Strike action: Noise or power

The wave of recent strike action in the country has stretched over weeks and is accompanied by violence.

This year, strike action by workers began as early as mid-February when the South African Road Freight Workers downed tools in protest to get employers to meet the demands of their workers.

In July, members of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) downed tools demanding a 13% wage increase and the banning of labour brokers.

They were soon followed by the members of the Chemical Energy Paper Printing Wood and Allied Workers Union (Ceppwawu), whose strike action disrupted fuel delivery to petrol stations leaving most Joburgers scrambling to fill their tanks.

This week, members of the National Union for Mineworkers (NUM) are on strike over wage increment disputes.

Congress of South African Trade Union (Cosatu) spokesperson, Patrick Craven says, “Strikes take place for very specific reasons and it’s coincidental that so many [negotiations] have reached that stage at the moment.”

“The strike action reflects the growing sense of frustration of people who feel marginalised, in what is now officially recognised as the most unequal society in the world.

“The people are getting impatient and want a reasonable share of the country’s wealth,” says Craven.

Professor Anthony Butler, head of political studies at Wits University, says, “The hike in strike action is based on people’s low standards of living and the fact that it’s hard to live on the wages that most Cosatu members earn, but it’s also partly political.

“The political aspect of the strikes can’t be ignored.”

Butler says the ANC now has more conflict between the different economic classes that exist within it and Cosatu now plays a part in that conflict. This has resulted in Cosatu using its industrial muscle to play the political game.

In the run-up to important conferences such as next year’s elective conference of the ANC in December, Butler expects we are likely to see a very high level of  strike action that is politically motivated.

“When people use industrial strike action and violence as a way of communicating their political demands, it’s usually because they are excluded and weak and not because they are strong.

“We shouldn’t confuse noise, violence and conflict with power,” says Butler.