South Africa

METROBUS STRIKE

‘Unrecognised’ union hobbles Joburg bus operations

‘Unrecognised’ union hobbles Joburg bus operations
The Braamfontein Metrobus depot yesterday. A Demawusa strike crippled the service in Johannesburg. (Photo: Antonio Muchave / Sowetan)

A strike by the Democratic Municipal and Allied Workers’ Union of South Africa (Demawusa) had a major impact on Johannesburg bus operations on the first day of industrial action by several Metrobus drivers.

The strike, which was not expected to have much impact given the small number of striking Demawusa-affiliated employees, ended up affecting 40% of Metrobus operations. Only about 100 Demawusa-affiliated drivers were expected to take part, compared with more than 700 drivers belonging to the South African Municipal Workers’ Union (Samwu,) who said they were not taking part in the strike.

“Given the fact that schools opened today and that we were slowly getting back to normality regarding the Covid-19 pandemic, we have been affected a great deal,” Metrobus spokesperson Goodwill Shiburi said.

“The company’s second-largest depot was not operational in the morning. This depot’s buses pick up people from the south and bring them closer to the inner city, then other depots’ buses pick them up from Gandhi Square and take them to other areas,” said Shiburi.

“It’s a very key depot — you need it to operate, but it was not operational. Not even one bus came out of that depot this morning,” he said.

Under normal circumstances, Metrobus transports between 12,000 and 16,000 passengers a day.

“The strike has had a big impact… you look at a whole depot and get worried,” said Shiburi. The depot was key to Metrobus operations in the city because of its capacity and size, he said.

“On paper, Demawusa has a very small representation — it’s the smallest union… but an entire depot was rendered non-operational. The fact is that people are scared to come out,” said Shiburi.

Many Johannesburg residents who rely on Metrobus services were left to find other means of transport on Monday morning. Most people elected to use minibus taxis as the pillaging of rail infrastructure has crippled many train services.

In a statement warning its customers about the strike, Metrobus said it would ensure that the industrial action was kept to a minimum and that normal operations would resume as soon as possible.

Several of the company’s 200-plus routes across the city were affected as members of Demawusa failed to report for work. Many commuters wandered from taxi to taxi in Soweto early in the morning as they came to grips with the disruption.

Some who spoke to Daily Maverick said they were accustomed to bearing the brunt of random strikes by drivers. Many were sympathetic to the drivers’ cause while others openly vented their frustrations.

“It’s annoying to find ourselves in this situation, but you must see the drivers’ working conditions. They are there with us early every morning and again in the evening. I believe that their fight for higher wages is justified,” Poppie Ndlovu from Soweto said.

“There is no excuse for leaving us stranded because Metrobus should have contingency plans in place since they know when their drivers strike. Our trips are already paid for… there is no excuse,” a commuter at Gandhi Square in Johannesburg said.

In Gandhi Square, a few Metro buses were operational in the morning, but these tailed off as the day progressed.

When asked what measures Metrobus had taken to deal with the strike, Shiburi said, “We activated our contingency plans.”

This involved bringing in surplus drivers who did not have buses assigned to them. “This is what we did this morning… we redirected the buses. We did not follow the schedule,” said Shiburi.

Asked why the parties could not reach an agreement during negotiations, Shiburi said the problem was in the nature of the demands. “I think they have made 28 demands in total,” said Shiburi. But he said there were two main reasons why the parties had not come to a compromise.

“First, the City of Johannesburg does not recognise Demawusa as a union. Second, they demand an 18% salary increase,” he said.

“So you can’t have Metrobus employees getting 18% and then the rest, for example, are on 5%. We have a parallel process that is currently unfolding at the bargaining council,” said Shiburi.

“They want a R15,000 Covid-19 allowance… that’s big money that Metrobus will not be able to say yes or no to. We would have to consult stakeholders”.

Demawusa’s Dion Makhura said the union’s team had met Metrobus officials on Monday. He said that after the lengthy meeting, the employers told them to suspend the strike if they wanted negotiations to continue.

“We told them we will not suspend the strike and they locked us out in terms of the Labour Relations Act.”

Makhura said one of the conditions of the lockout was that union members refrained from turning up at work until they unconditionally aborted or suspended the strike.

“It’s a power issue,” said Makhura.

By Monday afternoon, Shiburi said, Metrobus’s immediate priority was to ensure that those who travelled on the buses in the morning were taken home again in the evening. However, he could not guarantee that everyone would be accommodated. DM

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