An opinion piece on Violent Strikes by Advocate Luvuyo Bono*.
STRIKING workers singing and dancing through streets littered with uncollected rubbish… This is the image that comes to mind for most people when they think about a strike earlier this year by municipal workers in Nelson Mandela Bay. Did the people in the township get irritated? Maybe. Did the guys in the suburbs get irritated? Definitely.
But what makes a municipal worker belonging to a union decide to down tools? How many years of negotiations by the unions had foregone the strike, which revolved around the issue of back-pay for long-service bonuses? Were the workers pushed to the extent that their only option was to go on strike?
The right to strike is limited for employees who render essential services, according to Section 65 of the Labour Relations Act. There are a number of services designated as essential in local and national government which include traffic, security, firefighting, water and electricity supply.
What the average resident of Nelson Mandela Bay’s suburbs or townships perhaps did not know about the ‘rubbish strike’, was that it was not a ‘rubbish’ matter to the employees. The unions had been fighting to standardise the conditions of the long-service bonuses in the municipality for well over ten years, since the Metro was formed.
A collective agreement was concluded between the employer, the municipality, and the unions on behalf of the employees to finalise the standardisation of conditions of services and this included the payment of the long service bonusses, but no payment was made. During this time workers at the NMBM continued to be subjected to different conditions of service – depending in what area they worked (Uitenhage, Despatch or Port Elizabeth). This inequality made the workers and unions fed-up. Hence, the strike.
Can we really blame them? What is it that we expect from despondent employees? What else can they do, if they have been pushed too far? Are employers, in fact, doing their part in terms of what is expected from them according to Labour Legislation?
Think about the example the leaders at the very top are setting. Remember the 2015 strike by workers in parliament, which eventually ended in stun grenades being used against the workers? The union had negotiated for eight months without making any headway. Then come protestors from the Fees Must Fall movement and within weeks after their violent protest action, government commits to the students’ demands for free education. What would you do, if you worked in parliament?
It is said that employees are the greatest asset of any organisation. How much more so for employees who render essential services – the nurse who looks after you when you are ill, the person who is responsible for providing you with safe, clean drinking water, or the person who collects your rubbish on a weekly basis.
Think back to earlier this year when hundreds of workers shut down Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital for days over unpaid performance bonuses. The images that come to mind is destruction, scattered papers in the hospital corridors and general chaos.
These are stark images which stay engrosses in the public’s mind when they think of the workers at the hospital, but union members involved in these negotiations on performance bonusses, said they ‘tried everything’ and had no other choice but to go over into a strike.
The violence and destruction that at times become part of strike action can never be justified. To their own detriment, this element overshadows the legitimacy of the workers’ cause – but also is indicative of the sheer desperation of the workers.
In the Charlotte Maxeke case the employer had entered into a collective agreement on the allocation of bonusses. However, the department claimed it had no money to pay the bonusses when it was time to pay, despite performance assessments being conducted. The very bonusses that were meant to encourage the workers to exceed the expectations of the employer, became a massive bone of contention, causing despondence and animosity towards the employer.
Yes, particularly the medical staff render essential, and in many cases life-and-death services. Yes, it is their calling and yes, they do care for their patients. However, when they form part of endless talking in negotiations that go nowhere, with task team after task team, they are pushed into a corner. It becomes no longer a matter of interest, but a matter of what’s right: money that is owed to them to which they are entitled to for rendering this critical service to the community in an exemplary manner, was being withheld.
The Law states that the employer can withdraw from a collective agreement, but the employer didn’t do so in these cases. In my view, this escalated the problem – simmering the discontent of the workers into a ticking timebomb. A strike was inevitable.
If employers enter into collective agreements with employees and when they have to deliver on their responsibilites as per the collective agreements, they have all sorts of excuses for years, their actions make a nuisance of collective bargaining and constructive labour relations.
Some of the violent strikes that we have recently seen could have been avoided.
* Advocate Luvuyo Bono is Chairperson of the Essential Services Committee (ESC) and Chairperson of the Public Service Coordinating Bargaining Council (PSCBC). He has mediated in several critical wage negotiations in the public and private sector. He writes this column in his personal capacity.