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While SA trade unions have been crying foul over the workers’ right to strike being attacked by the bosses, they may have done a better job at undermining this fundamental constitutional right on their own.
Trade unions were behind SA’s historic realisation of fair labour rights, including protected strikes after years of suppression under apartheid. But they have jeopardised their gains over the years to a point of no return, others could argue.
The worsening levels of violence during industrial action have weakened the powers vested in the bargaining tool that is a strike, and lost unions the high moral ground that garnered them public and stakeholder sympathy in the past.
Although the problem of violent strikes has dogged the mining industry for decades — dozens of people could lose their lives during what are commonly prolonged strikes — the trend has spread to other sectors over the years, with casualties recorded during most prominent strikes.
Images of bloodied faces, burnt properties and recordings of intimidation tactics used during the ongoing eight-week wage strike by the National Union of Metalworkers of SA and the Metal and Electrical Union of SA in the plastics sector, are a case in point. Last week, a man was killed during the strike.
Not only does the violence deflect attention from the actual issues in dispute, it also grants employers an upper hand in an action meant to pressure them into submission. Employers have been turning to the courts to halt disruptive industrial action and have come out with victories that will change the game forever for a lot of workers, including those who join the strikes with noble intentions.
The decision by the Labour Court in Johannesburg last Friday to suspend protests and picketing by striking Dis-Chem employees over violence and intimidation points to a frustrated legal system that has prioritised more than just the protection of the right to strike. It now seeks to ensure there are consequences to the loss of life, injuries to persons and damage to property, by not only making unions pay financially but also by tying their hands during strikes.
The cookie will continue to crumble from this point, with this unprecedented legal opinion bound to come to the aid of many employers who have struggled to negotiate their way out of violent strikes. The introduction of the new strike laws, effected when President Cyril
Ramaphosa signed the amendments to the Labour Relations Act into law two weeks ago, will also put limitations on how strikes are conducted.
Some of the changes include a provision that forces unions to hold secret ballots before deciding to strike and the formulation of an advisory panel that can intervene to stop violent or excessively prolonged industrial action.
Both the labour court decision that barred the protests and the new strike laws have been a long time coming though. Trade unions have acted with impunity during strikes for years, failing to provide the kind of leadership that would ensure protests don’t degenerate and acting dumb by claiming their striking members could have been infiltrated by undesirable elements.
While they are quick to say workers who inflict despicable violence upon others may not necessarily be their members, rarely is there voluntary condemnation of such acts. It is the continued loud silence by trade unions involved in strikes that get overwhelmed by criminal intent that has encouraged the brazenness with which attacks on nonstriking workers and destruction of property is now carried out.
It sometimes appears as though after acquiring a strike certificate from the Commission for Conciliation, Arbitration and Mediation, union leaders become intoxicated by the power it gives them, and watch from the sidelines in silence as the train derails.
Yet the popular sentiment is that the bosses and, more recently, the government are behind the attacks on the strike protections.
Even if trade union leaders do not shift from this paradigm, the reality is that the right to strike is on a slippery slope and workers, who may need to exercise it legitimately in future, will find new obstacles — not because of government legislation but due to their own failure to protect its sanctity.