Posted on October 2, 2010


To obtain answers that may be correct and useful, it is first necessary to ask the right questions. Yet every time there is a a strike, particularly at the national level, the same questions are asked of the same business people, economists and politicians and the same trite answers are trotted out.

The main query is: how much has this work stoppage cost? While there is usually passing reference to the loss of earnings by striking workers, the main thrust of the question is aimed at the economy, and/or particular business sectors.

But the only loss that can accurately be measured is the loss of wages. Because of adequate warning of impending strike action and steps that can be taken to minimise the economic impact, all other cost claims amount to vague, and usually exaggerated, guesswork.

However, the picture painted is of a destructive exercise in which there are no winners. Workers lose money, the economy and various sectors within it are damaged along with the image that government and business feel is essential to encourage investment.

This was the picture painted again this week with the nationwide stoppage organised by Cosatu unions. There was also some confusion about why the strike had been called, because Cosatu formally referred to it as a strike “against the electricity crisis”.
It was much more. But, as Cosatu’s Western Cape regional secretary, Tony Ehrenreich explains: “We were constrained by law because permission for a legal stoppage had only been given regarding electricity.”
However, the tens of thousands of workers in every major centre who gave up a day’s pay to protest, probably agreed with Cosatu’s Mpumalanga regional secretary, Norman Mokoena. He noted: “This is a strike against destructive neo-liberal policies. We are saying, enough is enough.”
In fact, as speakers at the various rallies made clear, the “gatvol factor” was in full swing against soaring electricity, fuel and food prices, along with the overall rise in the cost of living. The blame for this is laid squarely with government policies.

Unions across the board have pointed out that government could pay for needed infrastructure upgrades at Eskom by means of a grant and could radically lower the fuel price and bring in needed capital by levying a “windfall tax” on the massive profits generated by synfuel maker Sasol.
From the union perspective, the question that should therefore be asked is: What is the cost in human lives and suffering of continuing with these policies; policies that benefit a rich minority at the expense of the majority?

When rational argument and pleas make no headway, the only means trade unions within our society have to try to bring about change is to withhold labour, to strike. It is not an action taken lightly because the loss of a day’s pay is a real hardship, but one willingly undertaken because of the perception that a continuation of current policies will result in much greater hardships.

And the main sufferers are women. In a week that ends with national Womens’ Day, a classic and tragic example emerged with news of the death of Irene Grootboom. She was the woman who won a constitutional court challenge to the government to develop a programme to realise the right of access to adequate housing.

That was eight years ago. On Tuesday, Irene Grootboom died in the leaking shack in the informal settlement of Wallacedene outside Cape Town in which she still lived.

Says Ehrenreich: “Shortage of resources — asinamali, we have no money — is always the argument. But the money is there. There resources are available. It is the policies that are the problem.”

Posted in: Archive - 2008