How not to strike for Dummies: Samwu edition

By Paul Berkowitz 28 August 2011

We’re in the midst of strike season, and Samwu leadership got its industrial action wrong. In fact, they’re getting it so spectacularly, superlatively wrong that they’ve inspired PAUL BERKOWITZ to write a primer on how not to go about striking. Other unions: take note. Do NOT try this in your union.

Strike as often as possible

Make sure you earn a reputation as the Cosatu Affiliate Voted Most Likely to Strike at the Drop of a Hat. This is going to be difficult, with all the competition, but you can do it. Strike every year if you can. Make sure the strikes are about political issues rather than the grievances of your rank and file – strike over the Municipal Systems Amendment Bill and strike over claims of executive corruption at Pikitup. Your members will appreciate your using them as mere cannon fodder to fight your wider political battles. Speaking of members…

Make sure that you don’t have the buy-in of your members

Don’t, under any circumstances, canvass your members to gauge their appetite for yet another strike. That’s just so old-fashioned. These bottom-up, democratic processes are for counter-revolutionaries and the Cosatu of old. Pay no attention to the mood on the ground – so what if your members feel that they haven’t recouped the losses incurred by previous strike actions? You know what’s best for them and you’ll show them. Whatever you do, don’t let the one side of your mouth catch the other side speaking about “worker solidarity” when the actions of union management are so patently not in the interests of members. 

Make your strike actions as uncoordinated as possible

Start your strikes in different cities on different days. Proceed with strike action before you have the support of your members (see above point) while making grandiose claims about bringing entire municipalities to a standstill. When you’ve proved that you can’t cash the cheques your mouth is issuing you’ll have succeeded in weakening the resolve of undecided members to strike. You’ll also ensure that any participation in strikes by Imatu, your sister union, is muted. They sure as hell will want to distance themselves from your efforts. 

How will you know if you’ve succeeded? You’ll know when you have to bus in strikers from Pretoria to get the Joburg leg of your Strike Tour 2011 going – when you can barely rustle up more than a hundred or so protesters in your power heartland. 

Don’t pick your battles wisely

Remember, you’re not Numsa. Your employers are not in the private sector.  If they were, you could smash things and intimidate your non-striking colleagues and nobody would really care – certainly not any public officials. But you’re employed by the government, and if you push them too far you’ll have the state apparatus coming down on your head. (And they employ, uhm, plenty police.)

Here’s what you do: make sure that your most violent strike action is in opposition party heartland.  (They already despise you. In fact, they’ve drafted a private member’s Bill to hold you and other unions responsible for strike-related violence.) Make sure your members burn and loot and trash.  Deny responsibility and claim that you are unable to discipline your striking members. Once you abdicate responsibility it will be a mere procedural issue for the City of Cape Town to interdict you from further marches. After all, if you can’t guarantee the safety of others’ property, why should you be allowed to strike? Check and mate. Nice job.

Lose the popular vote

Most of the chattering classes don’t like unions because strike action in South Africa is increasingly characterised by violence and intimidation – and costs the country vast fortunes. You have to raise the bar and alienate even those who would normally be sympathetic to your position. You do this by brutalising those who are poorer and more desperate than you while you’re striking. That’s right, the vendors who are unlucky enough to be in your way while you’re cutting a swathe through Cape Town city centre.

You’ll know that you’ve succeeded in this respect when no less a dyed-in-the-wool socialist than Zackie Achmat condemns your actions on Twitter (@ZackieAchmat), tweeting on 18 August “Is SAMWU leadership seriously suggesting that they have no evidence of violence? Anti-working class struggle behaviour by their leaders.”

Negotiate in bad faith

In 2009, you signed a three-year agreement with Salga. The agreement stated that your employees would receive wage increases equal to inflation plus 2% for three years, provided inflation ranged between 5% and 10%. Now, some might think that an inflation rate above 10% would prompt you to agitate for a higher margin increase – for example, inflation plus 2.5% – while an inflation rate falling below 5% might lead to Salga arguing for a lower margin.

They would be so wrong. When the official inflation rate came in below 5%, you launched a fresh round of negotiations, turning your back on the multi-year agreement.  In other words, an environment of lower-than-expected inflation should be used to justify wage demands far in excess of inflation, which brings us to the next point….

Make unrealistic demands

Take your cue from the Numsa strikes.  Make a demand for wage increases that is a multiple of the inflation rate. And don’t just demand an increase that’s double the inflation rate – that’s too close to a reasonable request. Think big – think three or four times the official inflation rate. How’s a nice round number like 18% sound? Sound good? Cool, do it.

When questioned on the wisdom of adopting this initial position, defend it bravely but without any logic.  Claim that it will bring Salga to the negotiating table quicker – don’t think even for one second it might lead to them taking you less seriously. Couple that with a revealing soundbite from your spokesman, claiming “we will settle for nothing under double digits” so that everybody knows just how far you’re prepared to compromise before you even make it to the negotiating table.

Speaking of the negotiation table, when you eventually get there….

Climb down very quickly from your initial position

Make sure you reduce your demands from 18% to 10% in the first round of negotiations, without winning any concessions from the other side in return. This will weaken your position considerably, raising doubts over your ability to even achieve your fallback position of double-digit wage increases. This will help to further erode the good faith some of your members might still have in you and can only harm your future bargaining power with Salga. It will also guarantee that you are taken less seriously by other Cosatu affiliates in the lead-up to any important elective conferences over the next 16 months. But hey, you’re having fun. DM



Photo: Striking workers of the South African Municipal Workers Union (SAMWU) march through Durban disposing garbage into the streets and setting rubbish bins on fire, August 17, 2011. The unions are demanding an 18 percent increase in wages and the banning of labour brokers. REUTERS/Rogan Ward


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