations in 2020 because they would still have been within their collective agreements, while others simply agreed to keep things as they were with the intention of renegotiating this year.

This should, theoretically, mean we’d be in for a much bigger strike season this year as unions pursue two years’ worth of increases and some sort of back pay for 2020. If gatherings are allowed, that is.

Employees mistrusting employers

But there are other ways to negotiate. We could take lessons from the UK and certain EU countries where relations with trade 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 still keeping workers employed.

In South Africa, however, our habit has rather been to have the fight and win the battle, but unfortunately, we seldom win the war this way. This speaks to our collective South African psyche that inherently has employees mistrusting employers and if there is no fight out in the open but instead an agreement behind closed doors, that mistrust then shifts to the unions.

We’ve had examples of a more balanced approach working in the past. We saw it with the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), until it became known as the ‘sweetheart’ trade union.

Even though NUM was doing the best it could for its members with agreements being calmly reached, its members lost faith in its ability to act in their best interests, suspecting that the union’s efforts were simply not sufficient.

Out of this, as we all know, came violence and anger culminating in Marikana, after which many members shifted their loyalties to the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU).

Reaching agreements without strike action

Among my own clients in the past, I’ve seen more amicable circumstances bear fruit between employers and unions in the chemical industry.

Wages within the chemical industry are still negotiated at the bargaining council level but for the last 20-odd years, strikes at this client’s plant have been evaded. It was a privilege to see the respect my clients had for these trade unions – for what they were and stood for – and in turn to see respect and understanding from the unions in terms of what it took to run a business.

Not to mention the unity established between the two unions themselves, equally recognised and able to work as one within the bargaining unit. So I do believe it is possible. But it is not easy.

Returning to the question at hand: can the South African economy do without the strike season and will labour unions still be able to ensure their members’ rights are protected without mass demonstrations or strikes?

Wearing my lawyer’s hat, I believe we are more than capable of reaching solid, ethical agreements between employer and employee (through their respective trade unions) without strike action.

In conclusion

We would save, make more money and lose less production because it’s not just about the loss of wages; it’s also about keeping businesses going. In a strike, no one really comes out a winner.

However, when I put on my employee trade union hat, the right to strike is so vital that it is embedded in our Constitution and our Labour Laws.

Plus, as much as I have acted for many ethical employers, there are many employers who are not and continue to undermine the rights of their employees. And therefore, that right to strike has to remain, especially in light of those who do exploit employees.

Given our history as a nation, striking is fundamental to who we are and we’re probably never going to step away from it. And that’s why I believe that, once COVID-19 is (for lack of a better word) ‘over’ and there are no longer social distancing regulations on gatherings, I believe that we will simply revert to business as usual during strike season.