Signs of frustration in strike action
MARCIA KLEIN looks at the trends which have developed in a tough labour environment this year
But this is not borne out by statistics, which show that strike action this year to date is not dramatically up on last year. Labour sources say that recent strike action has attracted a fair amount of publicity, notably the burning of a building at the Eskom head office and chaos at the airport.
What these do show, however, is a high level of frustration in an increasingly complex and demanding social and economic environment.
Figures from labour consultancy Andrew Levy & Associates show that the 310 000 man days lost in the first six months is a slight increase on the previous year.
Researcher Jackie Kelly expects the number of man days lost this year to be 1-million or a little more. This compares with 650 000 last year, 1.7-million in 1996, 1.6-million in 1995, 3.9-million in 1994, 3.6-million in 1993, 4.2-million in 1992 and 3.8-million in 1991. In 1987, at the height of the state of emergency, an astonishing 9-million man days were lost.
Kelly points out many negotiations are already complete. The steel and engineering sector settled while the mining industry is only negotiating at selected mines because a two-year industry agreement was reached last year.
Andrew Levy & Associates consultant Brian Allen says the high-profile nature of some of the recent strikes is not a reflection of what is happening in general terms.
The strikes have however, raised awareness of what is still clearly a huge divide between some sections of the business community and labour. Recently, the Cape Chamber of Business said it was disturbing "that the trade union leadership appear to be ignoring the economic realities facing our country and the fact that the economy cannot afford wage increases that exceed inflation."
This statement seems only partly true.
Allen says: "I would say that while the inflation rate is down, pressure on the disposable income of the low-income earner has increased. This will play a part in negotiations. One of the facets of negotiations is that union members must be better off than they were before."
Allen adds, however, that "there is a high level of frustration because the flexibility of employers in terms of what can employers can pay is reduced. Another important factor is the high level of retrenchments. There is an awareness of the risk of retrenchments, which has brought a whole new sensitivity into the negotiations."
Cosatu spokesman Nowetu Mpati agrees, saying retrenchments, linked to economic conditions, the crisis in the gold industry and new technology, have prompted labour to seek an amendment to the Labour Relations Act to include not only consultation but also negotiation around this issue. "What we are seeking is the full participation of workers in the transformation of companies."
Mpati says the role of the labour movement has changed from resistance to participation. We are playing more of a participatory role. The priority is to reach agreement, and if employers adopt the same attitude in looking for a solution before a strike, there will be significant savings."
She says while most of the disputes or strikes this year have been around wages, other major issues have been privatisation, deregulation of industries and corporatisation. ý Andrew Levy & Associates said this week that unions obtained high wage settlements this year despite a lower inflation rate. An average 9.2% settlement was reached in the first six months compared with 9.7% in 1997. Inflation averaged 5.3% between January 1 and May 30.
According to the consultancy, lower inflation saw employers put on the pressure for wage settlements to closely reflect the inflation figure. But this was contrary to a trend in SA collective bargaining where "regardless of the movement in the inflation rate, the benchmark is generally the previous year's settlement".