To strike or not to strike

The recent strike by the fuel industry workers elicited some interesting debate amongst FOCUS readers. Were the workers justified in their actions or not?


Goodness gracious me. There is nothing like a strike to stir up the emotions. It’s not like the phenomenon is new. According to Wikipedia, the first known strike took place on 14 November 1152 BC when the artisans of the Royal Necropolis at Deirel-Medina in ancient Egypt downed tools. Deirel-Medina was an ancient Egyptian village, which was home to the artisans who worked on the tombs in the Valley of the Kings during the 18th to 20th dynasties.

The event, which was reported in detail on papyrus, proved that those ancient Egyptians were indeed a clever bunch. The strike so terrified the Egyptian authorities that they gave in and raised the workers’ wages immediately.

And that, of course, is the intention of any strike: terrify the authorities or employers. Some would say this is an honourable or necessary procedure, which is necessary to prevent workers from being abused. “Look at the abuse of workers in China,” one reader told me. “That can only happen without strong unions.”

His comments made me think back to a Chinese factory that I visited 10 years ago. On the wall was a rather scary slogan: “Market share is everything. Retreat is death.” It made me wonder if, on losing market share, they would execute workers at dawn…

But others slam the concept of strikes as an outrage, insisting that these forms of industrial action will bring this country to its knees.

As Reuters warned during the height of the strike: “Economists said the fuel strike may cost South Africa billions of rand and entrench an image of an investment destination prone to walk-outs and above-inflation wage demands in labour-intensive industries such as mining and manufacturing.”

Polokwane Chamber of Commerce president Matsobane Tleane concurred with these sentiments. “Striking workers fail to realise they are tarnishing South Africa’s image in international business circles. We now look like people who only rely on taking to the streets in protest, instead of people who can sit down at the table and talk. Businesses have been seriously affected by the strike because we are failing to transport some of our goods to our customers. If the strike continues, profits will be affected, in turn hurting the growth of the provincial economy,” Tleane warned.

Some readers maintain that it is terribly one-sided. “I have taken a look at the list of demands from the unions,” one senior fuel company executive told me. “It is an endless list of demands. They want this. They want that. And what are they prepared to give us? Nothing. There is no give and take in this relationship. It’s just a case of us giving.”

Others say it is completely unnecessary. “Why can’t workers in South Africa follow the example of their Japanese counterparts?” an executive at a Japanese truck company told me. “In Japan the workers wear armbands to show they are unhappy. They don’t stop working.

“In fact it’s been said that they often work twice as hard as usual to prove to the bosses how valuable they are.”

Of course, members of the Chemical, Energy, Paper, Printing, Wood, and Allied Workers Union (Ceppwawu) believe it is imperative that they strike until “justice prevails”. After all, recent reports have indicated that the average salary of executive directors of the top 40 Johannesburg Stock Exchange-listed companies increased last year by 23,3% to R4,8 million. Not surprisingly, this angered Cosatu. “We are outraged that, at a time when workers are struggling for modest improvements in their low wages, chief executives are taking home increases a good 10% higher than what the workers are demanding,” spokesperson Patrick Craven told Sapa.

“South Africa has already been rated the most unequal society in the world. These latest increases at the highest levels have widened the gap still further. They make the unions’ demands seem even more modest and reasonable. This report … illustrates why Cosatu has relaunched its living wage campaign, and why we are fully behind the workers currently on strike,” he elaborated.

So there you have it. Viewpoints from all and sundry. And what is my viewpoint, you may ask? Well, as much as I fully support the right of any worker to earn a liveable wage, the strike troubles me on three fronts.

First and foremost, the violence and damage to property associated with the strike. It is completely unacceptable! Secondly, I cannot condone the fuel shortages experienced by essential services. Ambulances in Johannesburg were being delayed, because they had to search for fuel. That is completely ridiculous!

But, most of all, I wonder if perhaps the point of a strike has been forgotten. It should be an unusual event, which grabs the attention of the employers. Alas, strikes in South Africa are no longer unusual events; they have become the norm. Instead of sitting down and communicating like adults (I find communication is a wonderful tool; it can solve anything and everything from a marital crisis to industrial action), it has now become the norm to go on strike in South Africa, harming people and destroying property in the process… and then talking.

And that is why I believe that the process is deeply flawed.

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