Saturday, June 28, 2014

Striking: Fruitful or Futile?

Widespread and constant strike action might not be the solution to South Africa's wage disputes and social ills.
 by Brandon Janse Van Vuuren

In the aftermath of one of our country's longest strikes, we need to assess the validity of striking and the impact it has on our economy. According to our Constitution, each person has the right to strike. It also states that every worker has the right to enter into negotiations for better wages. In the case of the Rustenburg mineworkers, the whole country is sighing a breath of relief for their victory and applaud them for their perseverance to attain better lives for themselves and for the future mineworkers to take their place. But striking as a means to forwarding negotiations might have many detrimental effects on our society and sometimes for the workers themselves.

In a presentation at the annual Labour Law Conference of 2010, John Brand stated that “[u]nions who recognise this [mutual gain negotiation] in South Africa also realise that the use of strike action to win benefits is often futile in an economy in which the imbalance of power between capital and labour is so pronounced."

This past Tuesday, 24 June 2014, it was announced that the strike in the platinum mine sector had ended. In the same week, however, reports stated that the national union of metalworkers are embarking on an indefinite strike as of 1 July. News reports on striking permeate the media. The trend thus far has been unions flexing their muscles instead of guarding the labour force that gives them their power. As Brand puts it, “[the unions in favour of mutual gain] appreciate that there are better ways to get what workers need than by simply flexing their muscles.”

It is important to remember that a strike does not only impact one sector of the economy, but it affects the economy as a whole. This can be seen in the strike in Rustenburg. According to Thapelo Matebesi, spokesperson for Local Municipality, “Rustenburg is a city of 500,000 people where mining-related activities account for about half the jobs and 60 percent of the economy.” In an economic review from KPMG, a leader in the finance sector, it was stated that "[l]ost productivity due to strike action, across various industries, resulted in a mere 0.2% growth in manufacturing output in August 2013 from the year before." 

After 5 months of striking, the economy of Rustenburg is crippled. "It is difficult, business is slow. People in the mines are on strike and that affects us," says local hairdresser Anton Ngama to SAPA. He adds: "Today, no customer came to my salon. The future is bleak. I sit here the whole day without clients."

One of the biggest challenges South Africa faces is the tendency for strikes to become violent. “We are sick and tired of these continuing killings of our members. We are appealing to our government to do something about these killings,” The National Union of Mineworkers said regarding the Rustenburg strike. More often than not, many people who are willing to go to work during strike action fear for their lives and for their safety.

According to Voice, a non-striking educational union in the United Kingdom, there are many alternatives to strike action which could be effective in negotiations. Some of these alternatives are collecting petitions, the use of social media, the use of public platforms, demonstrating outside work hours, and enlisting the help of clients or government.

The effectiveness of these alternatives to strike action is debatable, however all alternatives should be pursued before any strike action is considered. Striking should be a measure of last resort, and in a functioning democracy, it should not be as prevalent as it is in South Africa. Better forms of dialogue and negotiation have to be considered by unions, government and corporations alike, and in this way we could avoid stunting the country's economic growth or the violence which has become commonplace in our society.