by Stef Terblanche

Department of Labour reports on Strikes 2012

Calmer strike season marred by labour politics and turf wars

To date, South Africa has seen fewer strikes during 2012’s so-called annual strike season (when unions and employers conduct wage negotiations). Other developments are, however, coming to the fore and making for a volatile labour scene. 

A major feature this year is what appears to be a significant decrease in strike action, a continuation of a trend seen during 2011. Noticeable this year is also the number of major wage deals structured as multi-year agreements.

On a more negative note, however, is the way that the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and its affiliated unions have become heavily embroiled in the ruling African National Congress policy and leadership battles. This is dividing the federation and its unions and creates tensions with the potential for instability.

Competition among rival unions for recognition and membership has also intensified, becoming more militant, triggering violence and in some cases with negative impact in some economic sectors.

Decrease in strike statistics

The Department of Labour (DoL) last week released its Annual Industrial Action Report for 2011 which showed that:

•67 work stoppages were recorded in 2011 compared to 74 in 2010; 
•Work days lost in 2011 were down to 2 806 656 from 2 674 238 in 2010;
•Employees participating in work stoppages came dramatically down from  1 191 813 in 2010 to 203 238 in 2011; and 
•Lost wages, due to stoppages in 2011, amounted to R1.07 billion compared to R407.08 million in 2010, mostly because of much higher average wages.

Les Kettledas, DoL deputy director general, said at the release of the report that the winter period from June to September continued in 2011 to be South Africa’s “strike season”. Some 87% of working days lost due to stoppages occurred during this period.

According to Kettledas, the avoidance of a major public sector strike last year meant that the private sector had more stoppages than the public sector. Violence and intimidation were still factors, however, as were noted in last year’s strike by truck drivers. Rising food, electricity and transport costs caused workers to demand double-digit, above-inflation wage increases.

Measured against events in 2011 it seems that, with only one more month of the current “strike season” to go, and no major strikes having taken place and none appearing likely in September, the downward trend would seem to have continued in 2012.

This is a factor that could facilitate lower strike statistics in 2012 and beyond is the number of multi-year wage agreements concluded in some sectors. That means that if a union settled for a three-year wage agreement in 2012, and no suspension clauses come into play, the next round of wage negotiations in that specific sector will only take place in 2015. Such an agreement buys dispute- and strike-free stability for the sector for the duration of the agreement.

Sectors where major strikes were averted this year and multi-year agreements were successfully concluded, include the public sector (teachers and health workers mostly), the petroleum sector and the municipal sector.


However, with Cosatu and its affiliated unions being highly divided over whether or not to support President Jacob Zuma for re-election in December, politics appear to have  played a significant role in this year’s wage negotiations.

After a six-month impasse, during which government pleaded a lack of funds, the declaration of various disputes by unions, and the appointment of Lindiwe Sisulu as  Public Service and Administration minister in June, the parties suddenly reached agreement without a proverbial further shot being fired.

Prior to that, President Zuma faced the possibly of a highly embarrassing strike on the very eve of the ANC’s leadership election. It is being said in labour and political circles that in order to avoid this, senior trade union leaders held closed talks with senior ANC leaders and Cabinet ministers to find a solution.

According to one report, pressure was allegedly brought to bear on the Treasury to agree to a 7% public sector wage increase, R6.5 billion above what was budgeted for in February. This led a senior union leader to say the settlement had been reached more through a political engagement than wage negotiations.
(subhead) Divisions and turf wars

It is, however, a fact that the current political divisions running through Cosatu are causing tensions and heightened competition between factions that could easily spill over into the workplace. Such tensions were seen this year at the national congresses of major Cosatu affiliates like the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) and the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa).

Similar tensions divided the South African Municipal Workers’ Union at its national congress last week, with delegates split between support for or opposition to Zuma’s proposed re-election.

Political tensions also caused the largely pro-Zuma NUM to accuse the anti-Zuma Numsa of poaching its members. However, competition for membership goes beyond that.

Platinum mines, for instance, were negatively affected in recent months by a turf war between the upstart independent Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union (AMCU) and NUM. It caused a rise in militancy on some mines, resulting in a brief strike at the struggling Anglo American Platinum’s Rustenburg operations recently, a six-week shutdown at Impala Platinum, and intermittent illegal disruptions at Aquarius Platinum. The latter warned of more labour discontent in coming months.

Last week, the militant rivalry on platinum mines sparked an outbreak of violence that caused the deaths of at least four workers by Monday this week.

Thus, while the country benefitted significantly from a less volatile “strike season”, the picture is being tarnished by political issues and increased militancy and violence around membership turf wars.

Stef Terblanche

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