Two strikes — several lessons

Posted on June 20, 2022


(First published on Fin24 11,06.2022)

This month saw two lengthy strikes come to and end. In the process, there were several stark lessons for the labour movement and an explanation as to why workers, on strike for months, seem prepared to sacrifice what they do.

The three-month long Sibanye-Stillwater strike by 25,000 mineworkers ended this week. And, as with almost every long strike, we are being told by commentators how the workers — apparently misled or foolish — will take years to make up for the wages lost; that they obviously should have settled earlier.

But workers involved in any long strike are, for the most part, very conscious of the fact that it will take time to make up for lost wages: they are prepared to sacrifice in order to avoid a slide into greater exploitation.. Most are also aware that, for all the wailing by analysts about lost production, management will continue to be paid and companies will continue to profit from the sale of stockpiled product already produced by the workers.

They are also aware that the increases they ask for — and are offered — are based on cost of living increases of the past year, which they have already borne. Effectively, almost every wage negotiation is a matter of “catch-up”.

With the recent hefty rise in fuel prices and global inflation apparently settling in for a gallop, there can be few workers who are not aware that the coming year and more is going to cause more economic hardship. In such circumstances, above current inflation rate pay wage rise demands seem both sensible — and necessary.

Uncertainty about the cost of living in the future is also the reason unions are wary of fixed three-year pay deals such as the one foisted on the public sector in 2018 and which the government subsequently reneged on. Only when such deals take account not just of the official consumer price index, but also of other inflationary aspects, workers can be short-changed.

But one point accurately made in several reports last week following the end of the Sibanye-Stillwater strike was that not just management, but union leaders and officials continued to be paid throughout the stoppage. This again raised the call among an apparently growing number of younger unionists to “get back to basics”. This does not mean repeating the past, but instead reinstating the founding principles of trade unionism.

One of those basics practiced by some of the more militant unions that emerged in South Africa 40 years ago was that elected leaders and officials were not only recallable by members, but were also paid no more than the highest paid worker. When on strike, all members, from the top down, suffered equally.

Things have changed, right across the board. “Today, too many people see the labour movement as a form of careerism,” notes a prominent union spokesperson.

Financially, trade unions in the past also relied for their finances on subscription revenue from members. This meant that unions were compelled, for their financial survival, to recruit as many members as possible and to fight to ensure better pay and, therefore, higher subscriptions.

It was a point often stressed by the late Ma Ray Simons , general secretary of the Food and Canning Workers’ Union (now amalgamated as the Food and Allied Workers’ Union — FAWU). She often recalled sleeping on the floors of farm workers’ homes during recruitment drives and collecting the “tickey (3cent) subs” while “never allowing the union money to get mixed up with your own”.

Today, investment companies and even commercial sponsorships add to to union coffers. And when full-time shop stewards and union presidents are paid inflated wages by managements, they can easily become more beholden to the bosses than to the workers. By going back to democratic basics, by making all officials directly answerable and accountable to their members, the opportunity — and any advantage — for such bribery is removed.

That clears the way for a slightly more even battle between employers committed to maximising profit and workers trying to earn a decent living from a share of those profits. But only if unions observe lessons of the past and apply principled tactics based on solidarity.

These were largely missing in that even longer and often fragmented, Clover dairy products strike that stuttered to and end this month. It came down to something of a war of attrition with many workers accepting retrenchments and pay cuts as a limp back to work continued.

Yet while Clover is a major retail brand there was no evidence — or any call — for solidarity from communities, retail and transport workers. . Even once FAWU and the General Industries Workers’ Union finally got their joint act together, there was a dearth of information to consumers explaining the reasons for the strike.

Those reasons may well have made sense to shoppers, shop assistants, packers and transport drivers who could, in solidarity, have applied sanctions, by boycotting the delivery, purchase or sale of the products of the offending company. That, for unions across the board, is a crucial lesson.

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